‘Geriatric Ward’ speaks on themes of life, death, old age, and imprisonment. The speaker delves into metaphors and similes that compare old age patients to prisoners and mindless vegetables that exist more so in the realm of death than life.
The poem takes the reader through “feeding time” in the geriatric ward of a hospital and the opinions of doctors and nurses. The speaker depicts the residents of the ward as cabbages and mindless cells at which they blow oxygen. She very clearly sees this period in one’s life as torturous and purposeless. The speaker advocates, in varying degrees of authenticity, for an end to prolonged life.
You can read the full poem here.
‘Geriatric Ward’ by Phoebe Hesketh is a twenty-two-line poem that is contained within one block of text. The lines do not follow a rhyme scheme, nor do they conform to a metrical pattern. That doesn’t mean the poem is without rhyme though. It is achieved through the use of half-rhyme. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, half-rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance.
This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, assonance in the words “found” and “mouths” in line two and “dignity” and “living” in line six. Consonance can be seen in line eight with “under” and “orders”.
Hesketh makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Geriatric Ward’ these include alliteration, enjambment, simile, and metaphor. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “dignity, “death,” and “death” in the sixth line, or “dragged-out” and “detention” in line twenty-two.
Simile and metaphor are similar in that both are used to compare unlike things. The first, simile is a comparison using the words “like” or “as”. In lines, eleven through thirteen the speaker compares the geriatric patients and, as the speaker says, their mindless lives, to cells “law-abiding as leaves / withering under frost”.
Metaphors, on the other hand, are comparisons that do not use “like” or “as”. They are utilized when the poet wants to say one thing “is” another, not just that it’s similar to something else. There is an example inline sixteen with the phrase “spray cabbages with oxygen, hoping for a smile”. Here, the speaker is saying that the geriatric patients are “cabbages,” inanimate objects, that get sprayed with oxygen.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are examples throughout ‘Geriatric Ward,’ such as the transition between lines three and four and eight and nine.
Analysis of Geriatric Ward
Feeding time in the geriatric ward;
I wondered how they found their mouths,
‘If I had a machine-gun,’ answered the doctor
‘I’d show you dignity in death instead of living death.
In the first lines of ‘Geriatric Ward,’ the speaker begins by setting the scene. As the title suggests, the poem takes place in a geriatric ward, or the wing of a hospital that houses older patients, usually sick and/or close to death. As becomes clear over the next lines the speaker, who is a nurse or doctor in this institution does not think much of the patients. She begins by stating that it’s “Feeding time”. This phrase is commonly associated with livestock, not human beings. It removes any agency the patients have to decide whether or not they want to eat.
The speaker wonders how, in their state, they “found their mouths”. The caretakers see the patients as mindless, senseless creatures stuck somewhere between life and death. In a frivolous tone, negligent of the humanity of the patients, the doctor declares that if he “had a machine-gun” he’d give the patients “dignity in death”. This surprising line is meant to shock the reader, make them question the care the patients are receiving, but also encourage one to consider how they’d like to be treated in the same scenario.
Death wasn’t meant to be kept alive.
But we’re under orders
law-abiding as leaves
withering under frost.
In the next lines of ‘Geriatric Ward’, the speaker uses “Death” as a term that applies to all those in the institution. They are “Death” and death, she says, “wasn’t meant to be kept alive”. She doesn’t see these people as having a reason to continue living, nor are there any real signs of life when she attends to them. The speaker seems irritated that she’s required to “pump blood and air in after” the patient’s minds are gone. To her, she feels as though this is a wasted effort.
Has the speaker become jaded by her time in the hospital? One should also consider how they would feel as a caretaker for those who are unable to live a real-life anyone.
Juxtaposed with the machine gun imagery in the first lines is a much more lyrical depiction of the liminal space these patients are in. They are like “cells” that sit like fallen “leaves / withering under frost”. They have no future, nature is hurrying on their demise. There is no warmth or life left in them.
But we, never handing over
and think we’ve won.
There is no time, the speaker says, at which they can decide the patient should pass on. The phrase “mother who knows best” is used in the fifteen lines, this alludes to the common sense of a higher authority that could decide that their efforts to “spray….oxygen” are worth it.
There is another interesting moment in the sixteenth line. The speaker says all they can hope for is “a smile”. This line is meant to improve a reader’s opinion of the speaker, she does care, in some way, for these people. That being said, if the smile means very little, it is something to strive for.
Here’s a game you can’t win –
this dragged-out detention of the old-’
In the last four lines of ‘Geriatric Ward’, Hesketh’s speaker adds that the care she gives the geriatric patients is a “game you can’t win”. They are always going to lose because death is inevitable. The patients aren’t going to get better, instead, they will “ooze away in the cold”.
Her last lines encourage the reader to consider the societal implications of dragging out death. She compares the period patients endure in geriatric care to a cold, prison for the old.