I wrote most of the poems in Vital Signs in my early forties over a four year period during which I became a father and worked in ICU as an auxiliary nurse throughout the pandemic. But if Vital Signs is a book about fatherhood and Covid it isn’t restricted to those themes: others overlap as things tend to do in the mess our minds often are. A book of poems isn’t a diary, however, it is a collection trying to craft some shape from experience through imagination, sound pattern and form. I say tries for, as the author, I’m hardly the person to say it succeeds.
I became a father eight days before my 39th birthday. My daughter was born in the maternity unit a few minutes walk from the ICU where I work (A Short Walk is the title of the first poem in Vital Signs.) Two-and-a-half years later that ICU was inundated by Covid to such an extent it had to be expanded to accommodate the influx of critically unwell patients. Retired nurses returned to work; nurses who had left ICU to work elsewhere boomeranged back; nurses with no ICU experience were recruited; final year students fast-tracked; Auxiliaries (Healthcare Support Workers) like myself were redeployed to our unit to make up numbers. I remember observing a corridor full of medical stock before we’d admitted our first Covid patient, and thinking:
1. I’ve never seen so much stock in my life!
2. A battle is happening a few miles away and we are preparing ourselves for the inevitable casualties.
What hit us was bigger than any major incident in living memory. We had never seen so many seriously ill patients: would we have enough ventilators? And we ourselves felt in danger: would the PPE be effective? A pressure ulcer on my nose from wearing a fit-tested mask reminded me of my boxing days as a teenager (my last fight happened to be in Portstewart; Scotland V. Ulster; a bout I lost due to a heavy nose bleed.) Boxing played such a big part in my first collection (Line Drawing, Smokestack Books, 2018) that I only refer to it a couple of times in Vital Signs. Masculinity, however, is a recurring theme. A poem about the bisexual world boxing champion Emile Griffith is contrasted with my own experiences of homophobia (something I, as a straight man, didn’t experience until the age of thirty-four, when I started working in healthcare.) Some men are so drunk on testosterone they have a reductive and ultimately self-destructive idea of masculinity and how a ‘real man’ should be and behave. As these men tended to be quite vocal during the pandemic their voices pop up in poems like The Taxi Driver Explains, where a taxi driver ‘mansplains’ Covid to a nurse he is taxiing to work during a snowstorm:
Now the meter was rising
like a body count
as his tongue flapped on;
an auld tattered flag stirred by hot air.
It jist kills auld fowk . . .
My partner Amanda is a type 1 diabetic, so my greatest fear during the pandemic was taking the virus home to her as she was in the high risk category. As an occupational therapist Amanda was also classed as a key worker, though like many had to work from the home she had to shield in. I have said our daughter Rosie (two-and-a-half years old during the first wave) was also an essential worker, a key community worker in a way, for during lockdown she loved wheeling her toy pram with its baby doll through the neighbourhood, and our elderly shielding neighbours loved to wave to her from their windows, or speak to her from their gardens. Rosie’s rosy-cheeked presence (for Rosie embodies her name) cheered them up and provided me with a brighter muse to contrast with the darker one inspiring bleaker poems around this time, though sometimes these ‘muses’ clash and some poems take surprising twists and turns, sometimes lightening up, sometimes darkening down.
I work in the largest city in Scotland but spent my first thirty-four years in a former mining village in Fife. Kelty is always somewhere in the background if not the foreground of my poems, from the way I speak to the characters I met there, whether they be the Tory-voting Royalist friend of my grandfather (known ironically and affectionately as Comrade in a region so Red it was once known as Little Moscow) or the South-African prog-rock legend Ramsay Mackay who frequented the pubs of Kelty in his later years, or simply the regional accent and dialect that continues to raise eyebrows one hour west of Fife:
Duncan: Whence cam’st though, worthy thane?
Ross: From Fife, great King.
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Though I flitted a mere hour along the road,
my twang is commented upon,
and where I’m from becomes a game.
One thing’s for sure: Ah’m no fae here!
Yir a Teuchter, they explain.
Sometimes I tell them, poker-faced,
Ah’m fae Brigadoon.
