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Redefining the Poet as Healer:
Valerie Gillies’s Collaborative Role in the Edinburgh Marie Curie Hospice Quiet Room Project

This article examines the poetic contribution of Valerie Gillies, Edinburgh Makar (or poet of the city) from 2005–2008, to the Edinburgh Marie Curie Hospice Quiet Room, a new contemplation space for patients, families, and staff. In collaboration with others, Gillies created a transitional space for the Quiet Room, centered on the display of her sonnet, “A Place Apart.” This space functions to comfort visitors to the Quiet Room by relocating them in their surroundings and offering the solace provided by nature and history. With this project, her first as Edinburgh Makar, Gillies redefines the role of the poet as healer and advocates for newer forms of palliative care that focus on patients’ spiritual and emotional, as well as physical, wellbeing.


poetry and healing, palliative care, healing and the body, the body and feminist design

Here is a quiet room where you can stayAnd you do not need to say

Anything. Three windows look out eastToward a distant coast that calls the geese.

One window holds the southern hills,Moorfoots and Pentlands to wander at will.

This shelter-belt of trees is closer inWhere boughs will sway with every wind,

Birds can perch or take their flight,And leaves can turn to face the light.

The high stars rise, wheeling by againAbove the deep stillness of the moor and glen

And only a moment ago a Scottish kingCame this way to the Balm Well’s healing spring.

—Valerie Gillies, “A Place Apart”1 [End Page 184]

In May 2005, Valerie Gillies was chosen for a three-year term as Edinburgh Makar, or poet of the city, a post created in 2002 to revive the Scottish makar tradition dating back to the court poets of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In a 2008 interview with Gillies, journalist Joanna Vallely explains that the honorary post was created “to champion poetry in the city and reinforce the Capital’s position as a cultural centre.”2 As only the second Edinburgh Makar in a tradition that continues to the present, Gillies has played an important role in redefining the makar tradition and, at the same time, redefining the contemporary role for the poet and poetry. This process began with her first official work, a poem for the new “Quiet Room” at the Marie Curie Hospice in Edinburgh, a contemplation space for patients and their families. Gillies’s contribution involved the poem itself, “A Place Apart,” but also its placement and its visual display, which entailed working with the hospice staff, patients, and other artists. This collaborative project served to establish Gillies’s vision for her new post, which was, as she recalled in the Vallely interview, “to make the Makar part of the community.” Gillies’s statement points out the importance in her poetry of connectedness—between the poet and other artists, between the poet and her readers, and between the poet and the larger society. The finished Quiet Room is not only an aesthetic space, the “room of beauty” envisioned by the original project group, but also a theoretical project aimed at redefining the arts in general—architecture and design, the visual arts, and, finally, poetry.3 In response to the vision of the room’s designer, Gillies created a poetic space (not just a poem) that represents a reformulation of the role of the poet and poetry in contemporary society.

With her contribution, Gillies calls into question the English Romantic role of the poet as the “unique, inspired prophet”4 and the formalist notion of poetry as an “object presented for appreciation.”5 Instead, she redefines poetry as a useful art that does real work in society, and the poet as a modest craftsperson, often a collaborator with others. This definition is in keeping with the Scottish makar tradition, which is rooted in making or crafting, rather than the British poet laureate tradition, where the word laureate dates back to the laurel wreaths of the Greeks and signifies the “eminent.”6 Another noteworthy difference is that the British tradition remained an official position linked to the monarchy, while the Scottish makar tradition became associated with the local poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who bridged oral and written poetries and remained closely connected with their communities. As Mary Ellen Brown explains of these forgotten makars, [End Page 185]

The poet is involved in cultural reportage, commenting on events, characters, and locales reflexively. The poet makes a social text of material shared with the audience, filters it through poetic form, heightens the record, and re-presents it to the coparticipants for agreement, nodding acceptance, selection, dismissal. In a sense, the community comes to know itself better through the poetry, and the poetry is at once a reflection of aesthetic values held in common and a metalanguage about ordinary language, thoughts, and experiences. The local poet tradition offers evidence of a communicative and artistic process which converts the everyday to art.7

These poets represented a “double heritage” of both the “ballad makers” and “the ‘makaris’ of the court circle,” who were, in turn, descendants of the oral Celtic bard tradition.8 Because of this differential history, the Scottish makar tradition is more adaptable than the British tradition to collaborative and community-oriented projects such as the Marie Curie Hospice Quiet Room.

