There’s a strong argument that the most universal literature is actually rooted in specifics rather than in the evocation of abstracts. According to this theory, universality is found in an individual set of circumstances that’s portrayed with such skill and empathy as to ramify far beyond the limits of its immediate context, moving its readers, no matter whether they themselves have undergone such an experience. Hilary Menos’ new pamphlet, Human Tissue (Smith-Doorstep, 2020) provides us with an excellent example of how to implement this idea.
As stated in the introduction by Hugo Williams (who has suffered from kidney disease himself), this pamphlet takes a family’s story as its point of departure. Menos’ son, who suffered from kidney failure, received a transplant, aged 17, of one of his mother’s kidneys. Two years later, the son had a rejection episode and the transplanted kidney had to be removed, thus meaning he had to go back on dialysis.
The aforementioned events are moving in themselves, of course, but would initially seem most of interest to other sufferers of kidney disease or to their family members. The poet’s skill lies in her ability to transcend those supposed limitations via implicit ruminations on faith, mortality, family and love, all anchored in this concrete narrative.
The nature of faith, for instance, is explored via the pagan figure of The Mud Man, a tree stump that lies at the bottom of the family’s garden and is invoked from the beginning of the pamphlet, as in these closing lines from the first poem:
…The Mud Man looks at me through
struck flint eyes
and mirrors a requiem for you, for us all,
through broken slate teeth.
These words hint that more conventional religion has preceded The Mud Man in the narrator’s life, as invoked via the mention of a Christian-infused requiem, while also indicating to the reader that the forthcoming story isn’t just about the patient but about us all.
Love, expressed through familial relations, is consequently a pivotal theme throughout the book, as in the opening lines to Admission:
Lying on the hospital bed late at
with the cannula in my arm starting to sting
and a bag shoving fluids into me at a rate
that tightens my wedding ring
I write a letter to you, at home with
and bury it deep in my notebook
between special diets and test results and plans
where only you would look
just in case anything goes wrong…
This poem offers us a tremendous example of Hilary Menos’ gift for using physical, often everyday detail, layering it and accumulating its effect, so as to reach out towards a vision that reflects back on to its readers. It doesn’t just evoke the process of giving a kidney, but speaks to anyone who’s been alone, afraid, in hospital and missing their loved ones. In other words, while we might not have gone through this specific experience, we are so moved by its poetic transformation that we are invited to ruminate on our own versions and visions of love.
Such a ravaging context, however, never leads Menos down the path of melodrama. Instead, it enables her to delve deeply into another of her concerns, one that runs through all her collections: the strained yet vital relationship between the human and natural worlds, If this theme was already present in the pamphlet’s first piece, it culminates in the closing lines to its final poem, Sloe Gin, as follows…
…Time matures the thing. At least,
I sit at the kitchen table, trying to make sense
and pouring a shot of sweet liquor
into a glass.
The filtered magenta, sharp and unctuous,
reminds me of sour plum, of
the scrub, the blackthorn and the hard path.
In this poem, perfectly cadenced metre is set against unsettling doubts, while the transformative quality of human hand is present via the liquor that has been created from fruit and undeniably changed. Nevertheless, it’s then undercut by the realisation that the darker side of nature can never be ignored and forms an inevitable part of our journey through life.
What’s more universal than the above thought?! And it’s achieved through the telling of everyday incidents! Hilary Menos’ pamphlet connects with readers, launching them into the poet’s life, then catapulting them into another fresh vision of their own world. This is the epitome of what poetry can grant us. Human Tissue is thoroughly recommended.