Bruno Cooke reviews Stephen the Phlebotomist by Nadia Lines (Nine Pens, 2022)
A poem doesn’t need to tell you everything, and while there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule as to how much it ought to reveal, I tend to think it’s about three quarters. Two thirds, three fifths: more than half but less than the lot. Of course this depends on style. But among the best of the poems in Nadia Lines’ debut pamphlet Stephen the Phlebotomist are those that strike this balance. Breadcrumbs rather than loaves. And while there may be poems in it that belie their author’s relative youth, the collection is well proportioned, thematically consistent, appropriately titled and, overall, deftly written.
Phlebotomists take blood samples for examination in laboratories, pre-diagnosis, meaning they have less to do with runny noses and flowerpots than one might think at first glance. In late 2020 or early 2021, Lines participated in a COVID-19 research project at the University of Cambridge, where she is currently studying English Literature. This involved giving blood, and serves as a focal point for the themes the collection explores — the oddness of life during a pandemic, especially as an undergraduate student; an unabashed reverence for literary giants; love and longing, compounded by exam stress and loneliness; and finding merriment in the littlest of things.
I laughed and laughed. Kevin and I,
gloved, masked, heard it rattle
through the tubing: ascending. Imagine
us unscrewing the head of the hoover
to look for the body of God.
— from ‘When the Hoover Sucked Up My Crucifix’
Three of the collection’s 23 poems are overtly technical: ‘An Abundance of Cucumbers’ and ‘Algebra’ are sestinas and ‘To the Chaplain’ is a Golden Shovel, as devised by Terrance Hayes in homage to Gwendolyn Brooks. This reviewer has a soft spot for technical structures (though is glad the poet drew the line at three, discounting her ‘double sonnet’), but form only sings if the content can too. Lines’ Shovel embodies its form comfortably; it doesn’t feel squeezed in. And it shows a knack for dialogue. Meanwhile her sestinas, just four poems apart, evince skill not only with writing to form but also with writing about the self, writing metaphorically and intimately, and finding meaning — and occasional uncanny humour — in the mundane.
[ … ] I’m still trying to trap sunflowers
in a complicated house with many rooms. Locals collect cucumbers
from our front door. The allotment
has been beset by blight and the spade
lifts out survivors. I look for my poems among the tomatoes but the spade
shakes its gunmetal head. [ … ]
— from ‘An Abundance of Cucumbers’
The collection is well proportioned, thematically consistent, appropriately titled and, overall, deftly written
Stephen the Phlebotomist’s opening poem, ‘Epithalamion’, gets its name from a literary form popular among the ancient Greeks, and later used by Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson and John Donne. Epithalamia are poems written for brides on their way to the marital chamber, but the meaning of the word is likely lost on a lay-reader. Nor do the poem’s references to ‘Best-Friend crown rings’, Albert Camus, Claire’s Accessories and Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers novel series do much to plot the pamphlet’s course. On a similar note ‘Danger Bath’, poem number three, reads better after finishing the rest. And even then it’s not clear, to this reviewer at least, why the Danger Bath is called a Danger Bath.
As we sat, impeccably dressed, in the Danger Bath,
I told Robbie about the OCD and he talked about the divorce.
There is a rumour that a girl was found naked in here – the
Danger Bath, lockless, waiting. I talked a lot about humiliation
with Robbie, the shame of being seven and unable to divide, the drive to wash
away the laughter with an acceptance letter —
he joked about incontinence at Cornish beaches.
— from ‘Danger Bath’
My point is that Stephen’s earlier stretches can feel slow, even indolent, like they don’t drive the reader along. There are, however, certain scene-setting, furrow-ploughing poems that perform legwork: ‘To the Chaplain’ is one, and well-placed; ‘Jesus, making a table’ is another. If there are moments, earlier on, that feel wispy or without direction, ‘Jesus’ is — true to its namesake — a pivot point. Its lexicon is context-specific, its telling delicate, and its pace, broken and rhythmic like the thrum of a carpenter’s wood saw, carries the reader gently towards the question, from the mouth of Christ himself: “Why did you think that my arms were too weak to hold you?”
through the trees.
