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Shield, Jamie HaleThe jacket has a white horizontal band at top and bottom, bearing the author's name, the title and the name of the press. Author's name in turquoise. All other text bright pink. In the middle four more horizontal bands in the press's house colours: yellow, bright pink, dark blue, turquoise. Against these coloured bands is placed a large photograph of a white mask, with the loops stretching out at each side like ears.

Verve Press, 2021  £7.50

Path of most resistance

I leapt into Shield over two barriers. First, I resist everything about Covid these days. Second, the poet's lyric ‘I’ is ‘i’, and the punctuation sporadic.

I grew up on Don Marquis, whose creation Archy (a cockroach) wrote poems by jumping onto the keys of a typewriter. Archy couldn’t operate the shift key, so no caps and no punctuation. He was brilliant back in 1916. But now I resist the technique. 

Nevertheless, I do believe in reading poetry on its own terms. Jamie Hale made deliberate decisions about the presentation of these twenty-one sonnets. And this is a poet with a context as unique as Archy’s: a young, fierce, articulate, inspired individual with a complex health condition, a disabled poet in love with life, and at high risk of losing it.

The pamphlet opens:

i write an email to my GP telling him please
i love my life telling him please i want to be
the opposite of a Do Not Resuscitate order
the opposite of a patient you’d give a quiet death to

o god let me die loudly let my ribs crack
i will arc with shock please i’d rather die
as i’ve lived as i’ve lived filled with love and
i’d rather die fierce as myself, every time

every bloody time

The transition between stanzas here is skilful, the language literally crackling through the lines.

Then the email to the doctor receives a reply (sonnet vi):

my doctor writes back he says
i am stuck between a rock
and a hard place i swallow
the cliché the bitter cliché’

Meanwhile, the poet’s brother, a paramedic, sends a warning. Should hospitalisation occur, he says (sonnet xii):

                              remember
to bring your own ventilator

remember if they’re overwhelmed
they’ll save anyone before you

The starkness of these words stops me in my tracks. This is a poet with something to say and they’re saying it with art, craft, skill and raw shock.

And that’s not all. The closing sonnet is, for me, an unforgettable riposte to Rupert Brooke’s ‘If I should die’. Maybe you can’t bear anything else about Covid either? Shield is the exception that proves the rule.

Helena Nelson

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