Human Tissue, Hilary Menos
Smith/Doorstop, 2020 £6.00
The hard way
This collection shares a particularly hard life journey: the poet’s son Linus received a kidney transplant from his mother; two years later the kidney was rejected. It’s an intensely personal story. But these are not poems set solely in hospital beds and waiting rooms. They’re set at home, with the family’s iconic mascot, ‘The Mud Man’, at the bottom of their garden. (He is important — and introduced right at the start, in the first poem, which is named after him.) And they’re poems that travel — across subject and land in search of ways through.
Imaginative leaps provide their own connections. In places her themes merge, the poems operating as bridges. ‘Mountain of Heaven’ begins:
The Mud Man looks like Ben Nevis —
as high as ten St Paul’s but without the convenience of a staircase.
The popular tourist path requires modest scrambling ability
and a head for heights. I choose the hard way
to learn the meanings of words
This poet’s journeying is resourceful. She gathers not only words, but stones, and stories, information, science and sloes. There are switches of tone — ‘Hats Off!’ takes ‘Hats off to Ronald Lee Herrick’, the identical twin who became the world’s first organ donor. Above all, she makes her own passage. And yes, it’s hard. Even the Mud Man, on whom she relies as an image, has to go, in ‘Tumba Dios’:
My mercenary, my advocate, my hero.
There’s a spatter of sawdust where we used to sit
Again, she needs to move on. Rely on new images — so, ‘Scaffolding’ as a poem title for a poem with no capitals to prop it up at all:
coax stem cells
leeched from marrow
or spun from blood
Together, the poems forge a kind of personal creed: that we have to find our own unique way, and somehow we do, even through the hardest parts. As it wends its way home, to ‘Sloe Gin’:
Walk home the long way, clutching your pot or pan
and sobbing. Guidance. I’d hoped to give you more.
Add sugar and gin. Shake. Store.
Having (and not having) faith
You discover that one of your children has a life-threatening health condition. A kidney replacement is needed. You donate one of your own kidneys — but the transplant fails. What’s left but prayer?
But what if you have no ‘faith’? What if your only spiritual symbol is a solidly pagan tree stump called ‘The Mud Man’? And then even he is removed by the farmer and replaced with ‘an access road’?
All the instinctive features of faith are tried and discounted here: prayer, pilgrimage, fortune-telling, signs and symbols of superstition. Soon science too, in the form of well-meaning surgeons, fails. It is a hard path indeed.
So yes, this sequence — which establishes its own lyrical grace — has a grim setting. But the poems bear witness with truth and rigour, and they are poems from which the reader learns.
Some of the learning’s factual. There’s material about the history of kidney disease, the science of transplantation, the possibilities that may yet transform lives. But there’s also the emotional journey, including worst fears realised when ‘the body rejects the organ, like a bad bean’ (‘in Miracle’).
The method of narration is at all times controlled, careful, expertly handled. I have faith in this poet, in her intelligence, in her careful analysis, in her determination to tackle reality, however difficult.
And all along, two protagonists are learning: the mother (who is also the poet) and her son. I would quote from ‘Fistula’ where that learning experience is beautifully evoked, but any partial quotation would reduce the way vital detail accrues, not to mention the importance of arriving at these hard-won stanzas through other poems.
In fact, if ever the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, it is in Human Tissue, where a glass of sloe gin becomes the bitter-sweet symbol of distilled experience. Context is hugely important here, but so is form. Its territory is staked out in the near-rhyming couplets (not a precise match) of the concluding poem:
Time matures the thing. At least, adds distance.
I sit at the kitchen table, trying to make sense
and pouring a shot of sweet liquor into a glass.
The filtered magenta, sharp and unctuous
reminds me of sour plum, of undergrowth,
the scrub, the blackthorn, and the hard path.