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‘All in all most of us are making good/recoveries’—Leaving Hospital and Recovering in Some British Contemporary Poems

‘All in all most of us are making good/recoveries’ — La fin de l’hospitalisation et le rétablissement dans quelques poèmes britanniques contemporains.
Elise Brault-Dreux


Un corpus de poèmes, tous campés à l’hôpital et dits par le ‘je’ d’un patient, éclaire sur l’expérience du rétablissement. Ces poèmes suggèrent que guérir d’une maladie n’est pas renaître, ni repartir de zéro. Denise Riley, Liz Lochhead, Fleur Adcock et Julia Darling donnent au rétablissement la forme d’une négociation, celle d’un nouveau parcours instigué par le médecin qui autorise le patient docile à quitter l’hôpital pour le ‘dehors.’ Mais ces poétesses soulignent que cette nouvelle voie est ‘courbe,’ que la maladie laisse des ‘traces’ tout comme l’expérience disciplinée de l’hospitalisation. En partant de l’idée de Canguilhem selon laquelle le pathologique est l’occasion d’inventer de nouvelles normes de vie et que le rétablissement n’est pas un re-commencement mais un commencement différent, cet article s’achève sur l’analyse d’un poème de Peter Reading qui annihile violemment toute possibilité de nouvelles normes, existentielles comme poétiques.

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1If commonly understood as a psychological or moral experience of restoration, rebirth takes a peculiar turn when it is experienced as the end of a disease or of a period of hospitalisation. In these types of situation rebirth even sometimes comes close to being seen literally as a new birth in a restored body, with healed (or healing) organs, and renewed expectations for a new life or at least for a bit of extra life. Yet, as we will try to show through the analysis of a selection of poems, recovery is precisely not being born again.

2I here propose to address the issue of rebirth in a thematic selection of 20th and 21st-century poems that are all set in hospitals. Rebirth will therefore be examined from the angle of recovery or hospital discharge. If one commonly understands re-birth as being born again, a second or third time, yet it says nothing about the conditions of one’s second or third existence—a remote echo to the Cumaen Sibyl whose wish for eternal life had foreseen nothing about its conditions, leaving her in a painful state of eternal old age. Likewise, ‘recovery’ does not necessarily mean ‘being fully cured’ nor returning to one’s exact same condition as before illness. ‘Recovery’ then is being healthy again. According to the World Health Organisation, health is ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.’1 So, recovery is retrieving this ‘well-being’ (a relative notion) after a period of physical and/or psychological vulnerability. In the 1990s William Anthony, Professor in psychiatric rehabilitation in Boston, theorised recovery as the individual capacity to change one’s own conception of existence. According to Anthony, who defends the idea that recovery needs to be taught, each vulnerable individual has to change their attitude to life and build up new norms within the limitations imposed by illness. His approach has now and then been perceived as too liberal in its foregrounding of the individual’s necessary ambition to lead a productive life. A more ontological and less pragmatic approach to recovery may be inspired by Georges Canguilhem who, in the concluding pages of the first publication of Le Normal et le pathologique (1943), proposes another approach:

  • 2 My translation, ‘La guérison est la reconquête d’un état de stabilité des normes physiologiques. El (...)

Recovery is the reconquest of a state of stability of physiological norms. It is all the closer to health or disease as this stability runs the risk of being altered. In any case no recovery is a return to biological innocence. To be cured is to be given new norms of life, norms that may sometimes be improvements on the previous ones. Biological normativity is partly irreversible. (Canguilhem 204)2

  • 3 ‘Le pathologique, ce n’est pas l’absence de norme biologique, c’est une autre norme’ (Canguilhem 12 (...)

3The patients must comply with, and actively elaborate for themselves, new norms of life that will necessarily take the experience of the disease into account. In that sense, Canguilhem argues, the pathological is the occasion to innovate a new form of normality.3 Years later, in Soi-même comme un autre (1990), Paul Ricoeur theorises on the ‘pouvoir-faire’ (Ricoeur 223): the individual who goes through moral or physical pain seeks to recover this ‘pouvoir-faire,’ that is a new empowerment that evolves into the regaining of autonomy, the return to individual agency. Though clearly different from Anthony’s approach, Ricoeur’s shares something with the latter: both of them apprehend recovery as a movement, a passage from one state to another.

