Joanna Ingham reflects on her experience of ovarian health and using poetry to explore illness, bodies, and grief.
Because I am asked so often if I have metal in my body, and I answer so often that I don’t, I begin to worry I’ve forgotten a gold filling, my spring-steel corset, my spiked punk collar, the stud in my clitoris, the zip along my bikini line, the chromium in my nail varnish, the cadmium in my lipstick, the time I shoved paperclips up my nose to see if they’d disappear, the time I designed a whole fashion collection using nothing but chains, the lead in the water, the nickel in exhaust fumes, the time my nemesis stabbed me with a fountain pen and the nib broke off in my thigh, the time I unearthed an Edward III Double Leopard Florin and swallowed it to keep it from my rivals, the nights I drank mercury like moonlight, the fling I had with Midas that turned my nipples gold, the potassium in the cells of my muscles, the sodium in my nervous system, the iron I can taste in my blood, the time my teeth were all exchanged for steel and I could gnaw through wire cables, the time I was impaled by a plutonium rod in the Cold War, the time I was beatified after being stuck with bronze-tipped arrows, the alien abduction where they replaced my vessels with aluminum tubes, the year I was lost in the core of a star and thought I’d never find my way back through all that silver.
This prose poem comes early on [page 4] in Ovarium, my short poetry collection published last year by The Emma Press. The book follows my experience of having a very large ovarian cyst, beginning with diagnosis. After an ultrasound, which identified a 15.5cm mass, I was sent for an MRI scan to determine whether the tumour was benign, borderline, or cancerous. Months after my surgery and recovery, as I started writing the poems that would form Ovarium, I realised that I wanted to find a way to express my experience of the scan.
“MRI” is the only prose poem in the book, and I chose this form because it lends itself to creating an intense and claustrophobic atmosphere. There is no white space on the page, just as there is no room or air in the scanner’s tube. I found the experience of the scan frightening, disorientating and surreal. I had arrived at the hospital and then wandered around lost for a long time despite having a map. No one had mentioned that the scan would take place in the Cancer Centre, and I seemed to find it impossible that this might be the case. Eventually some office staff let me in through a back entrance and I had to climb over brooms and buckets on the way. I had been told that I could bring my own music to listen to, but the equipment for this was broken, so I lay there listening to cheerful love songs from the 1960s, unable to move for half an hour, trying not to panic about what the staff might be seeing inside my body on their screens.
I could have written a more straightforward, narrative poem describing the reality of my experience, but I realised that I wanted to find a different poetic language to convey my feelings of bewilderment and rising panic. As instructed in the pre-appointment materials, I had come to the scan in clothes without zips or metal fastenings. Staff repeatedly checked that I had no metal on or inside my body, however, and I began to find myself worrying that I had forgotten some plate or piece of wire mending a broken bone, despite knowing that I had never had this kind of injury. I remembered this niggling alarm as I came to write about the MRI and used it as a way into communicating my experience.
Almost everything in the poem is a lie, and I enjoyed experimenting with ever more outlandish and outrageous examples of the ways my body might be linked with metals. I wanted to suggest that these mounting anxieties were also a kind of displacement activity, a refuge from my true concerns about what was happening, and what the doctors might find. I fully committed to the surreal tone of the piece, pushing the idea as far as it would go to convey the extremity of my emotion. The final line, when I refer to “the year I was lost in the core of a star and thought I’d never find my way back,” is perhaps the most direct allusion to my period of illness. The two women I had known with ovarian cancer had both died of it, one of them the same age as me, so I felt very close to my own mortality and the sense that I might already be lost, with no route back to the living.
A reader recently contacted me to tell me that she felt she was living through my experience with me as she read the book. I wanted it to seem relevant and relatable, whether people had their own personal familiarity with gynaecological illness to bring to the poems. Each piece in the collection is an attempt to involve the reader, to open up to them and bring them in. I wrote the book as a response to my impression that gynaecological illness is very often hidden, a source of embarrassment and even shame. I wanted to push back against that shame, and to normalise an experience that is, after all, shared by so many. I wanted to find beauty and solace in an episode that was unpleasant, exposing and sometimes dehumanising.
Some poems in the collection describe my experiences in a more naturalistic, less playful style. Here is my poem about the five days I spent on a gynaecology ward with the same group of fellow patients [page 14]:
Bay 1, Elizabeth Ward
Here we have only our birthdates, our allergies,
our pain that has its own shape in the room.
We have sloughed off husbands, mothers, children,
our clothes and shoes, the women we thought we were.
We haven’t been this animal since childbirth.
How quickly we forget our old routines, learn
the rhythms of shifts and rounds, the pad of nurses
down long corridors wheeling their trolleys
with shiny lids and morphine. We grow expert
at bed adjustment, the new limits of our bodies.
When our lunches come, plates hatted in plastic,
we inch ourselves upright, trade yoghurt and crisps.
We eat very slowly. Decisions lift from us like clouds
in the aluminium square of sky, and there is nothing
to do but lie here. Sometimes we are almost happy.
Kind women wash us like their daughters,
change the sheets from under us like magicians.
They know where our blood runs closest to the surface,
tuck blankets, put the lights off for us at ten.
