Hell Ward by James Sale

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I’m not a huge fan of poetry, okay I’ve said it. I don’t know what it is, there’s something about the artform that I struggle with, it may have underlining issues with how this was dealt with at my secondary school and the bullying that took place in the classroom from my teacher and directed at me personally because I just didn’t get it.

After that I just turned my back on it, it was clearly for academics and well, I’m no academic.

I never gave up on it totally though, I had to discover it for myself and on my terms.

I had to find the right style that I could get to grips with, I don’t like all the floaty stuff, I like my poetry to be gritty or funny and one of my favourite poets is John Cooper Clarke (The Punk Poet) – his use of wordplay and his uncanny ability to get his point across in funny and engaging prose is something I truly love and admire. I think I enjoy poetry when it is real and heartfelt, when it’s dripping in pain and suffering and darkness (cheery guy that I am). I also have a fascination with the bible and the books of Job, Song of Songs (Songs of Solomon) and The Book of Revelation are some of my favourite books of the bible, due to the imagery that is created, the desolation of Job followed by the deftly crafted beauty of Song of Songs and the epic finale that is Revelation – and that is why I loved Hell Ward by James Sale so much.

How could such power be – the whole cosmos rent
Into parts and each part on its own work,
And better still, each atom purposeful, sent

Whilst far below on a bed, injured, hurt,
Powerless to do evil, much less good,
I lay helpless, fit soon to be but dirt?

Hell Ward by James Sale is a book that I couldn’t wait to dig my teeth into. I’d seen a few of these Cantos performed online via Sale and his use of language, the themes of the collection and the bleakness of it were most appealing.

The collection focuses on the Poet as he is in hospital with cancer and calls on Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry to help him in his time of need. Later Dante arrives to take the poet on a tour of what can only be described as purgatory or Hell – where our poet meets with people, friends and family – those that had some form of a connection to him at some point in his life.

It is in the meeting of these friends that had me reminiscing about the book of Job (how he also conversed with his friends – whilst being tempted to sin by Satan against his God). The way the Poet meets with these people and converses with them are incredibly well constructed, each one trying to bring him down further into the mire, each one with their own axe to grind, each one laying on blame or accusations, each friend or visitor a step towards a final destination that has yet to be decided.

‘Be careful,’ Dante said, ‘for here’s the end
Of hell itself in your world: the last test –
Philosophers whose ideas never mend

Or heal a single soul; rather, as pests –
Cockroaches scuttling in cellars below –
They quarry till your kitchen is their nest.

Sale masterfully gets his point across with these additional characters and the journey is one that is filled with pain, suffering, redemption and hope – the language Sale uses adds a regality to it that one would expect to find in the masters of the form such as Shakespeare, Homer, Dante and Milton but as I said I’m not much of a poetry man – so there are probably even more comparisons to be had such is the brilliance of Sale’s prose. You can witness with each Canto that Sale is someone that is passionate about language and poetry, crafting beautiful offerings from the ashes of a life, there is passion within the words and I feel that this is rather a somewhat personal journey for the author, one which comes across in blinding clarity and proves how powerful words can be, how in words sometimes we can find salvation and hope, but also despair and desolation.

The beauty of the book is in the journey and each Canto adds another layer to this incredible glimpse into the afterlife, the purgatory that awaits us or the hell we may or may not wander when our time comes. Each proceeding Canto has an echo in the next story, driving the reader onwards to a destination that they and the poet fear to tread, and it’s this that builds a palpable tension within the book and adds weight to the words and the prose that is always beautifully poetic. The wordsmithery of Sale ensures that each line is as sharp as a scalpel, that each verse hits with the directness of an arrow to a target, and ensures each Canto will take your breath away as you walk the delicate line that Sale has weaved before us.

The blurb of the book details that Hell Ward is based on Sale’s near-death experience in Ward 17 of Bournemouth General Hospital – and you can feel all the passion, pain, hurt, hope, despair, suffering, longing and fear in every line, it comes across as a deeply personal account of someone’s last days, a epic battle that is waging over their soul. Hell Ward also asks questions of the afterlife, leaves the reader pondering who will be waiting for them in the Hell Ward when their time comes, and it is this epic beauty, these unanswered questions that in my opinion solidifies Sale as ‘England’s Epic Poet’.

Hell Ward is available here.

James Sale

James Sale is the creator of Motivational Maps and the founder of Motivational Maps Ltd. He is a speaker, writer and thought leader in the worldwide movement to transform how management works by enabling the ego-centred, fear-based Twentieth Century top-down control model to be superseded by a Twenty-First Century dynamic, bottom-up, engagement focused approach. His book, Mapping Motivation, published by Gower, is the definitive text on how to do this by specifically addressing the question of employee motivation and its correlation with performance, productivity and profitability. It was followed by Mapping Motivation for Coaching, published by Routledge, co-written with Bevis Moynan. James has over 400 management consultants and business coaches in 14 countries that are licensed to use his product with corporates, small and medium sized businesses, and public sector organisations.

Alongside this motivational work, James has been a writer for 50 years, and has had over 30 books published, including 7 collections of poetry, as well as books from Macmillan/Nelson (The Poetry Show volumes 1, 2, 3), Pearsons/York Notes (Macbeth, Six Women Poets), and other major publishers (Hodder & Stoughton, Longmans, Folens, Stanley Thornes) on how to teach the writing of poetry. Most recently his poems have appeared in the UK in many magazines. He won 2nd Prize in The Society of Classical Poets (New York) 2014 Annual Poetry Competition and first prize in 2017; consequently he was invited to join their Advisory Board. He has had over 400 blogs published, many on literary themes and reviews, online as well as in magazines; he is an accredited ‘Diamond Author’ – their highest level – with ezine.com, the world’s largest online article provider.

James was a co-founder and director of the KQBX Press, which published dozens of poets before it closed in the late 90s, including: Sean Street, Michael Henry, Brian Hinton, Sarah Hopkins, and Helen Flint. Finally, the Bournemouth Yellow Buses company selected James as one of their poets of the month as part of their marketing campaign around the town in 2016. He was given a free bus pass as part of the deal – nice!

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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