  • 4 ‘La guérison [. . .] annule le statut de patient mais n’annule pas nécessairement la condition de m (...)

4The poetic corpus here examined has been put together around the theme of hospital discharge, either actualised or still fantasised. Each poem is invariably voiced by an ‘I’ whose relation to the collective ‘we’ or ‘they’ of the hospitalised patients taken altogether as a group, a body, is quite revealing of the way the ‘I’ apprehends his or her recovery. The flimsy limit between ‘I’ and the collective pronouns (whose nature varies according to the poems) is coupled with another limit pointed out by Guillaume Le Blanc: it is the distinction between a patient and a sick person. According to Le Blanc, the end of the status of a patient does not necessarily correspond to the end of the individual’s experience of the disease.4 While ‘being cured’ is a conclusion reached by the medical staff, it says nothing about the individual’s subjective, intimate sense of being restored (Le Blanc 313). These poems in fact convey this intimate experience, the hesitant positions of an ‘I’ regarding the recovering or not-recovering ‘we,’ the subjective trial and relief of leaving the hospital. In our corpus, recovery appears as a poeticised translation from a vulnerable condition of dependence on the institution, towards a newly recovered autonomy outside the hospital—a transfer in the margins of discipline and regulations that poetry attempts to tackle in coming to terms with its own discipline and rules.

5I will propose a prismatic understanding of the topic by first looking at a poetic instance of hospital discharge with Denise Riley. Then, I will bring together Liz Lochhead and Fleur Adcock who treat the ‘traces’ of the disease in the process of recovery; Julia Darling’s poem about a playful, yet disciplined, dream of rebirth will then be examined; and I will conclude with Peter Reading’s metapoetic address to the question of the very possibility of recovery.

‘Discharged’: a Movement ‘outward’

6In her five-poem sequence, ‘The Patient who has no inside’ (2016), Denise Riley relates hospitalisation in bringing to the reader’s eyes (and guts) many biological, microscopic details of the patient’s ‘guts,’ ‘gall bladder,’ ‘liver,’ ‘entrails,’ etc. The final piece of the sequence is entitled ‘Discharged.’ The passive form is an ultimate trace of the physical and social dependence on the hospital institution that the patient is about to leave behind. The prefix ‘dis-’ is a morphological marker of the moment of physical separation from the hospital—and from the poem sequence altogether.

‘Your liver tests are squiffy, Mrs R, but you might
As well go home, you won’t get well in here’—then
He’s darted off again, mercurial houseman. Outside
The well ones all charge past us like young bullocks,
Amazingly confident. Those who were ill go gingerly.
A smack of post-ward colour shoves us back to life.

