(REVIEW) The Burns Unit, by Nick Ines Ward
Marina Scott explores the fleshy and ominous landscape of Nick Ines Ward’s The Burns Unit (Salò Press, 2021), drawing connections between the collection and Cronenberg’s classic horror, The Brood, alongside Ward's powerful depiction of the long-term expression of trauma, and the poems’ echoes of Plath.
(ii) it gave me a bad history, like a salmon going back to the wrong stream. they wheeled me to the burns unit, i wasn’t even peeling yet. my house caught fire last year, but I started coughing yesterday. my throat like an overhead hanger, he liked the extra space. my throat is the river I am trying to get back to. no one gives a number for my injury, yet. it’s to prevent victim mentality. someone explains: if you get told you’re burning then you start acting like it.
Nick Ines Ward’s collection, The Burns Unit, is fleshy. Ominous. Their lyric dirties the clinical with medicalised imagery that is grotesque rather than sanitised. They deal with the complexities of trauma, at once elusive and painfully visceral.
Taking inspiration from David Cronenberg’s classic horror, The Brood (1979), Ward explores the physical nature of trauma, blurring the lines between the somatic and the psychological, or exposing these categories to exist in a false binary. Cronenberg’s narrative features controversial therapy techniques dubbed ‘psychoplasmics’, in which patients release suppressed emotions through physiological changes to their bodies. The narrative traces the disturbing experiences of Frank Carveth, his daughter Candice, and his wife Nola, who is receiving psychoplasmic therapy from the sinister Dr Hal Raglan, author of The Shape of Rage. Rage indeed takes on a physical body, or, in fact, collection of bodies, in the form of Nola’s blood-thirsty ‘brood.’ These not-quite human figures are manifestations of Nola’s intergenerational and familial trauma, parthenogenically birthed via a translucent womb-like sack sagging from her stomach (think Alien’s chestburster scene meets Jane Eyre-esque madwoman in the attic - nice). Played by actors with dwarfism, the brood exemplify an ableist trope long observed within disability studies: the alignment of non-normative bodies with the abject/horrific. They remain psychically yoked to Nola after she births them, acting on her emotional impulses with gruesome consequences. As an unnamed police department psychologist cautions Frank ‘these things [traumas] tend to express themselves, one way or another.’
Since The Brood’s release in the late seventies, this rather ominous conceit surrounding the long-term expression of trauma has entered pop culture in a more mainstream sense. Dr Bessel van der Kolk’s self-help book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014), popularised the notion that the body can exhibit physical manifestations of the traumatic incidents one experiences: ‘trauma produces actual physiological changes, including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity, and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from the irrelevant.’ As such, the body becomes a kind of canvas; imprinted, purpled, and flailing.
In The Burns Unit, Nick Ines Ward plays with this phenomenon through a series of poems that chronicle the speaker’s strange stay at the burns unit, where their mysterious injuries are tended to as they emerge over time: ‘i sit like.a petri dish. everyone is waiting / to see what will grow’ (iv), ‘there’s no cure for my cure. i discover / different species of pain each day. / there’s no cure for my cure’ (ix). There is a frankness and matter-of-factness to the speaker’s tone that suggests a dissociation from their circumstances. This, combined with the medical setting and language that permeates the collection, can’t help but remind me of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Tulips’, which explores her stay in hospital following an appendectomy: ‘I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses/ And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.’ Plath’s influence on The Burns Unit is clear (and, I’ll admit, in a fairly brazen act of internet-age reading I found Ward’s Instagram bio, which at the time I first encountered the collection read “a non-binary, pop-psychology version of Sylvia Plath”).The way in which Ward’s speaker obsesses over making sense of their mysterious ‘wound’ throughout the collection - ‘everything beyond the wound is senseless/ everything is numb, except the openings’ (vii) – strongly recalls Plath’s tulips inflaming her injury: ‘redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.’
Whereas Plath’s poetic hospital is sanitised, Ward’s lyric moves between a conventionally clinical language and visceral gore and meatiness to figure the traumatised body. From the opening poem, (i), they write
we will all be cooked our flesh will rest we will taste our own marinade before anyone else we will all be cooked so keep checking to see how far along you are
Given that the traumatic event is revealed to be a fire – hence the speaker’s trip to the burns unit – ‘cooked’ here serves as a nod to death and it’s inevitability. However, the repeated lexis of meat throughout the poems collapses the traumatised body into an inanimate object – something which external forces act on and manipulate, rather than that with its own agency. In (ix), Ward writes ‘it is only appropriate to swallow:/ saliva, melted molars, splinters/ of charred bone […] my sad, strange meat can’t find its expiration date.’ The lines ‘so keep checking to see/ how far along you are’ induces a distinctly gestational lexis (‘how far along are you?’ echoing common pregnancy talk), thus alluding to Cronenberg’s gruesome births.
The chronology of trauma and healing is a, if not the, central theme within The Burns Unit. In an almost post-Humean interrogation of causation structures, Ward muddles the passage of time, introducing ideas of delayed affect and non-linear healing processes. The poems’ speaker recounts their injuries and their ‘bad history’, seemingly attempting to make sense of their own personal chronology. In (ii), Ward writes ‘they wheeled / me to the burns unit, i wasn’t / even peeling yet. my house caught fire / last year, but I started coughing / yesterday.’ The year-long delay between the fire and the physical affect from the smoke are a prime example of Ward’s interrogation of the counter-intuitive lapses between a traumatic event and its expression – the whole collection gesturing to trauma existing as a kind of simultaneous happening, inseparable from its manifestations. Think of it as looking directly at the sun. The yellow-orange afterimage on your retina exists as a physical mark of the incident, but simultaneously re-enacts, re-images and becomes constitutive of the incident itself. (‘It will take me months to understand. / How long until the wound begins to happen? (xii).) The poem’s speaker notes how
no one gives a number for my injury, yet. someone explains: if you get told you’re burning then you start to act like it.
The repetition of ‘yet’ here (wasn’t / even peeling yet’ and ‘no one gives me a number for my injury, yet’) generates a feeling of foreboding surrounding the injury or injuries themselves, an uncomfortable sense of time stretching out until the speaker understands what is wrong with them. The closing couplet of the poem drives home this feeling of dread: ‘if you get told you’re burning / then you start to act like it.’ This final conditional is a genius piece of verse, which adds to the sense of temporal confusion around the causes of the burns (read: trauma) by making their effects contingent on language, or suggesting that being ‘told’ about a trauma, hence acquiring language and knowledge of it, will result in one demonstrating (or ‘act[ing]’ out) the effects of said trauma. The lines hold a dark humour: there’s an absurdity of imagining someone ablaze but not showing symptoms of the flames. ‘Act’ does a lot of work here, implying a certain pejorative performativity: the patient only exhibits signs of suffering once they are told they’re burning, suggesting that they are merely going through the motions of acting out the symptoms. I can’t help thinking of discourses surrounding victimhood and victim shaming in the light of these ideas.
Ward’s collection is full to the brim with powerfully constructed and visceral images. With its impressively sustained metaphor, The Burns Unit speaks to something outside of its own narrative: the phenomenology of trauma. I’ve recommended it to many friends and will continue to do so.
Text: Marina Scott
Image: Marina Scott