Week 393: Ten Types of Hospital Visitor, by Charles Causley

I thought this week’s piece might be appropriate at a time when with any luck patients in hospital will soon be allowed visitors again, though if Charles Causley’s wryly observed poem is anything to go by, this can be a mixed blessing…

Ten Types of Hospital Visitor

1

The first enters wearing the neon armour
Of virtue.
Ceaselessly firing all-purpose smiles
At everyone present
She destroys hope
In the breasts of the sick,
Who realize instantly
That they are incapable of surmounting
Her ferocious goodwill.

Such courage she displays
In the face of human disaster!

Fortunately, she does not stay long.
After a speedy trip round the ward
In the manner of a nineteen-thirties destroyer
Showing the flag in the Mediterranean,
She returns home for a week
– With luck, longer –
Scorched by the heat of her own worthiness.

2

The second appears, a melancholy splurge
Of theological colours;
Taps heavily about like a healthy vulture
Distributing deep-frozen hope.

The patients gaze at him cautiously.
Most of them, as yet uncertain of the realities
Of heaven, hell-fire, or eternal emptiness,
Play for safety
By accepting his attentions
With just-concealed apathy,
Except one old man, who cries
With newly sharpened hatred,
‘Shove off! Shove off!
‘Shove … shove … shove … shove
Off!
Just you
Shove!’

3

The third skilfully deflates his weakly smiling victim
By telling him
How the lobelias are doing,
How many kittens the cat had,
How the slate came off the scullery roof,
And how no one has visited the patient for a fortnight
Because everybody
Had colds and feared to bring the jumpy germ
Into hospital.
The patient’s eyes
Ice over. He is uninterested
In lobelias, the cat, the slate, the germ.
Flat on his back, drip-fed, his face
The shade of a newly dug-up Pharaoh,
Wearing his skeleton outside his skin,
Yet his wits as bright as a lighted candle,
He is concerned only with the here, the now,
And requires to speak
Of nothing but his present predicament.

It is not permitted.

4

The fourth attempts to cheer
His aged mother with light jokes
Menacing as shell-splinters.
‘They’ll soon have you jumping round
Like a gazelle,’ he says.
‘Playing in the football team.’
Quite undeterred by the sight of kilos
Of plaster, chains, lifting-gear,
A pair of lethally designed crutches,
‘You’ll be leap-frogging soon,’ he says.
‘Swimming ten lengths of the baths.’
At these unlikely prophecies
The old lady stares fearfully
At her sick, sick offspring
Thinking he has lost his reason –

Which, alas, seems to be the case.

5

The fifth, a giant from the fields
With suit smelling of milk and hay,
Shifts uneasily from one bullock foot
To the other, as though to avoid
Settling permanently in the antiseptic landscape.
Occasionally he looses a scared glance
Sideways, as though fearful of what intimacy
He may blunder on, or that the walls
Might suddenly close in on him.

He carries flowers, held lightly in fingers
The size and shape of plantains,
Tenderly kisses his wife’s cheek
– The brush of a child’s lips –
Then balances, motionless, for thirty minutes
On the thin chair.

At the end of visiting time
He emerges breathless,
Blinking with relief, into the safe light.

He does not appear to notice
The dusk.

6

The sixth visitor says little,
Breathes reassurance,
Smiles securely.
Carries no black passport of grapes
And visa of chocolate. Has a clutch
Of clean washing.
Unobtrusively stows it
In the locker; searches out more.
Talks quietly to the Sister
Out of sight, out of earshot, of the patient.
Arrives punctually as a tide.
Does not stay the whole hour.

Even when she has gone
The patient seems to sense her there:
An upholding
Presence.

7

The seventh visitor
Smells of bar-room after-shave.
Often finds his friend
Sound asleep: whether real or feigned
Is never determined.

He does not mind; prowls the ward
In search of second-class, lost-face patients
With no visitors
And who are pretending to doze
Or read paperbacks.

He probes relentlessly the nature
Of each complaint, and is swift with such
Dilutions of confidence as,
`Ah! You’ll be worse
Before you’re better.’

Five minutes before the bell punctuates
Visiting time, his friend opens an alarm-clock eye.
The visitor checks his watch.
Market day. The Duck and Pheasant will be still open.

Courage must be refuelled.

8

The eight visitor looks infinitely
More decayed, ill and infirm than any patient.
His face is an expensive grey.

He peers about with antediluvian eyes
As though from the other end
Of time.
He appears to have risen from the grave
To make this appearance.
There is a whiff of white flowers about him;
The crumpled look of a slightly used shroud.
Slowly he passes the patient
A bag of bullet-proof
Home-made biscuits,
A strong, death-dealing cake –
‘To have with your tea,’
Or a bowl of fruit so weighty
It threatens to break
His glass fingers.

The patient, encouraged beyond measure,
Thanks him with enthusiasm, not for
The oranges, the biscuits, the cake,
But for the healing sight
Of someone patently worse
Than himself. He rounds the crisis-corner;
Begins a recovery.

9

The ninth visitor is life.

10

The tenth visitor
Is not usually named.

