Rosary of Ghosts by Grant Tarbard

Reviewed by David Mitchell

Grant Tarbard returns with this new pamphlet, Rosary of Ghosts. The collection follows him on the path to recovery and adjustment following a stroke, and the poems are honest reflections of frailty and uncertainty. Tarbard speaks pragmatically and coldly, avoiding all platitudes, and the best poems are often the bleakest, stoically capturing the scenes playing around him. These poems are observations made during a time of pain, frustration and anger. The poem that moved me most recorded the witnessing of a death in his hospital ward, and in a sense I think it captures the mood, style and the qualities of this collection far more effectively than anything I can say (though I can’t quote it in full for copyright reasons):

[…] The lack of vanity in a corpse
is understood and with his rictus grin
he sneers at the living in our goose skin,
hushing against our shell ears; you are flawed.
The boundary in my last breath was God.

The ‘lack of vanity in a corpse’ is one instance in which Tarbard reflects on the vulnerability and lack of dignity that illness brings. In ‘Rosary of Ghosts’, he writes:

Rosary of ghosts in the bony shin
take possession of my streets playing spoons,
my skeleton is a ramshackle tin.

My heart is a feather, a bundled pin
that sticks in my chest and no more balloons,
my body is no place to be stuck in.

Spindrift pale night suspended like my sin,
made of in-flight mist in a steamed breath tomb.
My skeleton is a ramshackle tin,
my body is no place to be stuck in

Here he cleverly uses a constraining form to explore the restrictions of a broken human body. Details and nuances throughout the collection capture my attention, and there are poems that touch on love and the brighter aspects of life. For me though, the most compelling poems here concern the speaker’s time in hospital. They capture a sense of being a bystander and losing the right to be human, such as ‘Man Like You’, addressed to a surgeon:

A thunder machine
Bells in my heart.
Beneath this gown I
Am a man like you.

These are skilfully crafted, reflective poems that follow Tabard on a journey from prayers for life, to yearning for his old life, to acceptance of his changed reality and the faintest steps toward a new beginning. Christmas in a hospital bed, operating theatres, fears, and bedridden narratives of personal regrets are all elegantly captured. This is an honest, uncompromising, poetic account of survival.