7Riley’s patient leaves the hospital but is not healed, her tests are still ‘squiffy.’ This passage is an illustration of Le Blanc’s distinction between a ‘patient’ and a ‘malade.’ The doctor reminds her that she is still ill and meanwhile delivers her from the place. For discharge, the first stage (or tangible evidence) of the process of recovery, is regulated, submitted to a specific set of codes and rules: it is the exclusive role and responsibility of the doctor to decide whether discharge is possible or reasonable and, like the Roman god Mercury (‘mercurial’), to bring the message to the patient. Here, his performative decision oddly seems to be measured by a blurred degree of ‘wellness’: the patient ‘might/as well go home’—where the ‘as’ has lost its comparative element as though ‘staying here’ has already become inconceivable and moved out of language; she ‘won’t get well in here’—where ‘well’ is negated and the reason for its impossibility in hospital remains unrevealed. Those who are not ill are the assonantly well balanced ‘well ones’ whose wellness is metaphorised with the clichéd image of the young bulls who, freed from the negative prefix of the title, vigorously ‘charge.’ At that point in the poem sequence, when the expected moment of discharge is finally happening, the patient makes a clear distinction between ‘those who were ill’ and the ‘well ones’ (significantly writing off the ‘unwell ones’): they belong to different groups. For the experience of hospitalisation cannot be deleted. Its trace is visible in the patient’s ‘gingerly’ behaviour (an echo to her pathological ‘ginger skin’ in an earlier piece of the poem sequence). Though illness may be appeased, even clinically ‘cured,’ it is nonetheless irreversible: illness has happened, hospitalisation has been experienced. So, to follow Canguilhem’s idea, the patient’s discharge in Riley’s poem will be followed by a return not to past normality but to a new normality that will take into account the patient’s condition of fragilisation. For the vulnerability which took the patient to hospital is actually still visible on the moment of leaving, as her passivity seems to suggest: she stands as the helpless spectator of her own discharge—told by an appearing and suddenly disappearing ‘mercurial’ doctor that she ‘might just as well’ leave, given no explanation, neither about the meaning of ‘squiffy’ nor about the impossibility to get ‘well’ here. The swiftness of the final line likewise suggests the quickness of the passage outward, back to the normality of the iambic rhythm: ‘A smack of post-ward colour shoves us back to life’ (l. 6). The intensity of the moment takes the helpless patient by surprise: monosyllabically, brutally ‘smack[ed]’ and ‘shove[d]’ by a ‘colour’ oddly defined as ‘post-ward.’ The sonorous closeness with ‘post-war’ prompts a retrospective perception of the place as a battlefield: the ‘discharged’ patient moves outside the war zone. In the concluding resultative clause ‘shoves us back to life,’ the ‘I,’ previously caught in ‘those who were ill,’ is literally swept away, ‘back to life,’ in a collective ‘us.’ The speaker, whose name was previously amputated (‘Mrs R’), has at that stage been completely swallowed among this ‘us,’ companions in arms—a possible allusion to the intense identity crisis involved by hospitalisation.

8This final line reads then like a sudden rebirth, at once expected and occurring in spite of herself, orchestrated by the doctor, the care system, the resultative syntax and the regular iambic stress pattern which optimistically puts the end focus on ‘life.’ Her discharge thus appears as a sort of electrical discharge—a mixture of extreme surprise with a paradoxical feeling of expectation, a mixture of vulnerability with electrifying energy. The poem leaves the reader on the verge of the patient’s reinscription in the city—at once dazed and optimistic, not yet re-empowered, having not yet fully recovered her ‘pouvoir-faire.’ In Riley’s poem sequence, the whole process of social and existential recovery is literally off the page. The signs of recovery are blurred, and neither the doctor nor the poet ventures into any prognosis. The medical case seems to be ending on the threshold of the hospital and of the poem. Recovery is unwritten. A tentative approach, a suggestive—or even prospective—writing of recovery, is at the heart of two poems by female poets in the 1970s: Liz Lochhead in ‘Homilies from Hospital’ (1972) and Fleur Adcock in ‘The Soho Hospital for Women’ (1979). Unlike Riley who places herself on the limit of the possibilities of upcoming recovery, both poets here address the issue of the traces left by the disease when the patient recovers.

Traces of the Disease

9Liz Lochhead’s quite long poem describes the hospital’s peculiar atmosphere, the other patients’ moans behind the curtains, the monotonous ‘well-ordered existence’ (l. 24) to which each must comply, the flowers that need to be refreshed before the visiting hour. The focus then moves to the ‘I’:

I had my dressing changed today.
To be honest I had not thought to be flawed
so very visibly.
But when all is said and done, no matter.
Getting better is the main thing. (ll. 36–40)

  • 5 T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, ‘The Burial of the Dead,’ l. 63.