Charles Causley

Week 371: Keats at Teignmouth, by Charles Causley

An early poem by Charles Causley – in fact the first in his ‘Collected Poems’ – but showing already his very distinctive style and his mastery of ballad rhythms. I think you have to be careful when deploying a colourful and idiosyncratic diction like Causley’s – the words in a poem should be there primarily to draw attention to what the poem is about and only secondarily to themselves – but at least you are never going to mistake Causley’s work for anyone else’s.

Keats At Teignmouth – Spring 1818

By the wild sea-wall I wandered
Blinded by the salting sun,
While the sulky Channel thundered
Like an old Trafalgar gun.

And I watched the gaudy river
Under trees of lemon-green,
Coiling like a scarlet bugle
Through the valley of the Teign.

When spring fired her fusilladoes
Salt-spray, sea-spray on the sill,
When the budding scarf of April
Ravelled on the Devon hill.

Then I saw the crystal poet
Leaning on the old sea-rail;
In his breast lay death, the lover,
In his head, the nightingale.

Charles Causley

Week 269: A Ballad for Katherine of Aragon, by Charles Causley

Time for another by that modern master of the ballad, Charles Causley. Here he hauntingly interweaves two elegies, one for Henry VIII’s first queen Katherine of Aragon, transplanted from her sunny clime in Spain to end up intombed in cold Peterborough cathedral, the other for a schoolmate killed in Italy in the Second World War.

Note: The route of the Flying Scot ran through Peterborough on its way from London to Scotland. A ‘party’, as in Spanish party, was naval slang for a girl. And I’m sure that, unlike me, you won’t need to read the poem half a dozen times before it dawns on you that Causley’s friend Cross probably wasn’t actually christened Jumper.

A Ballad for Katherine of Aragon

As I walked down by the river
Down by the frozen fen
I saw the grey cathedral
With the eyes of a child of ten.

O the railway arch is smoky
As the Flying Scot goes by
And but for the Education Act
Go Jumper Cross and I.

But war is a bitter bugle
That all must learn to blow
And it didn’t take long to stop the song
In the dirty Italian snow.

O war is a casual mistress
And the world is her double bed
She has a few charms in her mechanized arms
But you wake up and find yourself dead.

The olive tree in winter
Casts her banner down
And the priest in white and scarlet
Comes up from the muddy town.

O never more will Jumper
Watch the Flying Scot go by.
His funeral knell was a six-inch shell
Singing across the sky.

The Queen of Castile has a daughter
Who won’t come home again
She lies in the grey cathedral
Under the arms of Spain.

O the Queen of Castile has a daughter
Torn out by the roots
Her lovely breast in a cold stone chest
Under the farmers’ boots.

Now I like a Spanish party
And many O many’s the day
I have watched them swim as the night came dim
In Algeciras Bay.

O the high sierra was thunder
And the seven-branched river of Spain
Came down to the sea to plunder
The heart of the sailor again.

O shall I leap in the river
And knock upon paradise door
For a gunner of twenty-seven and a half
And a queen of twenty-four?

From the almond tree by the river
I watch the sky with a groan,
For Jumper and Kate are always out late
And I lie here alone.

Charles Causley

Week 122: If You Should Go To Caistor Town, by Charles Causley

Time for another poem from the excellent Charles Causley, this time showing his almost unique gift for inhabiting the ballad/folksong form and making it his own while retaining all the qualities of the tradition.

If You Should Go To Caistor Town

If you should go to Caistor town,
Where my true love has gone,
Ask her why she went away
And left me here alone.

She said the Caistor sky was blue,
The wind was never cold,
The pavements were all made of pearl,
The young were never old.

Never a word she told me more
But when the year was fled
Upon a bed of brightest earth
She laid her gentle head.

When I went up to Caistor
My suit was made of black,
And all her words like summer birds
Upon the air came back.

O when I went to Caistor
With ice the sky was sown,
And all the streets were chill and grey
And they were made of stone.

Charles Causley

Week 22: Eden Rock, by Charles Causley

Eden Rock

They are waiting for me somewhere beyond Eden Rock:
My father, twenty-five, in the same suit
Of Genuine Irish Tweed, his terrier Jack
Still two years old and trembling at his feet.

My mother, twenty-three, in a sprigged dress
Drawn at the waist, ribbon in her straw hat,
Has spread the stiff white cloth over the grass.
Her hair, the colour of wheat, takes on the light.

She pours tea from a Thermos, the milk straight
From an old H.P. sauce-bottle, a screw
Of paper for a cork; slowly sets out
The same three plates, the tin cups painted blue.

The sky whitens as if lit by three suns.
My mother shades her eyes and looks my way
Over the drifted stream. My father spins
A stone along the water. Leisurely,

They beckon to me from the other bank.
I hear them call, ‘See where the stream-path is!
Crossing is not as hard as you might think.’

I had not thought that it would be like this.

Charles Causley

The last poem in Charles Causley’s ‘Collected Poems’: a beautiful acceptance of ending in which an ancient symbolism is underpinned by homely detail: the stream may have flowed out of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ but that sauce-bottle is Causley’s own.