Of course, this history opens the Scottish makar tradition to criticism on aesthetic grounds. As Andrew Michael Roberts suggests in his discussion of poetic value, poets and poetry critics alike have long resisted “an instrumental valuation of poetry, a form of valuation which would seem to subordinate poetry to the tyranny of local purposes.”9 But with the Quiet Room project, Gillies embraces the instrumental valuation of poetry. Her practice reflects not only a Scottish understanding of poetry but also a feminist understanding that what is artistic and what is useful may be successfully conjoined. As philosopher Estella Lauter claims, a feminist practice embraces rather than rejects art’s social role: “Art does not depend for its identity on absolute distinctions between itself and work that is useful, decorative, or integrally related as ritual or model to the life of the social group.”10 Seen through this lens, poetry returns to its original concept of poesis, or “ways of making,” which includes both the shaping of words and the shaping of social understanding.11 Under this definition, poetry becomes a conduit of vision, mercurial and unfixed, rather than an object to be processed and set aside.

This redefinition of poetry as both aesthetic and instrumental allows for an art that encompasses both pragmatic and theoretical goals. On the one hand, the Marie Curie Hospice Quiet Room serves the daily purpose of caring holistically for the emotional and spiritual needs of the sick and the dying (as well as their families and the staff). On the other hand, it argues for the rights of patients to be treated with attention and care. The project therefore reinforces recent [End Page 186] work on palliative care done by a number of medical practitioners who advocate a change in focus for critically ill patients from curing to healing. As Balfour Mount explains, “Healing is at the core of the palliative care mandate to support optimal quality of life when medical science can no longer modify the natural history of a disease.”12 Both Gillies and such practitioners base their models of care on the practice of listening attentively to patients, and responding to their needs, even when that extends beyond bodily needs. R. D. MacLeod found from his interviews with doctors that “traditional, formal education did not prepare these doctors for the task of caring for someone at the end of life but that deep emotional experiences with people who were dying did.”13 It was these “deep emotional experiences” that were incorporated into the construction of the Marie Curie Quiet Room, so that it might fulfill the hospice’s function of attending to the whole patient.

The Marie Curie Hospice Quiet Room, through its physical presence, enacts a form of care that calls into question more mainstream approaches to dealing with the sick and the dying that focus on curing at the expense of healing. In this way, the project operates as what architect Helen Stratford has called a “micro-strategy,” or a localized design project intended to resist universalizing tendencies or understandings.14 Although Stratford was not focused on cancer treatment centers in particular, her writing argues for new approaches to space as a means of reconstituting everyday practice, which could include our health practices. Marie Curie Hospice’s micro-strategy takes the form of resisting types of care that focus only on patients’ physical needs to the exclusion of other needs, including the spiritual and the emotional. The Marie Curie Hospice Quiet Room, with its contribution from Gillies, functions as an example of how patients might be treated differently, and more compassionately, and how poetry might exist in realms other than the page.

The Place

Gillies became involved in the Quiet Room project after her installation as Makar in May 2005, but the project was well underway by the time she joined it. Fortunately, hospice chaplain Tom Gordon left a meticulous record of its creation in the form of two documents posted on the hospice website.15 In late 2004, the hospice identified the need for a Quiet Room, a room that would “offer a sense of spiritual support in a restful and embracing ambience while not imposing any [End Page 187] specific faith or religious issues on the user.”16 In an interview with the author, Chaplain Gordon confided that the hospice was rather fortunate in never having had a chapel, which now gave the staff and patients the opportunity to create whatever space they found to be the most useful in this context.17 From the very beginning, Gordon envisioned a collaborative process that would create a space responsive to the needs of all the stakeholders—staff, patients, and their families. He and the other staff members realized that creating such a space would be a time-consuming process requiring input from everyone involved with Marie Curie Hospice.

After much discussion about the goals of the project, designer Tassy Thompson, from TT3 Arts in Glasgow, was brought in. It is her work that represents the foundation of the project, and which generated the eventual context for Gillies’s poem. Based on her process and final product, she appears to have been influenced by feminist design principles, which were disseminated in Britain through the feminist design collective Matrix in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Karen A. Franck explains that feminist architecture has been motivated by the goal of connection between designer and user, which expresses itself in the form of four core principles: “connectedness and inclusiveness,” “the ethic of care and everyday life,” “subjectivity and feelings,” and “complexity and flexibility.”18 Though Thompson never explicitly invokes this language, all four of these principles are central to her designs for the Marie Curie Hospice Quiet Room.

