Gloves off: poetry gets to the heart of the matter when it comes to illness

Last night I was getting ready for this evening’s ‘Order, Chaos, and Chronic Illness’ event at the Theatre Royal, York.

300 people will be joining me to hear leading poets, Simon Armitage, Gillian Clarke and Blake Morrison, read their work and discuss the relationship between poetry and illness.

Part of York’s Festival of Ideas it also marks the culmination of a quite brilliant project by York University bringing together patients, carers, health professionals and researchers to explore the impact of chronic illness through poetry. I am looking forward to interviewing another poet and tutor, Peter Sansom, on stage tonight, and hearing how the project went.

In the end I used my prep last night to take a poetry tour under the guidance of the ‘Order, Chaos and Chronic Illness’ Facebook page. There are so many wonderful pieces out there. By published and unpublished poets.

The late Julia’s Darling’s beautifully honest poem ‘Chemotherapy’ which finishes:

‘I’m not unhappy.
I have learnt to drift and sip.
The smallest things are gifts’

Or Elspeth Murray’s wonderful ‘This is Bad Enough.’

These are ‘gloves off,’ windows into people’s experiences of illness, that for me, hit home like CGI or 3D cinema. I wish we could start each conference and every other dire event which is purportedly about people’s health, with such work.

I myself have found huge solace as well as happiness in writing poetry.

For many years, I have suffered from quite bad eczema/psoriasis (the doctors can’t decide which!) on my hands.

There are many people with this condition who are far worse off than me. But even for me it is painful, limiting, unsightly and, if truth be told, distressing. It is only recently that I have found a way of managing it well. But for a long time I was trying all sorts of combinations of creams and occasionally wearing white gloves. The gloves prompted all sorts of attention. Most of it kind, to be fair. But not always. It prompted this reflection.

White cotton gloves

I see you’ve noticed
My white cotton gloves.

I wish they were an affectation
And not to hide my affliction.

I know snooker refs wear them to polish balls
Before placing them sveltely on green felt.
And art experts, to caress a long lost master
Discovered above a pile of smash, in someone’s hall.

I know butlers must have pairs and pairs at the ready,
To open doors on a regular basis,
And serve tea at 3, like the old man
Who once brought me breakfast,
At a stuck-in-time B&B.

I’m not Michael Jackson…one, two, three
Or a Hong Kong traffic cop with flashing white cuffs.
Not a jeweller valuing gold and silver for smelt,
Or a debonaire matinee idol, more’s the pity.

No, I wear them to soothe the open sores
And blot my blood. To protect my skin.
From drying up, from messing up your shirt and sleeves,
When we shake hands.

Don’t worry,
My hand
Won’t come off in yours.
I hope.

Why they can’t be black though,
I don’t know.

SD June 2014

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