10As when T.S. Eliot, suddenly aware of the extent of the war damage, declares ‘I had not thought death had undone so many,’5 the patient here discovers the extent of her scar, whose significance she deliberately rules out with ‘but’ and ‘no matter.’ The self-persuasive ‘Getting better is the main thing’ imparts her trust in the performativity of language. Yet the ambition of its performativity (or performance) is merely relative (‘better’ is definitely not ‘well’) and the language remains unelevated and hazy with the semantic emptiness of ‘thing.’ Hence, the performative language (if any) is at that stage merely vulnerably glimpsing at recovery—a sense of vulnerability strengthened by the repeated use of passive forms. Expectations are then in fact reduced, thwarted:

Up and about again. The world
shrinks to the size of the ward
and this dull room.
Weak sun and one day much like
any other. (ll. 41–46)

11Hospital space and time reduce the patient’s horizon and substantially hinder their inclination to imagine the world of ‘rebirth’ beyond the here and now. Concentration is on the moment, in the ward. At that point in the poem the pronoun ‘we’ shows up and its occurrences multiply till the end. When ‘us’ in Denise Riley’s poem was somewhat martial, Liz Lochhead’s ‘we’ brings the flock together in this secularised church where ‘we’ undergo the too monotonous ‘homilies’:

. . . We are on christian name terms
in no time.
Newspapers come, full of nonsense
We are recovering. (ll. 45–50)

12To the patient, the outside world is absurd—and in the next stanza, the sheep (a mirroring flock) grazing in the hospital grounds are likewise ‘silly,’ useless. The one-line sentence ‘We are recovering’ promptly re-centres the focus on the current mission: recovery. It reads as a self-persuasive statement whose progressive verb form imparts the speaker’s subjective involvement—a linguistic translation of her determined personal involvement in her own recovery.

13The patient’s participation in her recovery is expressed a little later when she writes: ‘We cannot laugh/we are in stiches’ (ll. 62–63). The succession of these two statements, where the latter contradicts the former, if at first creates an immediate comic awkwardness, quickly and bluntly demetaphorises the common phrase ‘to be in stitches.’ These stitches are real and their materiality is painful and makes laughter impossible. Here, they bring the body back together and require the patient’s serious—unlaughing—compliance. ‘We’ must submit to the therapeutic treatment. ‘Oh/but our wounds won’t gape unless we are unwise &/overdo things’ (ll. 65–67): only the ‘good’ brave patients will increase their chances of recovery.

We are reminded healing hurts.
We all have wounds
       which will
get better through time, the marks
fade into ferns like fossils
become old wounds.
All in all most of us are making good
recoveries. With luck we’ll be home soon,
back to our loved ones
(oh and here’s hoping)
because they love us they will also
love our scars. (ll. 68–78)

  • 6 T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, ‘Burnt Norton,’ ll. 1–3.

14She delineates the complex process of recovery that implies a form of painful repentance heard in the gasping alliteration of ‘healing hurts.’ Time is the patient’s best ally: the ‘wounds’ relentlessly leave marks of the disease—as the alliterative ‘f’ burrows the surface of the line ‘face into ferns like fossils.’ These ‘wounds’ will become ‘old wounds’—wounds of the past, but wounds that endure. It is ‘time present and time past. [. . .] both perhaps present in time future’6 of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The disease and the healing body are moving together towards recovery, here qualified as ‘good’ (only for the good patients that comply with the protocol, and with time). Yet, the heavy pains endured during recovery reverberate in the poem’s stock phrases (‘healing hurts,’ ‘get better through time’ for instance), as though the ‘old wounds’ could be expressed only by old words, ossified words, as though the language of recovery had exhausted itself in a commonly accepted discourse that, too insistently sometimes, tries very hard to convince that all will be fine—‘(oh and here’s hoping).’ Even the enjambment—‘we are making good/recovery’—resonates with a sort of self-persuasive tone, where ‘recovery’ is delayed, as though (falsely) useless, like the language of recovery itself. Patients move towards ‘home,’ the place that epitomises the crucial passage to rebirth, to family; and towards ‘love’ that renews the ‘post-ward’ individual’s relationships. The individual will soon no longer be a patient in the hands of the care system, but again a being, a partner, a kin.