Franck defines the first of these principles, “connectedness and inclusiveness,” as involving a more iterative process between designer and user. She claims that “designing from a feminist perspective is likely to blur role distinctions between designer and client and designer and user.”19 Collaboration between designer and user was a key element of Thompson’s work for Marie Curie Hospice. The Quiet Room started initially with a project group, composed of staff and volunteers, who researched chapels and quiet rooms elsewhere and discussed the priorities of the room. Thompson continued to work with this group while she also collected input from others, including the volunteer reception staff, current relatives of patients, and caregivers who had been involved with the hospice in the past. This feedback led Thompson to present a general concept for the room, involving an emphasis on natural materials and colors, as well as the use of an entrance foyer. Eventually, Thompson proposed a model for the room, which was further vetted by staff, visitors, and caregivers.20 At all steps in the process, the stakeholders were consulted regarding the room’s design. [End Page 188]

In this, Thompson and the other artists can be seen as following Franck’s second design principle, or the ethic of care, which involves being “sensitive to mundane needs” and showing a “concern for human comfort.”21 In the client surveys done by the project group, the respondents expressed that they did not want to feel “entombed” by the room.22 They said they wanted a space that opened outward, to the world beyond the hospital. Chaplain Gordon expressed his initial surprise at this response, since another goal of the room was privacy. Thompson managed to fulfill both the needs for connectedness and privacy by creating an elmwood screen between the central seating area and the door, thereby establishing the foyer mentioned above. The screen shelters any visitors to the room from the door and the rest of the hospice and yet, because of its lattice work, the visitor is never completely separated from those beyond the Quiet Room’s door.

Glassmaker Katherine O’Hara reinforced this approach in the four clear glass panels, etched with leaf designs, that cover the Room’s four windows—three to the back (or east) and one to the side (or south). Her glass panels allow visitors to see the car park and the trees in the distance and yet still be separated from them. Both Thompson and O’Hara used nature motifs, focused specifically around trees, to break down the dichotomy between inside and outside so that the visitors can feel the connection to the natural world, even though they are still inside the hospice.

The room follows the third design principle, or the valuing of subjectivity and feelings, through its emphasis on decoration. Franck points out the importance of “intimacy” to feminist design and its opposition to the exaggerated simplicity of modern design.23 The Quiet Room manifests the importance of intimacy through the inclusion of decorative objects, which gives visitors the sense that they are at home, not in a hospital environment. One major element of decoration in the room is its embroideries, which were created by textile artist Anna Ray. These embroideries cover the room’s back wall, and, at first, seem like a strange choice. They appear too small for the space, and they have a childlike, primitive quality that does not seem to fit the otherwise serious tone of the space. But upon reflection, Ray’s embroideries give the room a homelike quality that would be missing without them. They too echo the nature designs of the other pieces in the room, with their use of waves, flowers, and butterflies.

In addition to the art on the walls, the room is filled with small objects, which were intended to impart “healing without words.”24 The shelves on the north and east walls hold these objects—plants, vases [End Page 189] of flowers, and small statues. But perhaps the most poignant example is the basket of stones from the Hebridean island of Iona, the center of Scottish Christianity dating back to the sixth century. These stones may be taken away and kept as a memory of the place or a patient. This practice appears to be related to the custom established on Iona in the 1930s by the MacLeod community of offering small cakes of bread to visitors, “with the request to break and share them with a stranger.”25 In her essay on the Iona community, Rosemary Power suggests that Iona’s status as the “‘world centre’ of Celtic Christianity” was largely manufactured by MacLeod, but that this creation has nevertheless had a major impact on the development of modern Celtic spirituality.26 With this reference to Celtic spirituality, the room draws on the visitors’ cultural context—through the connection between Iona and healing—to make the space more familiar and comforting. The room also sustains relationships between those who visit it and those who maintain it, through the exchange of small gifts and recognition. Patients and their families leave their memories in the Quiet Room reflection books and are, in turn, given memories of their own, marked by a stone from the basket.

Finally, the room’s emphasis, as in feminist design, is on complexity and flexibility. It is meant to serve a number of functions, and thus imparts what Franck considers the feminist values of change and transformation.27 It is a place that patients can visit to reflect on their mortality, or merely to escape from the hospital-like environment beyond the door. Family members can visit the room for the same kind of comfort, or it can be a place to remember the dead. The most frequent use for the Quiet Room reflection books, mentioned above, is to record memories of loved ones. The room can also be used by staff members to recover from the death of a patient. Though a small space, made even smaller by the sheltering screen, the Quiet Room nevertheless serves a wide range of constituents.

