I was at a bit of a loss when asked my religion the only time I was ever admitted to hospital. ‘Well, I like churches, but I don’t know that I actually believe anything’. ‘I’ll put you down as C. of E. then, love’. ‘Oh, OK’. This had the advantage that I was left alone, while poor Molly Holden, more positive in her reply, was plagued by a whole string of visitations, which gives this valiant sad poem her characteristic edging of wry humour.
A note on the last line: ‘against great odds in a narrow place’. This is a quote from the work of the scholar W.P.Ker, who uses the phrase to characterise the classic final situation of the doomed protagonist in Norse heroic literature: Gunnar defending his home at Hlitharend, for example, or Hrolf Kraki and his twelve berserkers taking on a whole army, though it might equally apply to the Spartans at Thermopylae or Roland at Roncesvalles. Molly Holden was well acquainted with Icelandic saga literature, and would surely have known Ker’s seminal works ‘Epic and Romance’ and ‘The Dark Ages’.
They sought me out, the ancient consolations,
now that I lay helpless in their reach,
with well-greased shoes and oily conversation,
hoping to net me on that painful beach;
helpless indeed I lay, in that white bed, hands outspread,
legs useless down the length before my eyes,
and could not care a deal for anything they said,
kind though they thought themselves and wise.
Jamaican nurses spoke of Christ, wheelchair conversions,
souls brought to God who’d never seen the light;
quietly I nodded when I could, without aspersions,
was grateful that they cared to help me fight.
Catholic nurses said they’d pray for me, raising
their rosaries, promising aves every day;
a priest put up a meaningless blessing, praising
a courage I did not have, and went away.
The Church of England would have liked discussion,
seeing I’d admitted myself: ‘religion none’.
I held my own a while but without passion
and asked to be excused a dialectic run.
And all the while I lay, under the words and attempted curing,
seeking inside not out for a human grace
that would give me a strength and a courage for enduring
against great odds in a narrow place.