15The last part of Fleur Adcock’s four-section poem evokes that moment of ‘reinscription’ on the threshold of which Lochhead, like Riley, stops or only prospectively contemplates. ‘The Soho Hospital for Women’ subtly depicts the daily life in the ward, the doctor’s visits and auscultation, the female patients’ treatments, fears, pains and bodies, the ‘murmur’ of ‘slow dissolving of stitches’ (III, l. 15). In the last section, the moment of discharge has been elided, and the persona has recovered. She is ‘out,’ in the city:

I am out in the supermarket choosing-
this very afternoon, this day-
picking up tomatoes, cheese, bread,

things I want and shall be using
to make myself a meal, while they
eat their stodgy suppers in bed:

Janet with her big freckled breasts,
her prim Scots voice, her one friend,
and never in hospital before,

who came in to have a few tests
and now can’’t see where they’’ll end;
and Coral in the bed by the door

who whimpered and gasped behind a screen
with nurses to and fro all night
and far too much of the day;

pallid, bewildered, nineteen.
And Mary, who will be all right
but gradually. And Alice, who may.

Whereas I stand almost intact,
giddy with freedom, not with pain.
I lift my light basket, observing

how little I needed, in fact;
and move to the checkout, to the rain,
to the lights and the long street curving.

16In turning this mundane scene of grocery shopping into poetry, making it submit to stanzaic form, to the regular rhyming pattern (abc/abc), and to a subtle delineation of images, Adcock elevates the errand to the status of rebirth as she draws the reader’s attention to slight details of a renewed existence. The French sociologist, Lise Demailly, highlights the fundamental part played by the city, the outside, in the process of recovery started in hospital:

  • 7 My translation, ‘Se rétablir, c’est se rétablir dans la ville. Il ne s’agit pas d’un aller mieux qu (...)

Recovering means recovering in the city. One cannot get better nor assess this well-being within the hospital institution [. . .]. The idea of recovery implies that the individual leads the life of an ordinary citizen. Recovery may be measured and experienced only in the ordinariness of daily life. (Demailly 6)7

17This statement may in fact help us to a better understanding of the ‘mercurial’ doctor’s words in Denise Riley’s poem analysed above: telling his patient she ‘may as well go home,’ he suggests that social, existential and even physical recovery, if prompted in hospital, must take place outside. And in this final passage of Adcock’s poem, the patient, outside, seems to be in the process of recollecting her ‘pouvoir-faire’: she can now autonomously ‘choose,’ ‘pick,’ ‘want’ and ‘use’—actions that had been suspended during hospitalisation. The ‘I’ of ‘I am out’ and ‘I want’ is no longer part of ‘they’: discharged, the ‘I’ has emancipated from the flock of patients that eat unchosen ‘stodgy suppers,’ immobilised in ‘bed’—that focal point of their constraining convalescence. The persona then draws a list of former hospital mates (with whom, as in Lochhead’s poem, she was on ‘christian name terms’): Janet, Coral, Mary, Alice—regardless of name, experience and age, anyone may be a candidate for hospital, that place where recovering is only a possibility, as is made clear with the elliptic line: ‘And Alice, who may’—an elision that rhetorically links her fate with that of the woman mentioned in the previous sentence. The last stanza is a definite break from this group of horizontally bedridden patients: the ‘I’ vertically ‘stand[s] almost intact,’ Adcock is ‘giddy with freedom.’ This new birth had been expected, looked forward to, as is expressed in her surprise before the little amount of goods she ‘needed, in fact.’ While limited to the experience of the ward, she may have fantasised about that precise moment of grocery shopping, anticipating this hoped-for, though banal, moment when one feels totally free to choose to consume in excess whatever one wants. But though anticipated, the fulfilment of her expectation is no less vertiginous: she is carried away, precipitated outside by an irrepressible succession of ‘to’ in the last two lines. Yet, recovery is not healing—her body is not ‘intact’ but ‘almost intact’; and the long path out is not straight but quite significantly ‘curving.’ Rebirth then is not a duplication of the previous ‘normal’ self; it is a translation of vulnerability into capacity, it is to be able to make do with the imperfections left by the disease and with new norms of life.

