Reading Rachel Hinton’s Hospice Plastics (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2021) is like excavating a genealogy of grief. It is seemingly divided into three neat thematic sections: the first about her mother, whose terminal cancer sees her in hospice care in the author’s teenage home; the second is a reflections from adulthood, and the third introduces the author’s father. The narrator oscillates between the past, which exists in the time of death as her childhood self watches her mother slowly deteriorate from illness, and the present, which is a time of remembering: “Memory is / a curtain barring my feeling / about the memory, when / my mother was there / and the hard fire bit into wax, / made miniatures. She was there / and I don’t know if I / thought about her or cared then, / but now she is missing.” Hinton’s book captures the fear and paranoia that comes with terminal illness. It suffuses the interstices between her poems with unasked questions—What if I get sick too?
The titular poem separates itself from the rest of the book, hovering alone at the beginning before a large number 1 indicates the start of the book in earnest. This is a book and a poem, separated. The opening line of the book’s second poem, “She Was Wearing The Subject” the narrator muses “I think about flowers,” evoking the opening line of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway—“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”—a work about alienation, domesticity and ultimately death. Partway into this poem there is a break, a lone slash like a disapproving mouth that separates out the parts of the poem. The same break appears in “Heliocentrism In Purple” but doubled—there are two slashes and three parts of the poem. The slashes protect one part from the others by only the flimsiest of gestures, not even an entire page break or line across the page. Feminist theorist Karen Barad introduces the concept of agential realism in her 2007 book, Meeting the Universe Halfway. A reflection on sociality, quantum physics and nature, Barad posits that there is no separation between things deep down—that includes metaphysical as well as material things. Instead everything is entangled, enmeshed, and borders are merely useful concepts. Similarly, Hinton also seems aware that quaint notions like separation don’t exist deep down, at the molecular level. The poems, like the bodies they depict, are breaking into fragments and being remade throughout the book. As barriers becoming increasingly porous, embodiment itself is overwritten, as the book’s title suggests, with sterile plastics and glass.
Throughout the book, the narrator struggles with her own coherence. In “An Illness Form,” she says “Without her / there is a little hole in things / Air empties out of it,” while in the poem itself, punctuation slowly disappears until the last half is floating freely. “How do I stay inside my own / memory how / do I not fall out.” Period. Abrupt stop. As her mother sickens, the narrator’s own body becomes a like sieve. Yet despite the despair and desperation, the narrator’s teenaged self still carves out space for pink nails, watching tv and going on nature walks. When everything around her seems ephemeral, she connects to the eternal heavens, talking to the moon, and mentioning the revolutionary Copernican solar system and the stars.
While the first part of Hospice Plastics is legible as what we would traditionally call poetry, the the second part plays with form, offering an anatomical discourse on dissection in the form of Excel spreadsheets that readers have to crane their heads or tilt their books to make sense of. There is nothing holistic about an Excel spreadsheet. The author brutally separates each line into discreet cells. Meanwhile, the book’s third section is interspersed with poems that face the opposite way on the page. The queer formatting choices on Hinton’s part reflect the narrator’s own difficult grappling with the destructive, dissociative power of grief, and the sheer strangeness of growing up. Adulthood spreads like a disease in Hospice Plastics, contaminating the self with apathy and existential crises: “You are not afraid / to infect yourself / with your whole body, / if you could be through / and through, actually plastic.” As the body literally comes apart, the narrator ruminates on making home while feeling incomplete. The titular medical objects, her mom’s plastic catheters, glass vials, and machines that read vitals provide cyborgian supplements for the body, while the everyday mini-crises of the adult world make the narrator feel like parts of her are slowly turning synthetic, unable to feel in order to survive. There are fewer stars and pine trees. The girl and her mother become one sickened body. Hinton cannily mediates not only on the grief associated with illness and death, but also acknowledges that adulthood has its own mundane grief, which often goes unnoticed in the world.
The philosopher David Hume described consciousness as a “collection of loose parts flying in formation.” This collection of poems isn’t a neat series of movements—it’s a a messy mixture of the human and the non-human, made of multiple bodies and more collective than individual. Such is the nature of grief, Hinton tells us. It unmakes us and we must put ourselves back together with the parts at hand.
Anna Mirzayan is an arts writer, poet, researcher and doctoral candidate in Theory and Criticism. She is currently based in Pittsburgh, where she is the editor-in-chief of the Bunker Review at Bunker Projects. Her poetry chapbook, Donkey-girl and Other Hybrids, was published in 2021 by Really Serious Literature. You can find some of her writing at art-agenda, Square Cylinder, and Hyperallergic. She is the current social media/graphic design intern at Sundress Publications.