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Haunting and hallucinatory: hospital poems from Hugo Williams

Williams’s near-death experience through kidney failure has given rise to some surreal and startling poetry

22 June 2019

9:00 AM

22 June 2019

9:00 AM

Lines Off Hugo Williams

Faber, pp.67, £14.99

Hugo Williams’s wryly candid reports from the front lines of sex and family life are a perennial delight. Often timeless, they also frequently bring the styles and music of the 1950s and 1960s back to elegant life. These pleasures can be found once again in Williams’s new book, Lines Off; but this time they’re not unmixed. For, in the five years since his last collection, the poet’s worsening health has led him to undergo a kidney transplant. Now the ultimate subject has presented itself, and has resulted in some piercing testimony.

Of course, it’s much more than testimony: Williams, who characterises writing a poem as being like sealing a roll-up with ‘that final twiddle and lick’, would never produce anything so po-faced. Instead, this highly readable volume turns terrifying experiences into verse that’s sometimes hyperreal, sometimes surreal, and often verges on hallucination. ‘Commonsense’ is transposed, with apparent artlessness, to make no sense at all. The doctor who says a transplant is on the cards claims: ‘Everything is going according to plan, /although he can’t say where exactly’, while the medic who sets ‘the shopping test’ to see whether the patient is allowed home looks dubious when ‘I hesitate too long /between the Mail and the Express’ — although we readers know this hesitation is caused not by frailty but by lively intellectual snobbery.

Above all, Williams’s brilliant metaphorical camerawork reverses agency and allows the world to stream past his bed-bound narrator. In ‘Fall Zone’ this figure has ‘lost the ability /to lift my sleeping head /out of the dreams and drifts’, but ‘Light piles up like snow /round the edges of table and chair’.


Snow recurs as an image of having one’s brain poisoned by the by-products of failing kidney function, and also by its remedies. The ‘absence seizure’ produced by ‘dialysis two days running’ is described as a ‘cerebral avalanche /[…] an abstract expression of blizzards and ghosts’. To be a patient is to relinquish both agency and the idea of an intact selfhood that goes with it.

These are haunting, shining, untidy poems and, despite Williams’s habit of seeming to undercut himself with throwaway last lines, vivid with emotion and experience. Even those apparently casual endings have their own brilliance: ‘Thank God for the lever beside my bed /which raises and lowers /the steeple of Highgate Church.’ But there are other tones in this book too. Elegiac time-travel to long-gone parties, or to the days of Nanny and sugar sandwiches, accompanies actual elegies for lost friends and family, and wistful notes of lost love, like ‘X-Ray’. There’s even a return to the dialysis ward of 2014’s I Knew the Bride.

Still, the narrative arc of the book is return from near-death experience, as the final poems make clear. As Williams concludes, ‘Now here I am, a new man, /not quite myself perhaps,’ it’s hard to think of a more stylish or wiser companion through the Valley of the Shadow.

Lines Off
Author: Hugo Williams
Publisher: Faber
Page count: 67
Price: £14.99


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