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The poem “Visiting hour” by Norman McCaig is about the poet visiting someone (possibly his mother) who is terminally ill in hospital. It is about human suffering and how helpless a person can feel when faced with a loved one dying, knowing that there is nothing you can really do to help.
The poem has a tone that makes things seem strange and threatening. It is full of distortion and strange ways of saying things to show us that what the visitor is faced with is almost nightmarish and that they are extremely uncomfortable in this environment.
In the first stanza it is not the visitor that is described as walking along the corridor, just his “nostrils”, “bobbing along” with the “hospital smell” combing them in the “green and yellow corridors”.
It is almost as if the smells and the nostrils have a life of their own and the visitor cant control either of them. The mention of the smell and the colour of the corridors instantly give us an image of sickness and help to take the reader on the same journey the visitor is taking.
When the poet goes on to describe the patient he uses similar distortions. She is not described as a whole person. We are presented with impersonalised images of “A withered hand” which “trembles on its stalk” and there are “eyes” and “an arm” and the intravenous drip becomes “a glass fang” as if it is almost as much a part of her as the other parts described.
The use of the metaphor to describe her wrist as a “stalk” with a “withered hand” makes me think of a dead, withered flower, something that was once of beauty
but is now drained of life and never has the chance to be beautiful again. I think the poet doesn’t describe the patient as a whole person, but in parts, as the whole
Person as he knew her is no more and it helps him to get through the uncomfortable ness of seeing someone he knows like this by de-personalising what he sees. It is not her anymore just a shell that she is using.
I think the last stanza is written from the patients “dizzy” perspective but it also describes the visitors feelings too. While what she sees appears to be “clumsy” and “dizzy” due to her deterioration and possibly the drugs that are preventing her feel pain, I think the visitor is disorientated and feels apart from what is happening too. He actually points this out to us in the 3rd stanza where he uses repetition to make the point even more prominent. “I will not feel, I will not feel, until I have to”.
Here he is speaking for himself, simply and plainly and it explains why he is so disorientated and dislocated from the scene as he is forbidding himself to let emotions overtake what he has unwillingly and uncomfortably to witness.
The “black figure” in the “white cave” appears to be him leaving because the bell has rung to signal visiting hour is over but it is also alluding to the grim reaper who has come to take the patient away.
Throughout the poem the poet snatches at impressions of what he is faced with; A corpse, or what “seems like a corpse”, A needle described as a “fang” (another metaphor) that’s “giving” yet he still mentions “guzzling”. The juxtaposition of these two words shows us that despite the needle being there to help, something is “guzzling” away at the woman’s life anyway.
He describes the bed and its curtains as “a white cave of forgetfulness” something so clinical and sterile that it seems to drain the visitor and the patients memory of what life was like before she was ill.
He also describes the “distance” as “shrinking” not getting smaller just as her life is shrinking before his eyes. And the distance isn’t just physical but one of pain too.pain for what he is losing and can never get back, yet a pain that he is not willing to feel yet either. He feels helpless. There is nothing he or she can do about it and the pain of loss will inevitably come even if he doesn’t want it to.
The poem is written in 6 stanzas of unequal length, in free verse and also uses enjambment.
Some of the techniques used that I have already mentioned are metaphor, repetition, tone, allusion, imagery and juxtaposition. I think there is also juxtaposition in the way that he describes the nurses who “walk lightly” with “slender waists” but that are also weighed down by “their burden of so much pain”.
I find this poem very depressing yet so true in its portrayal of the disjointed feeling a person has when losing someone they love. The confusion of the poets own feeling’s and his uncomfortable ness with them really do show the kind of bitter-sweet pain a person feels when it is a relief that the person dying will no longer be in pain but that the ones left living have the pain of loss to carry with them instead.