Reviewed by Robin Geddie
Nobody leaves the ward empty handed--at least not Selima Hill's ward. Her readers leave happily confused with a heaping of pills, Hill's inventive simile, and the comfort of 'Sister.' In her latest book, suggestively titled Lou Lou, Hill returns to the mental institution, transforming the speaker's psychological world into a collection of sinister and amusing verse, allowing plenty of space in the hospital's sterile halls for the “[w]onderland of dreams / . . . that bloom in the night in the heads of the tranquillised sick.”
Hill's verse wanders the rooms of the anonymous institution. Most of the pieces, with several specific exceptions, share one of four titles: “Day-room,” “Night-room,” “Patients' Kitchen,” “Side-room,” and “Office.” Dates distinguish the similarly-titled poems. Even the titles that deviate from these five names indicate the speaker's corporeal location, though her imagination dwells far from the ward. The uniformity is ironic in light of the strange and diverse imagery. Hill's poetic institution is far from the cleanly organized entity it appears to be.
The poems surprise the reader and evade the general expectations associated with mental breakdown. Despite the grave nature of her subject, Hill balances calamity with a twisted sense of humor. The book jacket's cover art emulates the sort of laughs the reader should expect from the book. The photo features a group of piglets racing eagerly to an invisible target. In light of Hill's tone, it is safe to say that the pigs run to unseen slaughter. She effectively avoids the clichés that can afflict tormented poetry; speaking from a tragic perspective, Hill distances her speaker from the disease with a juxtaposition of violence and dry observation, as demonstrated in “Night-room: August 31st”:
Look, she says,
aren't they beautiful?
And so we are--
although we disagree
as they draw the covers over the beautiful scars
of the beautiful necks they probably want to strangle.
The darkest moments are always met with the lightest surveillance, as if Hill is trying to communicate to her readers, “Whether it's mental breakdown or a 'hairy blanket', it's all equally significant.” Lou Lou confronts the reader with awful moments of desperation and hopelessness, and then assuages any discomfort with blithe metonymy.
Hill's fusillade of unbalanced similes treat all objects indiscriminately, as if she is attempting to desensitize the reader to the speaker's unsympathetic reality. The outrageous similes compare unrelated and remote ideas: “abject” patients are “like old frogs / squatting on the feet of their beloved”; the hospital bed is like “a private desert / where even the sand / is made of nothing but ears”; doctors laugh like “dazzled bulls.” An insane arbitrariness unifies the warped tropes. Poetic lunacy permits several redundant similes, as in “Night-room: July 22nd”:
She fills the night with blood
like a mouth
filling up with blood
you can't swallow
The conflicting images that characterize the similes also distinguish the ever-present (and almost omniscient) figure of Sister.
Sister is literally a nurse, providing mental care for the wards' patients; yet her role manifests a greater importance. The speaker's complex description of Sister gives moments of recompense, distraction, and hope. In the misfortunate mind of the speaker, Sister ushers a sense of renewal, possibility, and confusion. One moment, she comments that “[h]er smell alone is a terrible accident / burning rubber” then the next, “how sweet she smells.” Sister assumes a god-like presence in the poetry; she is at once admired and feared by the speaker, from a very childish perspective:
We like the way her hair is stiff
We like the way she's ruthless and severe.
We like the ways she likes us as we are
and not as people think we ought to be.
A figure of authority and a vessel of therapy, the image of Sister is significant in the speaker's labyrinth of thoughts. Almost half, if not more, of the poems are dedicated to Sister's interaction, appearance, and importance. It would be no small surprise if “Lou Lou” was Sister's first name, as the poem's together offer a sort of ode or thank you note to this anonymous nurse. Sister provides relief from the tension and anxiety experienced simultaneously by the patients and the reader.
Hill's innovative associations also provide an escape from the hospital for both the speaker and the reader. Either everything, or nothing at all, is sacred. From a literary perspective, the speaker's capacity to revise her experiences within the ward functions as a synecdoche for poetry's capacity to pervert language. Poetry provides a unique and often twisted perspective, observing, dissecting, and reconstructing life into an unlikely configuration. Poetry, in a literal sense, is insane. Because Hill is such an original writer, her verse is verily unencumbered by the sensitive matter of mental breakdown.
Lou Lou is a unique, hilarious, and fascinating book. Hill replaces the human inclination to dwell on personal grief with her ability to confront, imagine, and escape. As opposed to creating a self-important diary of emotions, Hill allows her command of metaphor and lively description enough liberty to lead the reader down various psychological pathways. The result of her craft is a collection of verse that offers “not a word of thanks” for the institution, begs for no sympathy, and makes no apologies for a darkly comedic consciousness.