As Gillies said in a 2008 interview, the room is finally a spiritual space that is the antithesis of past religious spaces, such as the cathedral.28 While a cathedral makes the worshipper feel insignificant, the Quiet Room attends to its visitors. The room literally “cradles” them through the rounded elmwood screen, which changes the shape of the oblong room to a circle. Despite the fact that the designers and the visual artists entered at different times in the project, the room has a remarkably cohesive feel to it. It remains true to its original intention, which was, first and foremost, to provide solace in the form that those who needed it requested. [End Page 190]

The Poem

Valerie Gillies was the last artist to become involved with the Quiet Room. She read about the project in the newspaper in fall 2005 and contacted Chaplain Gordon to see if she might make a contribution. Gillies has a long history of using poetry in the caring for and healing of others, first through working with psychiatric patients in the Royal Edinburgh hospital who wished to developed their own writing skills; perhaps most significantly in her 1996 and 1998 Artlink project with photographer Rebecca Marr; and more recently in the support of cancer patients: she is currently a sessional member of staff at Maggie’s Centre, Edinburgh, where she promotes healing and personal growth through writing workshops and journaling. She is also a cancer survivor herself, and shortly before the project began, had lost a younger friend, her next-door neighbor, to cancer. With such a background, Gillies could have come in with a set agenda for what she wanted to achieve. But what impressed Chaplain Gordon is that she was “humble, even diffident” throughout the project.29 As Gillies has said, she was focused on fitting in with what the others had already done.30 Her poetic contribution, therefore, echoed theirs, not only in terms of its visual appearance and content but also in terms of the artistic process that they had used.

Like the artists before her, she started by listening to others, which reflects her investment in “connectedness and inclusiveness.” She had many conversations with Chaplain Gordon about the project, and she interviewed a number of people about their vision for the Quiet Room. She visited the hospice several times, observing how the place functioned. In this, she followed in the footsteps of the feminist designers before her in being attentive to the emotional, spiritual, and physical needs of those who would use the room. Unlike the Romantic poet who creates out of his own vision, and delivers poetry to his readers, Gillies wanted her poem to be a meaningful contribution that would supplement what others had done. Originality was never a primary value in this project.

It was this process of listening to others—or caring for others—that led to the poem’s creation. In her recollections of the poem’s origins, Gillies described how difficult it was to come up with the Marie Curie Hospice poem. She wrote a first poem, but eventually discarded it. She felt it was “not what I would want to read in that situation.” Eventually, the poem was inspired by attending to an actual cancer patient, a friend of Gillies, though the friend is not mentioned in the poem. [End Page 191] Gillies recalls sitting by the friend’s bedside and seeing her wake up disoriented, confused as to where she was. As Gillies explained, she had been moved around to so many different hospitals that she no longer knew where she was. Gillies had the idea of using her poem to situate Quiet Room visitors in their surroundings.31 In this, she was also following the wishes of the Marie Curie patients themselves, who, as stated above, wanted to remain connected to their surroundings.

At first, this idea of returning patients to their surroundings and therefore their bodies can seem counterintuitive. Why, after all, would patients, or their families, want to be reminded of suffering bodies? But, as both Chaplain Gordon and Gillies explained in their interviews, body, mind, and spirit often disconnect in moments of trauma.32 The mind cannot comprehend death—its approaching extinction. As a result, the road to healing is often through the body, since the body has the capacity to lead the mind to an understanding it otherwise could not grasp. Feminist architectural critic Deborah Fausch echoes this understanding and describes the phenomenon in her discussion of Welcome Park in Philadelphia. While not specifically focused on health and healing, the park similarly requires the physical involvement of its visitors in order to process its meaning. Fausch explains that critics have often failed to understand the park because they have seen it in photographs rather than actually walking through it: “My claim is not that this park is completely explained by its relationship to the body, but the more modest one that contemplation is not enough. The action of the body must be performed to complete the intellectual content of the park, to get the message.”33 Similarly, it is the process of reading Gillies’s poem—and following its directional signals—that is significant; the reader/viewer must travel the path of the physical, what Fausch calls a “hyperawareness of the body,” in order to arrive at the poem’s contemplative ending.34 Like so many of Gillies’s poems, “A Place Apart” is a map that leads the reader on both an outward and an inward journey.

