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  • Milena Williamson

Behind the Poem: 'Love'

Recently I was lucky enough to be featured in the New Irish Writing section of the Irish Independent. This was a real thrill for me because every morning my kitchen table was overtaken by newspapers: The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Forward, The Swarthmorean, and of course, The New York Times. The sections covered our plates and napkins and the swish of unfolding newspapers signaled a reverent morning silence, a moment not unlike when the conductor raises their baton, just before the orchestra begins to play.


I didn’t grow up reading the Irish Independent but I appreciate a good newspaper when I see one. I’m particularly attached to the cover of the Review section, in which you can find New Irish Writing. The cover displays the words, ‘High Hopes.’


The phrase ‘High Hopes’ has a special place in my heart. Harry Kalas, the announcer for the Philadelphia Phillies (baseball, for my friends reading this from the island of Ireland) made Frank Sinatra’s ‘High Hopes’ his personal anthem. I remember in 2008 when the Phillies won the world series, Kalas sang the song to fans screaming and jumping and crying, fans in the stadium and those watching from home, such as me and my family.


At my parents’ wedding, someone gave a speech, mentioning their ‘high hopes’ for the happy couple and their future together. A would-be cousin of mine, who was a small child at the time, piped up from his seat, ‘High hopes? What are high hopes?’ It’s a story my parents still tell.


The Irish Independent Review with the words 'High Hopes' on the cover

Anyway, moving on from the cover, I want to write a wee bit about my poems and my writing process. ‘Love’ is one of two poems published in New Irish Writing (the other is ‘On Our Last Night in Lancaster, Pennsylvania). ‘Love’ is what I would call a found poem. Or maybe a collage poem, an intertextual poem, an appropriative poem…the language varies a little, but you know what I mean.


‘Love’ is built/adapted from the NHS page on pneumonia. I wrote this poem back in 2018 for my MA dissertation and it was included in my Eric Gregory award-winning manuscript, The Red Trapeze. All of the images in the poem come from the NHS page. The page has been updated since 2018, so a few of the phrases in my poem are now no longer in the source. This delights me because it shows that there’s nothing stable about texts or archives; the source has changed so now the only record of the information exists in my poem, in lines such as ‘It’s more widespread in winter’ and ‘It’s usually safe for an infected person/ to be around friends or family members.’


Returning now to the NHS page and comparing it to my work, I bolded the words in the poem with the corresponding words in the source text. In other words, how does the poem cleave a path through the informational text? What did I change? What remains the same?


Love


adapted from the NHS page on pneumonia


It’s more widespread in winter.

Symptoms can develop suddenly

or they may come on more slowly.

Your GP may listen to your chest

and check for crackling or rattling.

Are you breathing faster than usual?

Do you feel breathless even when resting?

Do you feel confused or disoriented?


Most cases can’t be passed between people.

Mild cases can be treated at home.

It’s usually safe for an infected person

to be around friends or family members.

It can affect anyone, but it’s more serious

for the very young and the elderly.



The inside of a newspaper with the words 'Poetry by Milena Williamson' followed by two poems.

‘The symptoms of pneumonia can develop suddenly over 24 to 48 hours, or they may come on more slowly over several days. Common symptoms of pneumonia include… you may feel breathless, even when resting…feeling confused and disorientated, particularly in elderly people…Who's affected: Pneumonia can affect people of any age, but it's more common, and can be more serious, in certain groups of people, such as the very young or the elderly…To help make a diagnosis, a doctor may ask you: whether you feel breathless or you're breathing faster than usual…A doctor may also take your temperature and listen to your chest and back with a stethoscope to check for any crackling or rattling sounds…Treating pneumonia

Mild pneumonia can usually be treated at home by…Although most cases of pneumonia are bacterial and are not passed on from one person to another…’


You may be wondering, ‘if most of these words and ideas already exist on the NHS page, what makes it a poem?’ It’s a good question, and a difficult one to answer. As Mary Oliver writes, ‘Every poem contains within itself an essential difference from ordinary language, no matter how similar to conversational language it may seem at first to be’.


I find, there’s a lot of fun and creativity in shaping informational text into lines of poetry. I love finding pre-existing half rhymes in the source text that my poem can emphasize, such as suddenly/slowly, chest/resting, and winter/members. The last word of a line gets a special emphasis in poetry, so it’s always a challenge to get the strongest words or rhyming words, into that position.


I formed ‘Love’ into a sonnet. The octave suggests the possibility of pneumonia, the uncertainty that exists from the start of symptoms to the eventual (or uncertain?) diagnosis. I used some of the language to form questions in order to more directly engage with the reader. While the octave focuses more on the conditions of pneumonia, the sestet is more focused on the people who suffer from it. As someone who had pneumonia, I can assure you, it’s no fun. At nineteen, I was neither very young, nor elderly, but my case was not mild enough to be treated at home. I was hospitalized twice.


I hope this poem offers a playful look at how the languages of love, illness, and caring have striking similarities. It was my idea to title the poem ‘Love’ rather than ‘Pneumonia’ and by making this one change, I alter how the language of the poem works, how it effects us, how it moves us.


Of course, a poem changes and takes on new meaning as the world changes. I wrote this poem before the pandemic, before the NHS entry on pneumonia was edited to say, ‘[Pneumonia] can also be caused by a virus, such as coronavirus (COVID-19).’ Even though it was written before the pandemic, I hope this poem expresses love and deep gratitude for all NHS workers.


This is the first blog post I’ve written from Pennsylvania. The experience of living abroad is a difficult one to articulate. My mother recently told me a story about a colleague of hers who had a watch with two clock faces on it, one for her home in the US and one for the country where she was born, where her family still lived. This makes perfect sense to me. No matter whether I’m in Swarthmore or in Belfast, I’m always sending love an ocean away.