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My Speaking Tongue, Will Johnson

Eyewear Publishing, 2018  £6.00

Bridging the unbridgeable

In the poem ‘Summer in the Hospital’, Will Johnson draws a purposeful contrast between patients, ‘who must wait / in corridors on stacking chairs’, and doctors, swanning off on holiday. The uncrossable divide — between sickness and health — is vividly communicated, as the poet-patient extrapolates out, across ‘the rain and concrete piles, / from the fifth floor’, and to ‘the coast’:

and through its haze, the continent—
its spas of health and youth and love,
its pools in which the doctors swim.

I won’t forget those ‘pools in which the doctors swim’. The collection is written, the back cover tells us, in the face of motor neurone disease. Throughout, the poet movingly grapples with that widening gulf — between self, and others; even between selves — as his experience of sickness deepens, and carries him further from earlier lives.

In ‘Nature Morte’, he pictures a room no longer lived in: ‘a chair undrawn // things // a few / small things / in shock’. In ‘Crossed Paths’ and ‘Great Western’ there are characters passing, or parting. There are former selves he can never return to — the poet ‘at twenty-one’ in ‘Life at Sea’. And parallel lives: vividly, in ‘The Samizdat Self’, he conjures one who, in the end, ‘lost his roubles, lost his marbles, died’.

Images of temporary tenancy build: we’re guests in our lives, our homes; we’re guests in our bodies. All gives way under the pressure of the progressing disease and ‘the thought / I’m on my own’.

Eventually, there’s the pressure to peel away even from the self, as the body fails: ‘watching a spool of clothes dragged out to sea, / divided as to who exactly cast them off, and when’.

The dedication in My Speaking Tongue describes it as ‘a message in a paper bottle’. It’s really noticeable to me, amidst so much division, just how together the reader can feel with this writer as he truthfully — generously — shares his experience.

Charlotte Gann