Poem of the week: Homesick by Hugo Williams

<span>Photograph: Image Source Plus/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Image Source Plus/Alamy

As a patient in a British hospital, the poet observes nursing staff from overseas who may be longing for home as much as he is


The little scars on their faces
are the names of their villages,
put there when they were young
in case they got lost.

Their faces are maps
which they carry with them
when they set out across the world
for their new lives.

The scars look like the tracks of tears
cried for their childhood
as they move about their work
in our northern hospitals.

When they wake me in the night
to give me my medication
they shout my name
and shine a light in my eyes.

I wake, not knowing where I am.
The nurses and I are homesick,
crying to be taken home
to our lost villages.

Lines Off, the 2019 collection by Hugo Williams, explores among a variety of themes the poet’s experiences of kidney disease and dialysis, followed by a successful kidney transplant in 2014. “Lines off” is a stage direction, indicating when an actor’s words are to be spoken off-stage or off-camera. It’s a title that gestures towards the writer’s theatrical family connections, a rich autobiographical source he has often mined in poetry, but in the present context, it also symbolises the reverse of such intimacy. Illness seems to sideline the sufferer from the real “action” of their own existence. As patients we seem to become less visible to others and to ourselves.

Yet this estrangement when examined in a poem can become a different and sharpened way of seeing. Williams’s characteristically laconic wit and casual tone are apparent in the poems of Lines Off, but the vision is at times more surreal, perhaps closer to that of the 20th-century poets of eastern and central Europe, such as Vasko Popa.

Homesick begins with defamiliarisation. The faces of the NHS staff from overseas who are caring for the poet-patient (as for so many in “our northern hospitals” ) are viewed in a way that suggests a distorted, disorientated but heightened consciousness. The “little scars” the nurses’ faces bear are simultaneously the names of their villages of origin, put there during childhood “in case they get lost”. This is a dreamlike perception, smudging together distinctly different entities (scars, letters, adulthood, childhood). The narrator’s voice, favouring the present tense and, until the fifth, a single sentence per stanza, is consistently that of a child.

From scars to maps to tear-tracks, the marks testify to uncertain beginnings and risky physical journeys. The nurses’ actual experience of emigration and homesickness, first evoked symbolically, and in a hallucinatory way, is more realistically perceived as the poem progresses, as if it followed a process of increasing wakefulness. The speaker’s vision gains clarity and empathy from the midpoint of stanza three, where the last two lines jolt into flatlining realism, still childlike in expression: “The scars look like the tracks of tears / cried for their childhood / as they move about their work / in our northern hospitals.”

Although the perspective in the fourth stanza is more directly personal, it introduces a vivid connection between the patient’s experience and the harsher circumstances his carers may have escaped. The shouted name and the light shone into the eyes evoke police state tactics – border guards, night-time arrest, imprisonment, torture. The poet isn’t appropriating such experiences, nor suggesting that his own situation is anything worse than being unexpectedly awakened to receive his medication. But the reverberation is one of terror, however briefly registered, leading to the last stanza, where the earlier syntactical pattern is broken: “I wake, not knowing where I am. / The nurses and I are homesick, / crying to be taken home / to our lost villages”. The spare, single-line sentence at the beginning of the stanza and the shift in the last lines to a collective subject (“The nurses and I …”) are effortlessly judged.

Homesick is playful and painful. It grapples, metaphorically at first, with images of home and identity, and then meets their loss head-on. All the participants become homesick children, crying for the safe childhood village, named and mapped in their very skin. That the experience can be recognised as shared may be its only comfort.