Our featured publication for June is These Are The Hands – Poems from the Heart of the NHS, edited by Deborah Alma and Dr Katie Amiel, published by Fair Acre Press.
This anthology offers a unique insight into the real experiences of the people at the heart of the NHS – from the student nurse at the start of his career to the heart surgeon on the eve of her retirement. We also hear the stories of those whose vital work is often unseen and unsung from domestic cleaning staff to sign language interpreters.
The poems offer unflinchingly honest and intimate accounts from the people who care for us from the moment of birth to the end of life. In crystallising the most beautiful and painful moments of being human, they speak directly to all our experience. Above all these poems are about our shared humanity. They are about the compassion and care that lie at the heart of the NHS and in all our lives. They also serve as a stark reminder of the human cost of trying to offer compassionate care in a system that is underfunded and understaffed and the importance of showing the same compassion and support to the staff we depend on to hold the NHS together.
‘Here is the big, beautiful, beating heart of the NHS as you’ve never seen it before. Tender, sinewy, passionate, intimate. What a book – what a celebration of all that unites us. Truly wonderful’ Rachel Clarke
‘Deeply moving poetry from the people who work to keep us whole and healthy
and happy and who care for us when we’re broken’ Mark Haddon
‘This is a beautiful book: heartfelt and intimate’ Adam Kay
‘The very heart of who we are and what we are here for. An exciting and wonderful book’ Michael Rosen
‘A wonderful anthology to celebrate the NHS, which is itself the best poem a country
has ever written’ Stephen Fry
‘Every ward and waiting room should have a copy’ Simon Armitage
We were goslings pushed to the front of the skein,
made to flap our wings. As hatchlings we had emerged
more turtle than goose – able to turn to saltwater
we were chosen for our instinct to forge alone.
One November night, sounds of sleep and mattresses
bowing filled the cardiac ward, unaffected
by an old man’s death in a side-room. I was alone
until another first-year student was sent to help.
We were eight-months into our training.
Unsure and timid in the ritual of last offices,
we started to wash his cooling body – whispering,
telling him we were in flight. In our first week
we had been warned to see ourselves without glory.
One held him as the other washed and dried him
keeping him safe in the air, shielding him
with a sheet until we laid him back down in his shroud.
We did as we’d been taught on a class dummy
and remembered right – our last offices were nodded at
when Night Sister descended and tugged at our flesh
raptor-like. We repeatedly closed his eyelids.
Tears smarted at homemade jam sandwiches
wrapped in greaseproof paper – unopened and fresh
in his locker. The handmade Get-Well card for Grandad
we saved in a plastic bag marked, Belongings.
Margaret Adkins, Student Nurse
On Sydney Street, someone’s dropped
a paper bird. I can make those.
The crispness of the fold defines the way
it flies. That, and the way you grasp it.
I once sat with a dying child,
filled his room with yellow birds
from folded Xray paper.
He gave them eyes and coloured spots
across their wings. Retinoblastoma.
For years I dreamt of marker pen
on naked heads, of basements
where hushed beds passed at night,
hung about with fluids, the chill,
the dark, the roaches, the Night Pink’s
outdoor cloak, two of us with torches
to check the sick were sleeping.
Some things stay: the way a blackbird
sings through all the gaps in rain,
the pulsing smell of sun on London
pavements, the art of folding paper.
My fingers walked
to the fourth intercostal space.
This is where I placed
the first gel-backed tab.
The next went
opposite, across the sternum, on the nipple line.
Easy then to make
a descending arc, attach the leads
until a trace appeared;
the heart. Unlike in films
when it stopped for good
the line was never completely flat,
but wavering like the slap of water
against the dock
long after a boat has passed.
Roy Marshall, Coronary care and research nurse
I think of the little girl
who will wear this spinal
jacket, its candy pink hardness
coated with butterflies
forcing her kyphotic spine
in to conformity.
Clasped between its two halves,
like a turtle shell
it will keep her protected
from the taunts of others-
These names will bounce off
her new suit of armour,
like ricocheting bullets.
Inside, she starts to grow,
straightens like a sapling
seeking the sun.
She begins to feel
Roshni Beeharry, Consultant in Rehabilitation Medicine
3AM IN A&E
you have come here for answers, and surely
you realise there is little
here but dust, bone, splinter;
the sweltering heat, the small white fan
languishing; the air, the sweat
gleaming at the nape of a nurse’s neck
darkness outside, and here —
the lighthouse —
frenzied and feral
where is the meaning in an open wound;
where the cartography in saltwater, iron, broken
tooth and copper, all the splinters
of a long-gone comet split in us
skin to skin
what do I have to give you, but what makes us
more than weft of tendon, capillary, gyrus;
what makes us tend to each other
in the burning of the world;
look at one another, still, and say:
how can I help you?
what can I do for you?
is there not joy in that, stubborn gladness;
tenderness with which I measure your wound
between thumb and finger, stitch needle through skin,
chart the stars of your fear,
shall we not call out in the darkness,
one to another;
shall we not try
strike the phosphorus
in our bones to
Jen Lua, Junior Doctor
These Are The Hands – Poems from the Heart of the NHS can be purchased from the Fair Acre Press website. All profits from the anthology are donated to the “NHS Charities Together” – Covid-19 Emergency Fund.