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Looking for Elizabeth

by DJC 

Posted: 14 January 2006
Word Count: 225
Summary: Another draft, this time a bit longer, at 7 stanzas, and definitely not a sonnet, although I've tried to keep to 10 syllables per line.
Related Works: The lovely girl • 

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Looking for Elizabeth

We park our car somewhere around the back
and hunt for where your ward is, but a lack
of signage slows us down, finds us testing
locked doors, looking for alternatives.

You’re in a room which smells of someone’s shit;
not yours, you tell us, looking vague, yet with
a hint of tired embarrassment. What you
mean is: this is not me here, complete.

You toddle to the day room; we follow.
‘If you see a woman in her knickers,
just ignore her,’ you tell us. ‘She’s not all
there.’ Your hands worry a yellow hankie.

At first it’s hard to see what’s wrong with you.
You can make tea, joke about the patients,
comment on the view from the dining room.
Offer us chocolate from a small tin box.

Numbers puzzle you. ‘I can’t seem to take
seven from one hundred. It just won’t fit.’
You close your eyes to try and picture it.
Your fingers flutter over blank options.

Your actions loop over themselves. Chocolate,
again. More talk of awkward numbers. We
try to tempt you with other things, like news
from our families. From next door we hear

a woman sing, her voice cracked with something
none of us understand. ‘Such a shame,’
you comment. ‘A nice lady, too.’ Your hand
comes to your face. You offer more chocolate.

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Comments by other Members

DJC at 07:58 on 14 January 2006  Report this post
I wonder whether this is too big a subject to cover with a sonnet, as the narrative seems cut off too soon. What do you think?

joanie at 11:19 on 14 January 2006  Report this post
Hi Darren, I think that sonnets are a wonderful form for dealing with 'big' subjects and I think you can't help them sounding a bit 'grand' sometimes. This is an excellent topic for a sonnet to my mind. The last two lines are very poignant; they deal with the obvious lack of direction, but much more importantly, with Elizabeth's illness.
You have chosen not to rhyme except for the final couplet; perhaps this was so it wouldn't sound even more 'grand'(?) I prefer to stick to the rules when writing a particular form, but that's me! However, I do think that ending the line with 'a' doesn't work, particularly as if you added 'lack' it would read better, but then you'd have to tinker with the next line, etc! The break in the middle doesn't lend itself to the idea of three quatrains or an octet, so I am struggling with that, I'm afraid.
You have the basis for an excellent sonnet here.

DJC at 12:28 on 14 January 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Joanie - all excellent advice. I didn't stick to a rhyme scheme as I struggled enough with the metre, so to enforce rhyme as well would have beaten me, I feel. Plus I really like playing around with internal rhyme - it fits my style more. However, perhaps I need to think more of this, as I do finish in a traditional way. To me, the best modern sonnet is Simon Armitage's 'Poem', the one that begins 'And when it snowed, and snow covered the drive...' I'm trying to do something like that with this poem, but know I have a way to go.

Brian Aird at 12:47 on 14 January 2006  Report this post
The sense of confusion caused by the maze of sterile hospital corridors that seem indistinguishable apart from those unfriendly medical terms and the link to the mental state of your wife's friend works well.

However, the poem might appear confusing to a read without the benefit of the introduction which helps us work out which 'you' refers the patient and which the patient's friend in the first verse.

There are some interesting word combinations that at first seem over-wordy but which work to make more links with the patient's mental state. For example using "its loose unwind" instead of 'to unwind'. It rhymes with "losing touch' and because of the line break after "loose", allows "unwind" to rhyme with "left behind" in the next line.

However, does "blind degrees of difference" work better than "indifference"?

Indifference might describe the planners' attitude to patients and relatives since the medical terminology is perfectly meaningful to hospital staff but leaves many of us feeling disorientated. But we do indeed speak of being blinded by science and blind could also refer to Elizabeth being lost.

I like the way 'leaving the car somewhere" further underlines the feeling of disorientation.

The ending is especially poignant as it echoes the signage problem in modern hospitals and links it again to Elizabeth.

You wonder if it isn't too grand sounding, but perhaps that’s because you've chosen a sonnet style, when a more minimalist approach would be better – echoing again the lack of clues you had about where to find your friend or her 'lost' mind.

DJC at 14:03 on 14 January 2006  Report this post
Maybe you're right - it might be that the sonnet style doesn't quite fit in with the subject matter. As mentioned previously, it takes someone with the genius of Simon Armitage to take something prosaic and use the sonnet form to illustrate it.

Interesting about the 'you', and who it refers to - I'll look at this again. The 'blind degrees of difference' refer to the foreign words, at the arbitrary nature of language and translation. This was in a Swiss hospital, so all the signs were in French. I may need to make this clearer.

Thanks for your comments - very useful indeed. You read a lot more into it than I had originally anticipated - but this is often the way with poetry - meaning doesn't reside entirely with the poet, as I keep telling the kids I teach.


paul53 [for I am he] at 09:14 on 15 January 2006  Report this post
Hi Darren,
I didn't have a problem with the subject, or the rhyming and half-rhyming, or the layout.
What did trip me slightly was my expectation that doing a "formal" poem would mean adhering to strict meter as well. When a formal poem turns up, my mind goes to auto and switches on the: 1234,123412 [sad sounding though it may be, that's how I read 'em].
I tripped at line one and line seven. Line eight also began awkwardly - almost on a downbeat.
With a few tweaks this could really flow and be a geart "read aloud" piece.

DJC at 09:40 on 15 January 2006  Report this post
A complete rewrite -what do you think??

DJC at 16:41 on 15 January 2006  Report this post
My problem now is that there's more I want to say yet the form constrains me. I think maybe this won't end up a sonnet...

gard at 19:29 on 15 January 2006  Report this post

poignant. I have not read any of the other drafts. I am not sure who Elizabeth is?

I do like the last phrase it sums up the whole.

I have a critique in that the word "toddle" did not work for me. It seemed out of place with the work as a whole becuase it represents something to do with a way of walking or a flippancy, if you get my meaning, so that the seriouness of the work is affected by this word...perhaps it is just me...

I can see you are working away from sonnet style, perhaps you are right and the piece may fall more into free form as it develops.


DJC at 06:17 on 16 January 2006  Report this post
Thanks, Gina - I don't think you need to know who Elizabeth is -she's simply someone who is in a psychiatric ward. I've extended the poem to make it clearer what is happening to her mind. 'Toddle' is supposed to suggest this idea of regression, becoming more childlike, and is supposed to stand out in that way. Funnily enough I've removed the last phrase, as I couldn't get it in without it sounding odd. I prefer the more ambiguous offer of chocolate as the last image, rather than an explicit comment by the poet. I'm trying to keep myself out of my poetry as much as I can, as an experiment - if this makes sense.

gard at 17:32 on 16 January 2006  Report this post

oh I think it is definately improving with more depth it is so much better on this draft. I like the references to chocolate.

more later

DJC at 18:33 on 16 January 2006  Report this post
You can never have enough chocolate, after all.

paul53 [for I am he] at 18:56 on 16 January 2006  Report this post
Yup, definitely getting deeper. The previous version I misread as an ordinary hospital, not a psychiatric one. You convey well the tension of being inside one, for we all wonder if mistaken identity will mean we don't get out again [at least, I do].
The chocolate offering is good and perceptive. When we don't really know what to do, we repeat something small that worked before, not only to pass time but to give a sense of contact - a connection however tenuous.
Keeping the poet out of the poem makes great sense. The reader will want to see it through an ordinary human beings eyes, not necessarily a poets.
this is not me here, complete.

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