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163 Days by Hannah Hodgson

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“Hannah Hodgson takes us to the paradoxical heart of poetry itself: to be held inside a pain both intensified and soothed by the sheer brilliant presence of the poet’s mind.” – Caroline Bird

Hannah Hodgson is a seriously ill poet who uses a panoply of medical, legal and personal vocabularies to explore what illness, death and dying does to a person, as both patient and witness. In the long poem ‘163 Days’ (her longest period of hospitalisation to date) she probes her truth, the law’s truth, and the traumatic truth, something only the body can hold. These truths clash as loudly as a dropped tray of instruments in a silent operating theatre.

The speaker is a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. The ward is decked out in primary colours. Volunteer clowns visit sick children. Each patient gets four Easter Eggs. Only one child is able to eat, while the others can only stare on. Hannah begins to forget the taste of food. Doctors struggle to diagnose her overlapping chronic health conditions. She suffers painful symptoms, and numerous tests and procedures to keep her alive long enough to figure out what is wrong.

Each day features two entries, a diary-like poem distinguished by clarity and despair exploring her version of the day, and another charting what is in the medical notes. Her gift for description brings us unbearably close to her suffering. We feel her sorrow and frustration: undiagnosed, yet subject to arbitrary rules. Staff can be wonderfully kind or casually negligent, even cruel. At seventeen, she is ‘too old’ for the children’s hospital, ‘too young’ for the adult ward. Interdepartmental meetings about care responsibilities are held, meetings she wasn’t allowed to attend.

In the ‘aftercare’ poems she is legally an adult, gaining the agency that entails. Here she navigates both the worlds of nightclubs and hospice care as she embarks on a new version of her life as a disabled adult with seventeen (diagnosed) issues, falling under the branch of her life limiting diagnosis. Readers will be moved, surprised, and enlightened by this coming-of-age story. It is not an easy read but has a compelling centre, a true voice.

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