Their bare bodies litter your yard, the bark
in reems. You are squaring logs with an adz,
you are sanding. You are thinking of how a stream
makes a ravine. You are sanding. Your father
plastered the walls, built the beams above you,
clapped dusty hands and panelled the sky. [ … ]
— from ‘Jesus, making a table’
There is sincerity in the way Lines hints at her faith. She does not overdo it. Nor does she hide the fact that she is a reader of English at Cambridge: if she idolises anyone it is John Keats. There are also explicit references to Seamus Heaney and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and a nod to William Carlos Williams in the enjambment of ‘Mango Leaves’. Twilight’s Edward Cullen makes an appearance — he’s dying of Spanish flu, though “slower than most” and “sweating / through your pyjamas”. He “would have made / a fine corpse somewhere”, Lines adds, “mud spattered and / gangrenous”. The poem, billed as a double sonnet, introduces the unstoppable force of an immortal vampire to the immovable object of a viral pandemic. A fine idea, notwithstanding the small feeling that words have been thrown at it for the sake of a line count.
I pin the mango
leaves to the cork
board outside my door.
As they dry, they
wave, the way I
can’t. I am ready
to be peeled now.
— from ‘Mango Leaves’
The strange bond formed out of a donor-patient’s vulnerability and the routine affection required of medical professionals is likely, by this point, widely relatable
Then there is Stephen, who shows Lines how to be sanguine. He is “explaining phenotypes”. He is bored. She “stammer[s] about GCSE biology”, hands him her left arm. The strange bond formed out of a donor-patient’s vulnerability and the routine affection required of medical professionals is likely, by this point, widely relatable. Lines wonders — gives voice to our wonders — “how many times / a day you ask which arm, how many times across your life / you will request a rolled up sleeve.” The vials fill with blood, with “constancy”. She gives herself over to ancient tradition, embraces uncanny joy of draining one’s own body for the benefit of others, and loves her heart for the first time. It ends: “I have forgotten how to be scared.”
The lilac tourniquet clasps my tattoo and you remove
your gloves to seek a vein. Some days, my skin is suffocating.
Some days, it is remote. But here, the eye of the needle blinking,
you: talking, me: bleeding, I feel something like normalcy.
Because haven’t humans always done this? Opened our veins
to each other, watched faith trickle from the crook
of our elbows: hoping, hoping for better? You say
the way we treat the vulnerable says it all. [ … ]
— from ‘Stephen the Phlebotomist’
To Lines’ credit, ‘Algebra’ did not immediately strike me as a sestina (‘An Abundance of Cucumbers’ did). Owing to the relative complexity of the structure, sestinas take a bit of shoehorning. They have six stanzas of six lines each and a three-line envoy, with the end words of the first stanza repeated, via a precise pattern, as end words in each of the following. Results can feel laboured and formulaic, but Lines manages, to some extent at least, to hide it — though its title may offer a hint. The poem is a heady mix of exam stress and sexual desire, spilled juice and messy tissues, in which the persona bungles a “twelve-marker”, spends a tissue “burnishing a ballpoint hickey”, and tidies “by throwing mugs from my window like paper planes”.
[ … ] In the hall, they have banned juice
and empathy so I pour mine down the chief invigilator’s blouse, make a mess
so big my uniform is used to mop it up. The mess
of the paperwork afterwards. The nurse gives me a tissue
but tells me that I’ll have to pay for it. I juice
my hands. Make love to the leg of my desk. Scratch
my scalp nude in the library. [ … ]
— from ‘Algebra’
Whether in the well-timed humour of ‘When the Hoover Sucked Up My Crucifix’, the pointillist delicacy of ‘small poem’, the voluptuousness of ‘Woodland For Sale’, the candied romance of ‘To Beatrice, on Castle Mound’, or in many of the poems mentioned above, there are moments in her debut where Nadia Lines shows a love for craft and an ear for marrying form, content, voice and humour. It may feel slow to gather pace, and it may suffer under the weight of a small number of filler poems. If Stephen the Phlebotomist were shorter, it might be better – but it would be shorter. Regardless, it is a statement of intent, and proof of potential. Lines has something, and may be one to watch.
Bruno Cooke is The Friday Poem’s Spoken Word Poetry Editor. He’s written one novel (Reveries, available from You Know Where), four plays and two feature screenplays. Besides writing about poetry for The Friday Poem, Bruno muses on politics and travel for his personal website, and has worked as a freelance journalist, primarily for GRV Media, since 2019. He has lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, working as a writer, educator and occasional chef, and likes, among other things: black and white Japanese films, pub quizzes, fermentation and baklava. In 2023, Bruno will set off with his partner on a round-the-world cycle; receive updates via his Instagram page.