In writing this review I must declare an interest. I first met Ross McGivern on an Open University Poetry Society workshop four years ago and was immediately impressed by his talent. I have also had the privilege to be able to witness the development of Fragments and Stages into the impressive chapbook that it is. As he explained in his fascinating drop in last week, it charts the challenging year that he and his wife faced, when she underwent treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. One might expect such subject matter to be unrelentingly grim, but I found the work to be both life-affirming and uplifting.
Yes, it’s true that McGivern does not shy away from conveying the horrors of cancer treatment. There are vivid portrayals of its physical effects: the ‘hair loss and sickness’, the ‘fatigue and dropped weight’, the fact that ‘you’ll feel shit before you feel better.’ (Known Knowns and Beyond) and he describes his wife as transformed ‘to part-machine’ with ‘Wires and tubes’ that flow from arms with poisons that ‘harden her veins’ and making eyelashes ‘drop like pine needles’. This is hard to read as is the exploration of the numerous psychological effects on them both, such as the all-consuming anxiety experienced whilst waiting in hospitals, when life is suspended (‘Here we sit/ docked in a cafeteria.’ (The Waiting Game) and normality, such as paying for drink and food, becomes a pointless effort (‘A scavenge to gather/ a weary brace of hot chocolate/and clinically wrapped sausage rolls/neither of us will taste’). This is an illness that separates them from the outside world, that becomes an ‘Eden’ to be ‘observed from a distance/suspended in time.’ (Seeing Things). They are powerless, no longer able to influence their own destiny, In Christmas McGivern uses that very word to describe himself as the two await their ‘fate’. Any power to make a difference lies in the hands of the medics with their drugs, a point made both powerfully and imaginatively in The Feel Good Hit of Summer when he compares the effect of the chemo drugs to good poetry! ‘The metrical power of Cytotoxic drugs/ does what good poetry should; each beat/ wrestles control of organs. Each foot stirs/ limbs – manipulates breath and emotion. Each dose draws us closer.’
This concluding line to The Feel Good Hit of Summer, I believe, is a significant one in the context of the collection as a whole. There is a deliberate ambiguity here. McGivern may be referring to the idea of recovery, but I believe he is also referring to the development of a stronger bond in their relationship. Whilst there is no doubting the strength of their love, so beautifully evoked in the tender and sensitive The Ceremonial Cutting of the Hair (in which he respects the significance for his partner of the shaving of her hair and takes the responsibility upon himself in ‘an act of love’) the illness does at times become a barrier between them: there are moments in the account when it is almost as if he has lost his wife. Take for example, Response from the Stalls which describes the moment she receives the diagnosis. He feels the need to comfort her, but his ‘left hand falls limp/hangs out and down./ An instinctive move of comfort, a connection to show I’m there./ These impotent gestures of mine/ fall short, fail; to process, tail off -’. His helplessness makes him merely an observer of her suffering, unable to bridge the distance between them to comfort her, and though he does take hold of her hand, she relinquishes his grip and he loses her for the moment as she ‘clings’ instead ‘to the coat folded/ across her knee’, a powerful visual image that implies this is something that in the final analysis she must find the resources to face alone: no matter how much he’d like to, he cannot do it for her. He tells us that he ‘never loved (her) more’ (Christmas, 2014) yet the treatment makes it difficult to show it: ‘We didn’t know that if impulses could not be contained, / then young man, you need to barrier up./ Or the antidote to uncertainty should be given a miss/ as chemotherapy can be passed on with a simple kiss’ (Known Knowns and Beyond).
I think it is the strength of this relationship that makes the collection so uplifting for me, for whilst Fragments and Stages is about suffering it is also about the strength of the bond between a husband and wife in the worst of times. There’s something truly uplifting and life-affirming in this relationship, feelings that are magnified by McGivern’s joyful description of his wife’s recovery. It’s hinted at first in A Respite of Bluebells. The Spring setting is an appropriate backdrop for a life returning which McGivern conveys through his wife’s changing appearance: ‘The stretched, blank canvas/ covering her cheek and brow/ attracts light and colour, as if her face were a palette.’ Quite literally the colour is returning to her face as they enjoy ‘the salvation of bluebells.’ In The Cheese Banquet the recovery is completed: her ‘Hair regrows, her body rebuilds.’ The joy of this time and its significance for the couple is realised in the lavish, sensory description of the cheese and wine banquet that they have to celebrate: ‘Tonight we’ll feast. / Tonight we’ll fill our bellies/ with the most unctuous, ripe,/ veinous, creamy, oozing cheese.’ There is a powerful contrast here with the moment in the waiting room, when they could not taste their ‘clinically wrapped sausage rolls’. They are now free to savour life again, gorge on its delights, but this is not a return of the old life with its false promise of certainties, this is a life that is now lived in and for the moment: for ‘what use is corked wine,/ if our moment is now/ firmly in the present.’
In two poems in the collection McGivern reflects upon the inadequacy of words to express what he and his wife felt at moments during this horrendous year in their lives. In Back in the Room he talks of ‘Stewed words – steeped in sincerity’ sounding ‘hollow as they limp/ from lips and plummet/ to bleached tiles we’ve scuffed with/ with anxious shoes’ and in Response from the Stalls he talks of his wife ‘summoning words that don’t come.’ There is a certain irony here for in the collection as a whole McGivern brilliantly finds the words (and forms) that enable us to share his and his wife’s experiences and to celebrate with them the positive outcome. I’m so pleased that he had the courage to publish this magnificent chapbook. If ever there was a publication that demanded an audience; this is it. I believe there will be many small poetry publishers who will be cursing the missed opportunity to publish it themselves. McGivern is a talented and perceptive writer, who deserves wider exposure, and hopefully we will see a full collection of his exceptional work in the future.
Ross McGivern is a poet harvested from the fertile flatlands of South Lincolnshire. He is a poem trapped in an endless edit, rubbish at a crowded bar, and once made the best cappuccino in town. Fragments and Stages is Ross’s fourth chapbook, following on from The Featherstone Readings (2017), Interpret (2018), and the Maplestreet Press published The Fallow Page (2020). His work has also appeared in Impspired, The Plastic Brain Presents Podcast, Lincolnshire Strange Delights, Hedgehog Press, Black Pear Press, Backcombed Magazine, BBC Radio Lincolnshire, and Openings – the annual anthology of the Open University Poets Society.
Fragments and Stages is available to buy direct from Ross for £4.75 (including postage). Click here for the Paypal link, or send direct to @featherstonereadings with a note of your postal address, or drop him an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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