The divide between the external and the internal is one that poets have always sought to breach. The enigma of mind and emotion has been one that seemed almost impossible to convey truthfully in line and verse; a thought is too fleeting to capture, an emotion too deep to describe. Despite this writers have continued in their quest to give voice to the silent interior existence of humanity, though few have excelled at expressing thought through words and amongst these few, Elizabeth Jennings finds her place.
Throughout her work, Jennings explores the human condition in all its guises, giving subjects such as love , family, art and religion her own individual treatment . Each poem is an interior monologue, a thought isolated and explored in a frozen moment of time; each viewed with almost clinical detachment, yet described with words of such simplicity and clarity, that the experience is brought to life again with the reader intimately involved. This exploration of self through memory, reflection and calm acceptance adds power and realism to her expressed emotions. She simply describes what she sees, layering her perceptions with her external sensations and internal desires, creating a subtextual complexity to her otherwise uncomplicated words. Yet, what truly makes Jennings stand out amongst her contemporaries is not how she explores self and sensation, but the parts of self that she chooses to study; the most terrifying aspects of mind and emotion such as death, loneliness and depression. Pain and suffering are all an integral part of the human psyche and are often described as the human condition , yet for many writers these subjects are almost taboo as they are considered nigh on impossible to portray with true accuracy. With sublime understatement, Jennings creates these isolated environs to great effect in her poetry dealing with illnesses both mental and physical such as A Mental Hospital Sitting-Room , Night Garden of the Asylum and Patients . She explores this subject through the eyes of the sufferer, drawing on her real-life experiences of mental illness and pain of which these poems are a record.
Too much disturbs. It does not seem a time
When anything could fertilize or grow
It is as if a scream were opened wide,
A mouth demanding everyone to listen.
Too many people cry, too many hide
There are no life-belts here on which to fasten.
This is a static scene in which nothing is resolved and no relief is found for the sufferers. There is nothing to take their attention away from their own plight. The patients in the room seem less alive than the Utrillo on the wall [in which a] nun is climbing . There is a prolonged agony created in this place, it is a netherworld between reality and the fictions of the authors mind;
The room / Shifts till the dust flies in between our eyes.
The only hope is visitors will come
And talk of other things than our disease…
The language used by the poet is uncrafted, there is a simple rhyme scheme that runs through each verse connecting and combining the three together. As the poem progresses the sentences become longer, the thoughts more drawn out and the verses run into each other, creating pace and a feeling of panic that reaches its climax before abruptly trailing off into nothingness. Finally, in the last line a conclusion is reached;
So much is stagnant and yet nothing dies.
It is through her simple yet striking statements and sometimes abstract imagery such as, It is as if a scream were opened wide and The room/ Shifts till the dust flies in between our eyes. that Jennings mastery of language is revealed, as these warped images have greater impact than any manipulation of rhyme or metre could have in the communication of this experience.
Here the natural order is viewed as having been disturbed by the presence of the patients in the mental hospital . The garden that the narrator is viewing is serene and still, a complete contrast to the emotional state of the observer, who feels isolated and disconnected from the ordered world that the tended garden represents;
The garden knows nothing of illness.
Only it knows of the slow gleam
Why the beds and lawns are levelled.
In the authors mind these two places though adjacent, are in fact two separate worlds parted by a lack of understanding. The mental patients disrupt the ordinary world and therefore are cut of from it and left to become lost in their pain:
Curtains are barriers and behind them
The beds settle into neat rows.
Soon they ll be ruffled.
The night, a place usually feared becomes a source of comfort, yet even here she cannot escape from the terrifying world that is contained within the walls of the hospital and from the terrors of her own imagination. The false tranquillity of the poem is destroyed as the worlds impose upon each other;
Then all is broken from its fullness.
A human cry cuts across a dream.
A wild hand squeezes an open rose.
We are in witchcraft, bedevilled.
The stunning imagery in this poem, combined with the unusual rhyme scheme between the stanzas and with no rhyme within, makes this poem extremely striking and creates a sense of tightness and constraint beneath the verse.
An owl s call scrapes the stillness.
The garden knows nothing of illness.
The last of these poems, Patients , focuses on the effects of physical suffering rather then the tortures of the mental realm. Here, the parity and interconnectedness of mental and physical health is examined with the poem establishing an surreal, disconnected atmosphere almost identical to those dealing with psychosomatic illness;
Violence does not terrify.
Storms here would be a relief,
Lightening be a companion to grief.
The only real difference between the two states is that here the suffering is more ordered, more structured, more easily understood and this is conveyed through the language, which reflects these sentiments through the manipulation of form and rhyme which was absent from its predecessors. It has a regular pattern of half and full rhymes running through it s whole, and Jennings utilises rhetorical devices such as tricolons and synaesthesia for impact and emphasis of both the emotional and physical elements of her pain;
Beyond hope, fear, love,
That makes me afraid. I would like to shout,
Crash my voice into the silence, flout
The passive suffering here.
Dependent on blood, muscle bone.
On the part of instrument, surgeon, nurse.
It is helplessness, the way they lie..
It is as if air alone
Kept them alive,…
Here we are presented with life that is not life. Here is an artificially sustained reality where the only constants are pain, the fear of death and the longing for an end to this void-like existence.
The mind and body are in symbiosis, with one dependent on the other for its health and well being. A hospital is a place associated with hope and healing, and yet here it is depicted as a place that destroys as much as it mends, a place where life is suspended rather than restored and depression is rampant as patients are subjected to the harshness and cruelty of mortality;
I too am one of them, but well enough
To long for some simple sign of life,
Or to imagine myself getting worse.
Throughout her work, Jennings expresses through the use of synaesthesia and evocative imagery, a world that very few can ever understand and none would freely wish to experience. Her words are full of quiet intensity and sincerity as she tries to create order amidst the chaos of her mind and give voice to those who can no longer express themselves, as they have become trapped amidst the complexity of their own thoughts and fears.