Julia Darling was a poet who died in 2005. She wrote extensively of her cancer and terminal diagnosis. Her poems explore the collision of medical and poetic worlds, they are beautifully formed, honest and darkly humorous. When I was diagnosed with a life limiting illness in 2015, she was the first poet I came across who wrote explicitly about illness and who gave me permission to write about my current situation.
Below you'll find a discussion of a poem by Julia Darling followed by a poem by Hannah responding to it, and you can see the séance in full on YouTube.
Julia Darling's sonnet 'Nurses' casts the healthcare workers as 'bossing me in and out of clothes / in windowless rooms, tucking me in.' At the turn she takes the power, and responds: 'But I am the woman who won't take off her bra, / the one who demands that you look her in the eyes.' She says, 'when they come back for me, I'll be gone.'
Records are written by strangers. Days are on repeat prescription.
Personhood is incinerated with laundry. Electric toothbrushes
have nowhere to charge. My body retreats and advances, tidal.
I do crafts with custard, cornflakes, and popcorn to show the doctors
I’m not food averse. Body lotion is confiscated, it contains alcohol.
Bleeps chirp in the nests of scrub pockets. Oxygen cylinders
drip like molten silver. PVC chairs, empty egg cups. A fruit stall
in the lobby. A 4% chance. Rows of patients side by side,
boxes of unlit matches. Fury gathering on lungs like pneumonia.
Doctors, wasps. Toddlers diagnosed with cancer. A Sellotape tin labelled
let’s stick together. A hierarchy of pain. Pregnancy tests
before every x-ray. A single unpainted nail.
Julia Darling came out as a lesbian late in life, after marrying a man. Darling's poem 'Coming Out' takes us through the anxiety of coming out to a loved one:
when birds fly
round your heart
and the sound
of kettles boiling
The speaker feels what she wants to say 'is both unnecessary / and vital'. But when she says it, finally, it makes her smile. The news of her queerness is awkwardly received - like 'a bereavement' - 'ah well, shall we go to Bainbridge’s then?' - a comparison to 'difficult aunts / who had the sense / to be spinsters'.
The poem ends three years later, still wanting love from the 'you' of the poem:
ask me how she is
ask me if we’re well
do you know we still
sleep in the same bed?
and what I said in 1991
still holds, was not a phrase?
The Whole Street is Standing by
In the floorboards below Jane Austen’s house
there was a gun. It’s an exhibit now
and this is a metaphor about pain,
how we hide it for historians to uncover.
My next-door neighbours are dying.
One of brain cancer and the other lung.
Illness is the thing beneath the floorboards
on this street. The palliative care team
visits three houses in a row.
My mother closes our curtains
and cries when the doctor leaves,
nobody here is allowed to grieve.
in the silence between houses;
like empty gardens
we’re all infested with weeds.
Darling's four-stanza poem 'Entreaty' opens 'Don’t let me die in a hospital bed, / where death will be deathly, where death will be dead.' She is being earnest, but she hasn't lost her humour. The speaker repeats the phrase 'let death be...', hoping against hope that if she has to die, she'll go how she wants to.
Let death be a comrade, let death be a laugh,
let death be like sinking into the bath.
Let all my friends say, after I’ve gone,
‘She certainly knew how to die, that one!'
Queen of Hearts
The bed wore me like a ballgown on a subway,
unignorable, melodramatic with its pleats of support;
the fancy clutch of a saline bag, the stiletto heel
of a drip stand. On this blank wall there’s a signed picture
of Diana. They showcase her clothes in Buckingham Palace –
trapped ghosts of her hanging from clothes hooks.
Her terminal mistake was a man, while mine is contained
within this Hospice. I’m asked if I’d like to read her book.
The spine indicates nobody has read it through.
She’d approve of my need to get revenge on this body,
the ability to escape – chasing health like a journalist.
Watch Hannah speak about Julia Darling below.
Hannah Hodgson is a poet living with life-limiting illness. Her work has been published by the Poetry Society, Teen Vogue and Poetry Saltzburg, amongst others. She is the recipient of a 2020 Northern Writers Award for Poetry. Her first poetry pamphlet Dear Body was published by Wayleave Press in 2018, and her second pamphlet, Where I'd Watch Plastic Trees Not Grow, was published with Verve Press in 2021.
This creative response was commissioned as part of Hannah Hodgson's 'resurrection' of Julia Darling, for a séance on the Dead [Women] Poets Society national tour in 2019-21. This séance was planned to happen at Star and Shadow Cinema in Newcastle, but due to the coronavirus pandemic took place online on 11 April 2021. Read Momtaza Mehri's responses to May Ayim from the same séance here. Be the first to hear about our upcoming events by signing up to our free and fun mailing list.
This project is supported by Arts Council England. Illustrations by Lily Arnold.