Negotiating the Days by Lizzie Madder (Soundswrite Press, 2012) £4.00
Each poem in this cancer diary focuses on a state of mind, a moment, a milestone. It’s a poetry reviewer’s cliché to talk about risk-taking, but to publish such a record—of pain, fear and indignity—deserves admiration.
But does the risk pay off in artistic terms? What I enjoyed about the pamphlet is the way Madder chronicles states of mind with determination and humour, and takes the reader through her journey. ‘Negotiation’, the poem from which the pamphlet’s title comes, is about being in hospital:
And an impossible desire to go home.
Like the small child I was I become again.
I just want.
In ‘Walk in Wandlebury Park II’, just before treatment, Madder describes the beauty of the walk, and ends:
There is the unknown ahead:
a greyness—steely, strong, rigid—
marching towards me, while I quiver
and want to run away.
The image of the greyness is vivid and apt. I don’t think we need to be told about the narrator’s reaction in the last line and a half—the poem would work better if she trusted the image, and the reader, to do the work themselves.
Madder’s style lies on the borderline between prose and free verse. I would have liked to be startled or excited, to discover some tension in the line-breaks, some rhythm and music (whether discordant or tuneful) in the juxtaposition of words, and thus to lift the poems to another level. And I think she could—and should—push language and diction further. ‘Bed Four’, for example, starts with a nice metaphor of hospital staff as “a hierarchy of cockerels and hens”, but the narrator then wonders what the staff think of her body “they now know as intimately as any lover”, which feels ordinary in comparison, despite the shocking nature of the thought. I’d like Madder to stretch herself, let herself loose more often, a feeling she describes in ‘The Occasion’, when she’s on morphine:
I’m waiting to see
a buzzard look
me in the eye.
Negotiating the skies.
The pamphlet, from a small Leicester-based press, is attractively produced, and the cover includes a design by Madder, who is also an artist. £1 from each sale goes to Macmillan Cancer Support.