#BrokenSpineReads: Exploring the Inevitable – A Deep Dive into Jamie Woods’ “Rebel Blood Cells” and the Poetic Anatomy of Mortality

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Jamie Woods, a writer from Swansea, has poetry in Poetry Wales, Lucent Dreaming, iamb and elsewhere. With his work centring on experiences of disabilities and cancer, Jamie is also poet-in-residence at the charity Leukaemia Care.

A profound and witty exploration of mortality.

Beginning with the dedication:

To the lost,
to the surviving
and to the left behind

Jamie’s book is divided into five sections: Before I Knew, Singleton Admissions Unit, Heulwen Ward Cardiff, Wards 11 & 12  Cardiff, Home.

First words, “I fell”, last words “into stardust”

The first section BEFORE I KNEW begins with a quote from Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”:

Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant

The title of Didion’s book refers to magical thinking in the anthropological sense, thinking that if a person hopes for something enough or performs the right actions then an unavoidable event can be averted. 

First poem title “The Failed Promyelocytic Rebellion of 2019” suggests an external event to describe an internal bodily situation. As in the rest of the book the shape of the poem on the page is very important. The lines grow until they reach a pinnacle with the word “production”, which suggests growth but from here the words progressively reduce to end on the hard-hitting word “me”. Utilising key words such as “weaponised” to describe a destructive gene emphasises the brutality of his situation.

pro·​my·​elo·​cyte (ˈ)prō-ˈmī-ə-lə-ˌsīt

: a cell in bone marrow that is in an intermediate stage of development between a myeloblast and a myelocyte and has the characteristic granulations but lacks the specific staining reactions of a mature granulocyte of the blood.

Writing poetry about illness has a long history. James work immediately brought to mind “C” by the late Peter Reading about “Cancer”. All such collections become meditations on mortality, defining our humanity, our fragility.

The title “I Thought I Had A Cold” reminds me of the symptoms when I had with Covid. I thought that , too. As I am sure many people did. A grand underestimation, especially so for James. Lovely depiction of the domestic annoyance of his wife.

Second section SINGLETON ADMISSIONS UNIT begins with a quote from “Roses in the Hospital” by the Manic Street Preachers: 

Progressing like a constant war.

Diagnosis, expertly signals the lack of long term memory, or perhaps refusal to accept results. It harks back to the first poem in the book with its reducing lines, creating a series of jagged stanzas, ending in hanging phrases like “I can’t”. 

The Silence of The Hospital Ward is one of the best list poems I have ever read. Acutely noting all the sounds in the word, actively creating a picture of the ward in the reader’s mind. Again, superbly constructed. List beginning with the words “clocks ticking”, ending on the word “undead”. His devices become indispensable: headphones, camera on his mobile. Lifelines in themselves.

Third section HEULWEN WARD CARDIFF begins with a quote from the song Veruca Salt by the band Benjamin: 

Take me away I know I could use the rest

This section is topped and tailed by the hospitals duckpond, an acute undercutting, and thus deepening of the seriousness.

The shape of Light Trail Photography enacts the disjointedness of James.

Fourth section WARD 11 & 12, SWANSEA begins with a quote from Hotel World by Ali Smith: 

remainder you mist leaf

It is strange how, a sense of mortality makes, what perhaps would be a trivial thought about not seeing the next episode in the Star Wars franchise due to death become markers of what is lost, and reminds us, again, how appropriate military metaphors are “fighting disease”, “war against decay”, incisively cuts through these clichés, making us look at his situation aftresh.

Presenting the title A NEW HOPE in capital letters immediately brings to mind a recovery, as well as referencing Star Wars. 

Star Wars “rebel” alliance as freedom fighters, rebel Blood cells as terrorists, Bryan 

Fifth section HOME begins with a quote from A Little Late by Skating Polly: 

Chase away the thoughts that make you hate

The very title of this section gives relief, as we hope Jamie has recovered

Described plainly without sentimentality, these poems are devastatingly moving told with the darkest humour and wit. Highly recommended. Superbly constructed, with every detail counting towards the overall effect. A journey into a world of decay, with hope at the end and immense generosity for his fellow patients.. And a remarkable poet that universalises his experience to lasting effect on the reader. An essential book that I urge all to read and reread.

Order your copy here.

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