The Magnitude of My Sublime Existence by Selima Hill, 80pp, £9.95, Bloodaxe Books, Bloodaxe Books Ltd, Eastburn, South Park, Hexham, Northumberland NE46 1BS
The day The Magnitude of My Sublime Existence arrived I glanced at the first poem but found the poetry so compelling, I couldn’t escape, and read to the end.
Although many of the sixty-four poems, almost entirely in couplets, are full of encounters with doctors, nurses, inpatients and a menagerie of creatures, they explore isolation and powerlessness, but also a scrabble for power and a sense of determination.
The compact, succinct, vivid poems give the arresting sense of being incarcerated alongside the narrator. Despite the emotions aroused, through the writer’s eyes I became objective and rational, and found myself observing, gathering evidence and facts in an attempt to become normal, and so be released.
The opening poems, addressing the reader as confidante, explore isolation. Each poem expresses a few moments’ thoughts, each a snapshot, each a fragment of the narrator’s quest for understanding. In ‘My New Home’, the narrator settles into, and welcomes, isolation,
‘I like the way no one’s very friendly
and there isn’t really anything to do;
… and most of all the fact we’re all locked in.’
The expert use of simile and metaphor provides insight into the self-reflection and passivity of the patient. ‘I go to pieces like a little cup / made of sores nobody must touch’, [‘Cup’],
’… people find me lying on the floor / demonstrating how to be linoleum / by flattening my hands against my ears.’, [‘Linoleum’]; ‘I get the feeling that a lounger gets / when somebody comes along and shakes it / although he knows its never going to work. [‘Lounger’]
It’s after the arrival of the woman with long black hair, to whom the book is dedicated, that the poems alter slightly, making reference to the doctors, the registrar, orderlies, porters and the arrival and departure of patients. The isolation and the inward-looking quality is subsumed by concern for other patients. The ‘I’ is replaced in many cases by ‘us’ and ‘our’,
‘Someone new is propped inside the side-room.
The tiny purple hands and bandaged wrists
grip a pack of Russian cigarettes.
She glares at us and we glare back.’ [‘The Singers’]
There’s an increased candour about the narrator’s and other patients’ preoccupation with death,
‘We care for one another – for example,
we help each other with our suicides,’ [‘The Letter E’]
As the book progresses, the reader senses a shift in focus. There are the beginnings of recovery, and a heightened sense of knowing what is required to be allowed to leave, what might signify ‘recovery’. The narrator becomes more aware of what she wants and what she doesn’t want, and qualifies her actions:
‘(By swallow I mean swallow not the swallow
one of which does not a summer make;
by ‘being touched’ I mean being brushed against
being squeezed is absolutely fine).’ [‘Swallow’]
‘and also, we’re not ‘lazy’, we are tranquilised,
and neither are we ‘bored’, we are suffering.’ [‘Tranquility’].
There’s an awareness of what irritates the staff, and how to please the nurses and Occupational Therapist who is,
‘… sick of useless facts about pigs,
zebras, dachshunds, jellyfish, old cats;
she’s sick and tired of the whole lot of them.’ [‘Useless Facts About Pigs’],
To experience not only incarceration and the journey to recovery, but also to glean some understanding of what is perceived as ‘normal’, I recommend The Magnitude of My Sublime Existence, and I further recommend it to be read in one sitting.