18If Denise Riley’s poem leaves the experience of recovery off the page, Lochhead foresees it while highlighting the traces disease has left, and Adcock, though only ‘almost intact’ reveals the dizzying dimension of the experience, Julia Darling’s expectation of rebirth is peculiarly disciplined. In her ‘Ward Thirty-Six,’ with a sort of affected distance that mixes resigned compliance with annoyance, Darling evokes the repetitious fixity of actions and events in the ward, a fixity further featured by the regularity of the three three-line stanza pattern and the beat given by the ‘drip’ in each patient’s arm:

We are people soaked in onion skins,
arms tied to tubes, in our blue chairs.
The maroon nurse sighs beneath the clock.
The trolley comes, the voice of England
offers Horlicks, sugar, biscuits.
We sip and chew. We place our limbs,
and slump and doze to the beat of drips.
I do the crossword, find new words,
for ‘wreckage’ and then ‘rebirth.’

19As in Lochhead’s poem, the patient is caught in a collective ‘we.’ ‘We are people soaked in onion skins’ sounds like the self-assertion of a community of patients caught in a very repetitive protocol and whose skins are peeled mechanically and arms no longer individualised. Patients submit to the sitting position, they ‘place [their] limbs,’ make them available to the ‘maroon nurse’ who herself painfully submits to the inflexible temporality of the cure. The unvarying snacks are chewed just as mechanically. Throughout, the use of present tense reveals the static nature of the scene. But the last two lines somehow offer a sort of mental and poetic escape from the submitted community of patients. As in Lochhead’s poem again, the ‘I’ emancipates from the ‘we’: dozing to the ‘beat of the drip,’ her mind lapses into a crosswords puzzle that, with its own hopeful logic, finds ‘new words’ first for ‘wreckage’ and then ‘rebirth.’ But, interestingly enough, she does not find another word (as is commonly expected in crosswords), but a ‘new word’ for ‘rebirth,’ by which language itself is likewise being reinvented, born again. Yet, like the patients and the nurse of ward thirty-six, this ‘new’ word for ‘rebirth’ has to submit to the discipline of the crossword puzzle, it has to have a predetermined number of letters. So, though liberated in a state of suspended consciousness, the patient’s mind still submits to the discipline of the grid of squares and blanks, and indirectly to the discipline of poetry. The rebirth of ‘rebirth’ has to be contained and the outcome remains unrevealed. The new word is off the page. In this poem then, Darling makes rebirth a dream which is yet definitely pre-determined by a series of constraints. More than just coming after a wreckage, rebirth submits to a set of rules—an obvious echo to the disciplinary curing protocol to which the patient needs to submit in order to start an effective process of recovery.

20The poems examined so far all envisage the possibility of recovery. But the expectation, pointed out by Liz Lochhead (not without a certain amount of irony though)—‘(oh, and here’s hoping)’ (l. 76)—may be considerably frustrated by the very experience of disease. Because with illness comes the loss of illusion of one’s eternal health, one may wonder if a patient may be able to recover, not from their disease, but from this loss of illusion. Can one recover from the sudden awareness of one’s finitude?

(Impossible) Recovery From the Loss of Illusion

21Kathleen Jamie ends ‘Healings 2,’ one of her prose poems, as follows:

To be healed is not to be saved from mortality, but rather, released back into
it: we are returned to the wild, into possibilities for ageing and change. (ll. 6–7)

  • 8 My translation, ‘être en bonne santé c’est pouvoir tomber malade et s’en relever, c’est un luxe bio (...)

22While Riley and Adcock picture the event as a passage ‘out,’ and Darling logically sets ‘rebirth’ after ‘wreckage,’ Jamie ‘releases back.’ For her, recovery is a return to the condition of mortality: recovering is facing the risk of being ill again—and this actually comes close to Georges Canguilhem’s definition for health: ‘being in good health means being able to fall sick and to recover, it is a biological luxury’8 (Canguilhem 173). Recovering then is being aware of one’s own mortality, yet never knowing if death is close in time or not, or for how long it may be postponed.

