Illness and ‘the hardness of love’

In the Blood
by Alan Hill

Qualicum Beach: Caitlin Press, 2022
$20.00 / 9781773860787

Reviewed by Daniela Elza

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When we speak of mental illness we tend to focus on the person who suffers from it. That tendency diverts our gaze from the very people who endure the repeated shocks and reverberations it can bring to a family and community. 

New Westminster’s Alan Hill unflinchingly wades into this territory in his fifth book, In the Blood. Hill (The Broken Word) is the younger brother of Christopher—a brother he barely knew, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent most of his adulthood in institutions. As Hill writes in “Inheritance,” “It is this illness of the mind / that has farmed me to the outer acreages of loss / trapped me in a freak show of continuous fresh starts.” 

The poems in this book map a complex web of connections and emotions that leave Hill himself with impacts to his mental health. A tangle of confusion laced with embarrassment, shame, and grief shaped young Hill. He received no guidance nor help. His parents— “so busy are they / with the end of everything”—were too busy with their own bafflement, inability to manage, or explain. They all floundered in helping and loving at a time when constant crises rose to the surface. 

Hill often turns to surreal elements to bring light to a world that made so little sense to him growing up. Take “In This Beginning,” for instance:

where I 
find the fishermen
on the ocean’s edge 
dressed in white lab coats
a pole from which my brother hangs…

they have not noticed he is still alive,

Author Alan Hill (photo: World Poetry Reading Series)

And this book abounds in metaphors that speak of sharp and dangerous objects; even “a worn out toothbrush that has / knifed itself into daylight.” Many of the poems introduce readers to the edge of things in the chaos and uncertainty—be it the “outer acreages of loss,” the edge of what can be expressed, spoken, or what can be endured. 

From “The Brothers”: love “left me torn, stabbed / with my own intentions”; and grief “abandoned me to long walks home / to follow clean knives of ice / that angled themselves in moonlight.” Hill opens “Prayer” with:

There he is, my brother who smokes 
alone on a winter evening
hardened in silence on the asylum steps
bundled in the unsaid 
on the edge of his own life.

In this uncertain world with its “cowardly bicker of early evening city lights,” Hill learns to be silent, to not ask questions his struggling parents have no answers for. 

Schizophrenia engulfed the whole house. In “Night Shopper” police bring Christopher home: 

unsure of where or who he was 
the octopus of his unmade teenage head 
slithering its tentacles out into the road
blocking traffic
wrapping itself around chimney pots
the throats of strangers.

In “Asylum Visit,” Hill accompanies his mother to his brother in a hospital ward: “Here was milky cold coffee, a rainbow of medication / the poor, the terminal, the chronic / my older brother, perched silently over a plate of beans.”

No one moves; time is waited out as if the silence will reveal something. Silence becomes part of the effort to control and sustain normalcy. In “On the Inside” Hill notes, “I have eaten the world’s violence / keep it down, controlled it.” He never knows with certainty who the person on medication is, “always a tourist, not quite sure / if this is you / how you got here / where you are.”

Police, asylums, schools, fireworks, on the beach—every experience was burdened by the heavy weight of schizophrenia. Life in these poems is etched and edged in sharp and precise imagery; the visceral sensation continues to reverberate past the reading of the poem, and continues to inform. 

This book is dedicated to Hill’s brother. In “Eating My Own Heart,” the only poem that has a specific dedication, Hill concludes: 

You and I, together 
trapped beneath the tree that fell
that could not be heard

that is crushing us with the hardness of love
bedding us on the sharpened points in Eden.

When we pull the lens back we see the people left in the wake, how they themselves are altered.

In poems like “The Three Ships,” “Older Brother,” or “Before History” we get glimpses of unworried times. Moments when the family was trying to have fun together even if the illness was hard to conceal, as in “Summer Holiday”: “My mum, dad, and I, made sandcastles. / My brother waded into the ocean in a jacket, tie / stood there, sang.”

In “Older Brother,” the author sees his older brothers in a photo of an era that he did not know, a time before the schizophrenia and before his birth:

in the certainty of an August heat 
that pins their uncertain smiles 
into a thicket of steady light

whatever they have not been since 
they were that day
giving me the heat, light
that I will learn to live by.

Across the poems, forests take on a duality of both confusion and comfort. When Hill’s brother went silent “he disappeared into the forest of himself / his quiet desperation.” Hill follows his brother, who was fearless, into the hills and recalls, “I left a part of myself there / that I can never take back.” Further, in “Where I Live”: “I am always in that place / in the sliver of unvisited woodland, edge land / that may no longer exist.”

Today when Hill goes to these wild places there is a reclaiming of what might have been left in the forest of confusion, grief, disappointment, anger, and loneliness. Or is it the reminder that what is unknown in us and in the world is easier to understand there? “He has the ravine / its animals,” the speaker remarks, but even the animals keep apart from him to survive. 

Hill speaks of himself here in the third person. Is that to create a distance from which to see better? Or to shorten the distance between him and his brother? Or a reminder of how alien we become even to ourselves, how little we belong in this world? 

The idea that we are all interconnected often dims when we consider someone who stands out of  “the normal.”  Here “normal” might be a fog we walk into, since Hill observes in “The Coyotes in the Ravine,”“without wildness / there is no order, / …without the misshapen, broken, / incalculable / there is no proportion, shape.” Are these the spaces where Hill carves out some comfort? Places we are reminded that we are all misplaced, flawed beings? The natural world holds both answers and solace.

This book leaves me with a sense of falling, where “grief and love are brothers” and hold hands. Sometimes disguised as each other, they are part of the family, and “family is everything.” We end up at “the dark boundary of the unknowable.” 

In this falling there is understanding. The moonstone Hill’s mother gave him pulled the rays of the moonlight into itself, “clinched the past, future, together / in a perfection … / I can hold in my palm / close my hand over.” Perhaps nets of such beauty can catch us in our falling, and in that also learn that, as in “Centrepiece,” “on the right journey nothing is wasted.”

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Daniela Elza

Daniela Elza‘s fourth poetry collection is the broken boat (2020). Her first chapbook, slow erosions (2020), was written in active collaboration with Arlene Ang. In 2023 Daniela won first place in the Muriel’s Journey Poetry Prize, was long listed in the Vera Manuel Poetry Prize, and won the September Award for Awesomeness at Arc Poetry Magazine. When Daniela is not writing she works as a poetry editor, mentor, creative writing instructor, and advocate for affordable housing on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. [Editor’s note: Daniela Elza reviewed Cornelia Hoogland for BCR. Her book the broken boat was reviewed by Christopher Levenson, and she contributed to In memoriam E.D. Blodgett, edited by James Felton.

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The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-25: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie


Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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