Review: Hannah Hodgson, ‘Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow’

Hannah Hodgson, Where I’d Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow (Verve Poetry Press)
18 February 2021
£7.50
25 pages of poetry (23 poems)
Review by Sean Colletti

I

The back of Hannah Hodgson’s second pamphlet reads “These poems are heavy with import, but they are light with the liveliness of art that is beautifully rendered.” Nowhere is this dichotomy more interesting than in the pamphlet’s form. Of the 23 poems in Where I’d Watch…, eight are in couplets, six are in tercets and three are in quatrains (the remaining: four single-stanza poems and two of varying stanza lengths). There’s something aesthetically tidy about these choices, which both fits with the poems’ sterile hospital setting and contrasts with how explicitly untidy being around death and disease can be. Couplets and tercets, especially, have such a built-in harmoniousness and look so neat that the clash with content in some pieces might be noticeable even just by glancing at the page. For me, this is not just about rendering art beautifully but speaks to the speaker’s strength of spirit. Amid the surrounding chaos and oppression of both repetition and isolation—which push the speaker to admit she still “[does] things which are unforgiveable” in response to a mixture of well-intentioned and selfish sympathies—there are still reasons to be happy and hopeful, and those reasons are convincing enough for her to let that trickle down to the reader.

Of the four most recent Verve pamphlets, this is one of three which happens to share a prominent hospital setting—an unfortunately unsurprising coincidence in early 2021. Yet, all three (the others are Jamie Hale’s sonnet sequence, Shield, and Natalie Whittaker’s Tree) manage to soften extreme experiences for the reader, and it’s fascinating how that comes through in the form of form. Except for the reader who actively needs to seek out art which doesn’t deal with physical maladies at the moment, Where I’d Watch… is the right amount of emotionally challenging.

II

Sticking with form a little longer, six of these poems break their established patterns. “The tree in outpatients was plastic, and every night I’d watch it not grow from my window”, “After the Curtain”, “There is an Art to Falling” and “The Rainbow Room” all have their final stanzas truncated by either a full line or half a line. Conversely, “A&E, England, Jan 2020” and “52nd Day of Self Isolation” elongate their tercets into a final quatrain. In these instances, the reader should always be asking Why?

With the truncations, all but the first seem to point to subtractions within their poems. “The woman in the next bed doesn’t wake up” early on in “After the Curtain”, while the rest of the poem draws out some of the cold practicalities which follow. It concludes with “vacant” being inputted in the hospital’s computer system. Similarly, a mother observes an inanimate daughter by the end of “The Rainbow Room”, whose final line is so drained of energy that it can’t quite reach out far enough on the page. These are effective and ultimately sad deviations signaling all the loss that lives in these poems. “The tree in outpatients…”, however, is that example of balancing the exhaustion of loss with mental tenacity. A series of couplets gives way to a final one-line stanza as the speaker looks at a photo “as a threat // to the body, a reminder of where we’ll go back to.” That stanza break forces a reevaluation of the power dynamic of the threat, which originally seems like the speaker is being threatened only for the meaning to be transformed into a sort of motivation that gives the mind some power over the body. Whereas the other three truncations might be the kinds we would expect in the contexts of these poems, the one in “The tree in outpatients…” is more deft, more subtle—a stubborn change in the face of too much sameness in the day-to-day.

The extensions in “A&E…” and “52nd Day…” are a bit tougher to stomach, mired in how powerfully time can drag on and on. A corpse goes unattended “for four hours” (a very purposeful specificity, to me, since this is the shift into the quatrain), and those in the waiting room have to sit alongside in discomfort as the poem draws out its final stanza, longer and painfully awkward. And if you might expect a poem with the title “52nd Day of Self Isolation” to squeeze out an extra line in its final stanza to emphasize that length of time, it doesn’t make it any less visually or rhythmically meaningful.

III

Animals are one of the motifs in this pamphlet: monkeys and spiders in “Isolation Ward”, crows in “The tree in outpatients…”, tigers in “Dear Visitors”, crows (again) in “Leaflet dispensed by crows who circle around the resus bay like overstated authority figures”, butterflies in “The only person I knew with my condition”, starlings in “10th April 2020” and slugs in “52nd Day…”.

The speaker gravities to some of these creatures because they’re not subjected to the same kinds of physical and emotional prodding that the people in Where I’d Watch… have to undergo and because there’s less of a risk in getting attached to them—less of a chance of having those ties severed or worrying about so many people who want to take part in another’s suffering in order to appear to others to have the appropriate level of public empathy.

I have to think animals are such common companions for poets because of how much they offer in the way of concise, not extended, metaphor. “Dear Visitors” is the only poem which goes the distance with the comparison, but there’s something even more emotionally precise about the final lines of “10th April 2020”:

[…] The GP rang this afternoon
trying to talk about a DNR order. I refused,
instead told him about starlings murmurating
and all the living I have left to do.

Through the single act of murmuration, I feel like I get it. There’s probably also a complexity to the patterns of a starling’s actions and interactions throughout the day which finds parallels in our own, but this singular quality makes too much sense as something the speaker would focus on to lead her to wanting to share the excitement of living. It’s a simple act which can often have a more substantial effect.

IV

I wonder if another version of Where I’d Watch… would drift further away from its central figure than this one does or if the form of the pamphlet necessities the kind of focus this series of poems has. Pieces like “A&E…” and “Bad News” stand out for how well they draw on character (not just omitting the singular first-person but even the plural “we” we get in other poems). The corpse which “began hardening slowly” calls back to the “piece of hardened skin rubbed subconsciously” in “In the Half-light” (another character-driven poem), and it’s such a good, memorable bit of detail that I want to see how the central I enters some of the other physical locations in this setting with the kind of outward curiosity in these few poems. The idea of doctors as poets in “Bad News”, in which they have to perform for a kind of audience and think about where and how they rhythmically break apart their own repeated lines, is begging for companion pieces with similar inquiries.

But then poems like “Grandad” (absolutely among my personal favorites) and “My Mother’s Russian Dolls” would end up earning their places less. There’s so much ironic charm and tenderness in “Grandad” from the first line: “Meet me at yours, ten years before.” Some readers might take for granted that the diction here is geographically specific (“yours” as a shortened version of “your place” or “your home” or the equivalent isn’t the way an American, for instance, would say or write the line), and the poem is certainly improved because of it—there’s less of a distance in “yours” (typographically, too), more intimacy. And, quite immediately, the evocation of the cigarette burn in the second line snaps the reader out of a sense of safety. These more interior meditations, while not moving away from the central I, move away from the central setting, and it’s through these that Where I’d Watch… finds much of its variation.

V

One of the concessions Where I’d Watch… doesn’t make for its readers is easing the blow of how we can be too self-consciously participating in someone else’s pain, and I couldn’t be gladder. We’re warned from the outset: “Feel free to have a look around. I’d walk quickly though, / you don’t want to be here…” for too long, essentially. That is simultaneously cautionary and accusatory to me, as in you probably don’t won’t to stay here any longer than you absolutely need to. Sometimes, the accusation is more pointed—“Everybody Loves a Dying Girl”, for instance, or how there are people “just wanting to be part of the tragedy” in “Long-Term Illness”. But I appreciate how other moments like these are treated more quietly and with a component of invitation, because it lulls some of the addressees into feeling like they’ve earned pats on the back for all the second-hand difficulties they’ve gone through. The speaker here doesn’t let anyone off the hook, including herself. That she still manages to do so with compassion makes her honesty more poignant.

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