23Peter Reading goes much further in the expression of the impossibility to fully (or even partly) recover, as he suggests in a poem of C, a collection published in 1984 in which a hundred poems of one hundred-word each chronicle disease and hospitalisation:

Some of us benefit from a self-shielding shunning of awful
thoughts about dying and, worse, physical pain at the end.
Nevertheless we are conscious of being falsely deluding,
when we say jauntily ‘Oh! I shall be out of here soon!’
Adequate realisation of what is truly awaiting
does not prevent us from this: never admitting we know.
Even though sometimes I talk about this abdominal cancer,
my mental ease demands lies, comfort and make-believe games—
such as this one that I play now in distich, almost pretending
verse has validity. No. Verse is fuck-all use here, now. (Reading 305)

24Reading here stages the patient’s inner struggle between on the one hand, an acute awareness of his loss of illusion about eternal health and, on the other hand, a fierce resistance to this awareness that takes the form of ‘delusion,’ ‘make-belief,’ ‘lies’ or self-persuasive rhetoric (‘I shall be out of here soon!’). Admitting one’s knowledge of the ultimate impossibility of our permanent full recovery would be yielding to a too facile finitude. Yet, that is precisely what Reading does in his final metapoetic distich by which he states that poetry is useless ‘here’ in hospital, ‘now’: he thus wants to show the fallibility of his own poem in the process of recovery and pessimistically states the impossibility of recovery and the incapacity of poetry to create the acceptable illusion of the efficacy of the cure.

25In each of these poems, recovery is not evoked as a new start from afresh, a rebirth as is commonly understood. Recovery rather tends to be poeticised as a sort of ellipsis, an escape, an ‘otherness,’ an exit or even a new direction away from hospital and from the disease. Darling leaves ‘rebirth’ off the page, still to be reinvented within the strict constraints of the crossword grid. For the three other female poets, recovery is a new birth to other norms of life, ‘curving’ norms, with an impaired body that bears the traces of disease and hospitalisation, a ‘post-ward’ body that, in the best cases, is only ‘almost intact.’ Recovery starts with going ‘out,’ ‘outside,’ ‘home’—a discharge from hospital that gives a signal, a starting point. Recovery is also moving towards individual empowerment or agency—a newly acquired form of independence that finds its poetic translation in the ‘I’’s emancipation from the ‘us’ (Riley’s comrades in arms), the ‘we’ (Lochhead’s flock and Darling’s submitted co-patients) and the ‘they’ (Adcock’s bedridden eaters). But Peter Reading operates reversely as he first signals the lure of a life ‘outside,’ and then broadens the ‘we’ from bedridden patients to human nature at large, a ‘we’ the ‘I’ is stuck with, cannot possibly emancipate from. As quoted above, Georges Canguilhem’s thesis rests on the idea that ‘to recover is to be given new norms of life’ (Canguilhem 204). In his poem, Reading finally negates the feasibility of these new norms. As he ‘demand[s] lies,’ he closes his mind to the reality of the impairment and thus refuses to elaborate new existential norms that would take into account the vulnerable state induced by ‘this abdominal cancer.’ Likewise, he ends his poem in refusing to create new poetic norms (‘No. Verse is fuck-all use here, now’). All too determined to believe that in hospital poetry can make nothing happen, he ends up staging the failure of the poet’s ‘pouvoir-faire’—a poetic imitation of the patient’s failing agency, and the therapeutic failure he evokes in the previous stanzas.