At night the curtains float and ambulances throb
blue at the window. We tell each other secrets
like twelve-year-olds at a sleepover. In the dark
our blood pressure cuffs fill and sigh by themselves
and we listen to each other breathing, check the places
newly empty inside us, the staples that hold us together.
Visually, I wanted this poem to represent the beds on the ward. The tight and regular structure of the stanzas provided a useful vehicle for containing, controlling, and conveying strong feeling. There are clearly pitfalls in using “we” as the voice for a poem, since it might be presumptuous or worse to appropriate the viewpoint of others, but in this case, I felt it was justified. The women I shared a ward with asked me to write about them, and I wanted to make visible an experience that is usually concealed. Our lives and backgrounds were very different, and the details of our gynaecological issues were various too, but for those five days we were brought together and shared something profound, liberated by our sense of displacement and unreality, shocked by the basic and unavoidable needs of our own hurt, changed bodies.
The line that perhaps stands out most is, “sometimes we are almost happy,” but it was true, at least for me. Despite the pain and indignities, a camaraderie grew up between us that I found very moving. Our complete vulnerability allowed us to step over conventional lines of social interaction, and we were freed from our usual identities while dressed in the same hospital gowns with few possessions around us. For those days we were free, too, from “our old routines,” all the usual decisions and duties, the caring responsibilities of our everyday existences.
As in “MRI,” there is an element of surrealism in the imagery of this poem: with its floating curtains and plates with plastic hats. I wanted to give a sense of the way random observations and impressions collect while lying in a hospital bed surrounded by strangers, influenced by morphine, the after-effects of general anesthetic and the pain of open abdominal surgery. It was also important to me to acknowledge the nurses and other healthcare staff, and to capture a sense of their presence, their mysterious and particular knowledge. I wanted the poem to demonstrate that, although there are “places / newly empty inside us”, we have perhaps gained as well as lost.
In many ways, Ovarium may be categorised as life-writing, a public expression of personal experience, but the book also attempts to ask broader questions about the impact of gynaecological illness, and to explore its historical and political context. There is an ekphrastic poem inspired by a short film in the Wellcome Collection featuring an ovariotomy like mine, filmed in 1933 [page 12]. There is a piece that celebrates the first woman to successfully have an ovarian cyst removed [page 22]. The surgeon, Ephraim McDowell, is – rightly – celebrated for his role in this pioneering operation of 1809, but I felt it was important to write about the patient, Jane Todd Crawford, and to argue that her role was an active rather than a passive one. The following example is an epistolary poem, for which I imagined writing a letter to the 16th century anatomist Gabriele Falloppio, a Catholic priest [page 16].
Dear Gabriele Falloppio
‘I tried the experiment [the use of condoms] on 1,100 men, and
I call immortal God to witness that not one of them was infected.’
– Gabriele Falloppio
Sir, I’m writing this letter to thank you.
After all, you discovered the clitoris,
designed a condom, cunningly
held on by pink ribbons to distract us
while we tried to give you syphilis.
You really did think of everything.
My vagina would be nameless
if it wasn’t for you. I’m glad it means
scabbard. I’m sure your member
had the size and strength of a sword.
Women have never really
been interested in science or anatomy.
It’s been so helpful for us to know
that virgins require a hymen
or they’re just little sluts in disguise.
Thank you for my tubes, the trumpets
of the uterus. I expect you heard them
in your cathedral, vibrating
their hysterical music. You know,
I can’t help picturing you
dissecting lions at the Medici zoo
with your top off. You did well
to work out that the penis doesn’t make it
past the cervix in coitus because
I always feel completely full of cock.
In this poem, I wanted to explore ideas around the ownership of women’s bodies and the significance of naming, and found that the subject matter suited a sarcastic, flirtatious tone, which suppressed and yet also expressed a very real sense of anger and outrage. It was fun, but also felt important, to be bold and irreverent in this poem, and to use humour as a tool of challenge and resistance. I wanted to include some of Falloppio’s own words in the epigraph to emphasise the idea that I was answering back. As a woman and a poet, I can reclaim the language associated with my own body and make new assertions.
The final poem in Ovarium is an elegy mourning the ovary I lost [“Elegy for an ovary”, page 26]. There is grief woven throughout the book, for the body I had and the person I was before my illness, and for the cyst itself that was part of me too. “I wish / I’d seen you, weighed you in my hands, / breathed your fizzing orchard scent.” [from ‘Cyst’, page 1]. Writing the book, and having it published, has sometimes felt transgressive. There have been points where I have wondered if it is too personal, too exposing. But I think this is the nature of writing that starts in the body, of writing that is unafraid of the physicality of illness, the disgust and the discomfort. I am glad to be a poet and to have had the chance to translate my experience into a piece of art that can live outside me and speak to others.
About the Author
Joanna Ingham lives in Suffolk and writes poetry and fiction. Her poems have been widely published in journals, anthologies and online. Her pamphlets are Ovarium (The Emma Press, 2022) and Naming Bones (ignitionpress, 2019). Ovarium has been shortlisted for the East Anglian Book Awards 2022. Follow her on Twitter: @ingham_joanna.