Humour is like a vital sign zig-zagging in tandem with the more serious lines in the collection. A healthy body of work can’t run on serious all the time anymore than it can run exclusively on comedy. Like the physical body, I feel a collection is healthier with a balanced diet. There is a range of emotions and tonal variation in Vital Signs, from sweet ‘up’ poems with titles like Joy and Shine celebrating the birth of my baby daughter to meatier ‘down’ poems like The Whys about young male suicide and others, particularly on the impact of the pandemic, both socially and personally.
If I embrace contradiction in my poems it’s because I recognise it in myself and everyone I meet, however some might choose to deny or disguise it for personal or political reasons. That’s not to say I refuse to make a stand on some issues, though I’ll let the poems show that rather than tell you here. I’m interested in expressing things as I see them, not in preaching or trying to convert readers to a cause. The thinking and feeling behind the poetry I write comes from a place a long way from the creative writing industry or academia: it comes from factory floors, live-in hotel work, signing on the dole, hot kitchens, care homes, busy hospital wards, boxing gyms, the public library and the personal library I’ve expanded over many years.
You hear a lot about gatekeepers in the poetry business but there are no gatekeepers in poetry itself: no bouncer stood between me and the public library. And in the mid-90s when I got started (with fiction, initially) there were no theorists on social media telling me what I should and shouldn’t be reading like some poetry church or cult with its prescribed and banned texts and its this-and-that-theory of whatever. Much contemporary poetry can feel corralled by theory. Poets can get too caught up in the head and forget their body. Most of my life has been spent balancing physical work with reading and writing.
Windows and mirrors provide motifs in Vital Signs: how clearly do we see the world outside and around us? How clearly do we see ourselves?
In Hope Street, traffic flows left and right
through my reflection in the pane.
My face blurs with an actor promoting a film.
I can’t see much through this small frame.
I can’t look out without looking in.
Windows frame the darkness of night and the lightness of day and all shades in-between. Mirrors, like pages in a book, can reflect the multiplicity of our selves; or, rather, perhaps, the ambiguities we experience in a world that’s often more grey than black or white:
I recall The Grey Zone, where Primo Levi
wrote how the young dislike ambiguity.
My greying hair makes its own zone
against the windowpane;
barbed wire tangled in the remains
of dark strands like jagged thoughts
snagging and tugging at certainty.
Glasgow appears in the reflection
of a haggard middle-aged man.
Where the hell did he come from?
How did he get into my face?
Poets can be self-absorbed and I was very conscious of the ‘I’ dotting through these poems and how narcissistic all that ‘reflection’ could appear, particularly in context of a pandemic where so many died, lost loved ones or became seriously ill. Working in ICU exposes you to much death, suffering and grief, but the pandemic was on a whole other level beyond anyone’s experience, and this was exasperated by social distancing: visitors could not be with their loved ones. My Dad almost died during the second wave when he caught Covid in hospital after being admitted to ICU after an emergency procedure to save his life. Like so many others, I couldn’t visit him in hospital and remember phoning the ICU in Dundee from the ICU in Glasgow. There’s a poem for my Dad in the book.
There’s also an elegy for the great American singer-songwriter John Prine who died of complications of Covid during the first wave of the pandemic. Prine’s music became a soundtrack for me at that time. So full of humanity and humour, compassion and wit, and so meticulously crafted, Prine wrote his early songs while working as a postman. After his death, his songs continue to deliver. I think it was David Foster Wallace who once said art is CPR for the soul. In my poem April Morning, 2020, I’m one of few passengers on what would normally be a packed double-decker bus, reading signs over an almost deserted motorway into Scotland’s largest city:
PROTECT THE NHS
I’m reading other signs too in the rain rippling across a window framing a world moving too fast as John Prine’s music drips into me through lines inserted into my ears:
Rain streaking the pane could be
music frequencies, sound waves
monitoring notes recorded before
I was born. I watch them
erased by wind as a dead man
sings into me, a reviving breath.
Poets often fall into the mistake of telling their audience what the poem they are about to read is “about.” They then explain in such great detail they defeat the point of the poem. While much of the poetry I write is direct it isn’t always necessarily about one thing. And, of course, what a poem might be about to the poet isn’t necessarily what it’s about to the reader. Vital Signs is a book dredged from memory, resilience, perseverance, individualism, community, family, conflict, tension, art, and as one reader recently said when discussing it on BBC radio, “love.” But I’ve said more than enough here.
Vital Signs is available to buy from Red Squirrel Press here: https://www.redsquirrelpress.com/product-page/vital-signs-ross-wilson