26Canguilhem’s argument that the pathological is a condition in which the patient is led to partly submit to and invent new norms of life in some way invites the reader to see in Darling’s ‘new word’ for ‘rebirth’ an effort at creating new norms—at once existential and poetic. When the pathological shows up, words are needed to define the symptoms and the disease, but Darling seems to be suggesting that new words, dictated by the norms of the crossword grid and the discipline of the hospital protocol, are to be innovated, reinvented, to define recovery as well. While Reading successfully orchestrates the failure to create new poetic norms, the four other poets, though writing within the norms of quite traditional forms of poetry, actually try to tackle rebirth—yet never embracing it too fully, maybe all too aware of the possibilities of recurrence, of relapse into a state of too normal mortality (as evoked in Kathleen Jamie’s prose poem). Their poems then somehow safeguard the ‘I’-patients on the threshold of recovery, about to invent their ‘new words,’ their new norms of life.

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Adcock Fleur, The Inner Harbour, Oxford: OUP, 1979.

Canguilhem, Georges, Le Normal et le pathologique, Paris: PUF, coll. Quadrige, 2013.

Darling, Julia, Indelible, Miraculous, Todmorden: Arc Publications, 2015.

Demailly, Lise, ‘L’idée de rétablissement-recovery: dimensions, ambiguïtés, enjeux,’ Rhizome 65–66 (décembre 2017): 6–7.

Jamie, Kathleen, Frissure: Prose Poems and Artworks, Edinburgh: Polygon, 2013.

Le Blanc, Guillaume. ‘L’expérience de la vie malade,’ Philosophie du Soin—Éthique, médecine et société, eds. Lazare Benaroyo, Céline Lefève, Jean-Christophe Minon, Frédéric Worms, Paris: PUF, 2010.

Lochhead, Liz, Dreaming Frankenstein, and Collected Poems, 19671984, Edinburgh: Polygon, 2003.

Reading, Peter, Collected Poems. 1: Poems 19701984, Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 1995.

Ricoeur, Paul, Soi-même comme un autre, Paris: Seuil, 1990.

Riley, Denise, Say Something Back, London: Picador, 2016.

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1 See the constitution of the World Health Organisation

2 My translation, ‘La guérison est la reconquête d’un état de stabilité des normes physiologiques. Elle est d’autant plus voisine de la maladie ou de la santé que cette stabilité est moins ou plus ouverte aux remaniements éventuels. En tout cas, aucune guérison n’est retour à l’innocence biologique. Guérir c’est se donner de nouvelles normes de vie, parfois supérieures aux anciennes. Il y a une irréversibilité de la normativité biologique’ (Canguilhem 204).

3 ‘Le pathologique, ce n’est pas l’absence de norme biologique, c’est une autre norme’ (Canguilhem 121).

4 ‘La guérison [. . .] annule le statut de patient mais n’annule pas nécessairement la condition de malade’ (Le Blanc 313).

5 T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, ‘The Burial of the Dead,’ l. 63.

6 T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, ‘Burnt Norton,’ ll. 1–3.

7 My translation, ‘Se rétablir, c’est se rétablir dans la ville. Il ne s’agit pas d’un aller mieux qui puisse se produire ou se mesurer en intrahospitalier. [. . .] L’idée de rétablissement implique que l’usager vive comme un citoyen ordinaire. C’est dans la vie ordinaire que le rétablissement se mesure et se vit’ (Demailly 6).

8 My translation, ‘être en bonne santé c’est pouvoir tomber malade et s’en relever, c’est un luxe biologique’ (Canguilhem 173).

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Elise Brault-Dreux, « ‘All in all most of us are making good/recoveries’—Leaving Hospital and Recovering in Some British Contemporary Poems »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 62 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 08 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Elise Brault-Dreux

Elise Brault-Dreux is maître de conférences at the Université Polytechnique des Hauts-de-France. She has published book chapters and articles on Modernism, and on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin and D.H. Lawrence. She is the author of Le ‘Je’ et ses masques dans la poésie de D.H. Lawrence (Septentrion 2014). She is co-editor of No Dialect Please, You’re a Poet (Routledge 2019) and of an online issue of Arts of War and Peace: Migrant from Green Field—Wilfred Owen in France (Vol. III, N° 1, 2021). She is currently working on the poetic representation of the experience of hospitalisation in contemporary British poetry.

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