I first across UA Fanthorpe’s poems in a musty library copy of an anthology of medical poetry. The poem was ‘Jobdescription: Medical Records’, a wry, subversive description of the qualities needed to overcome the lurking horrors in the ‘seamy insides of notes’. By emphasising the qualities not required in the potential applicant, the poem tells us so much about the poignancy of the job: ‘Weights of histories (puffy / for the truly ill, thin and clean / For childhood’s greenstick fractures) / Will not concern you’.
Fanthorpe worked as a hospital receptionist in Bristol which inspired her first volume of poetry in 1978. She says in the foreword to Collected Poems, ‘At once I’d found the subject that I’d been looking for all my life: the strangeness of other people, particularly neurological patients, and how it felt to be them, and to use their words.’ Her Casehistory poems ‘Julie (encephalitis)’ and ‘Alison (head injury)’ speak to the alienation of brain damage: ‘I would have liked to have known / My husband’s wife, my mother’s only daughter’ (from ‘Alison’).
Having set ‘After Visiting Hours’ recently as an essay topic, to be contrasted with Sylvia Plath’s ‘Tulips’, my thoughts have been much preoccupied with this beautiful poem in which a hospital becomes a refuge from the ‘calling gulls’ of visitors, in which staff and patients carefully dance their way through ‘Their repertoire of movements’. I hope Fanthorpe found her last days in a hospice as soothing as the environment she conjures up for the shuffling, glass-bodied patients in this poem.
Although I have mentioned some of the medical poems here, Fanthorpe wrote on a huge range of topics, from Shakespeare to pets, university life to Christmas. Many of them are suffused with a gentle humour, others are more sharply acerbic. I’ve never met a Fanthorpe poem I haven’t liked. I am glad to have been thinking so much of her during her final days. She came to public attention in 2003 as rival to Andrew Motion for Poet Laureate, but I still feel she is underrated. I'm confident that UA Fanthorpe will come to be remembered as one of our greatest poets.