The poem starts by noting the direction of the Quiet Room’s four windows, three along the far length of the room, facing east, toward the sea, and the other one, immediately to the right of the entrance, facing south, toward two groups of hills: “Three windows look out east / Toward a distant coast that calls the geese. / One window holds the southern hills, / Moorfoots and Pentlands to wander at will.” The patients are first grounded in the room itself and only then does the poet venture beyond the room to orient the patients. In moving outside the building, she chooses to focus on familiar landmarks, [End Page 192] such as the sea-coast of East Lothian and the Moorfoot and Pentland hills, in order to recall past vacations with family, either bathing or hill-walking, since most of the patients are local to the area. Through this naming process, the patients are recalled to their surroundings, and relocated, both within their present and their past memories.

This movement, from near to far, is then repeated in the next six lines, which continue to reinforce the patients’ location in space and time. First, we are presented with the “shelter-belt” of trees that encircle the hospice, and the patients, in a protective embrace that recalls the curve of the room’s elmwood screen. Only after the patients are settled in their immediate environs does the focus again change, this time vertically rather than horizontally. The room’s visitors are oriented by that most familiar of all landmarks—the stars and their repetitive movement through the sky: “The high stars rise, wheeling by again / Above the deep stillness of the moor and glen.” The emphasis is on the patients’ stability within a predictably changing landscape. Disease may progress in an unpredictable manner, but nature’s cycles and movements remain familiar. They act as a continuing constant, despite the changes brought on by disease.

Not only does Gillies work with familiar imagery, she also works with a familiar poetic form. As Maurice Hamington suggests in his application of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology to the arena of care, “the body captures meaning in the form of habit.”35 Gillies’s “A Place Apart” is a variant on the English sonnet, and its form, which begins with two six-line stanzas of description and ends with a couplet of analysis or reflection, is familiar to almost any English-speaking reader. In addition, the poem is reminiscent of another famous consolation poem, T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” written to comfort the public during the bombings of World War II. Both poems focus on a king’s return to a sacred site, and the solace found there in the form of embeddedness in history. Gillies’s poem, however, transforms “Little Gidding” for a Scottish context by focusing on Scottish rather than English geography, and it substitutes a Celtic spiritual focus, rooted in a respect for the natural world, for Eliot’s patriarchal Christianity. Gillies’s poem ends on the image of the well, the focus of her collection The Spring Teller, where “A Place Apart” was eventually published. In Celtic culture, wells are not only a source of drinking water, and therefore life, but a connection to the spiritual realm.36 They mark the place where body and spirit, human and divine, meet.

The poet recalls that near the hospice, at Liberton, is located the Balm Well, a site of international pilgrimage for over a thousand [End Page 193] years, where the Scottish kings would go to heal their ailments with the well’s oily secretions. The well is said to have been founded by St. Catherine of Alexandria who, in returning to Scotland from Sinai with a vial of water from the holy land, accidentally let a drop fall onto Scottish soil. Historian Alexandra Walsham traces the history of the well from its ancient Celtic past to its assimilation into Christian ritual to its attempted destruction by Oliver Cromwell and finally its post-Reformation reclamation as a holy site. As Walsham explains, the Protestant attacks had an unintended effect in that they may have actually fostered continued attachment to these sites: “They not only intensified the attachment of Roman Catholics to hallowed landmarks …; they also fostered trends with the established churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland that stimulated a resurgence of the idea that certain places and spaces were in some sense sanctified.”37 Because of its long history of destruction and rebirth, the Balm Well has become a symbol of enduring spirituality in a changing landscape.

Gillies’s poem therefore concludes by transporting the Quiet Room’s visitors to this healing site, with its centuries-old history of consolation: “And only a moment ago a Scottish king / Came this way to the Balm Well’s healing spring.” The hospice, because of its proximity to Liberton, becomes part of Scotland’s healing geography, and the well’s healing powers extend outward to the Quiet Room. Just as the basket of stones connects the patients to the spiritual center of Iona, so does Gillies’s poem link them to another, similar setting of spiritual strength, close by in Liberton. Thus, Gillies ends her poem by connecting the suffering Quiet Room visitors with a larger community, that of all Scots past and present, and offers the familiar solace of nature and history. As the room “wraps” its visitors in an enclosed space, so too does the poem “wrap” them in their cultural surroundings.

In examining the poem, it becomes clear that Gillies’s attention to the Marie Curie Hospice patients, her ethic of care, has created a very different set of poetic priorities from those of traditional, published poetry. She is not interested in challenging her viewers, in presenting them with a piece of poetry that requires a great deal of thought and analysis. Rather, her goal is to use poetry to console, through sound and rhythm, and through familiar imagery. The emphasis in the poem is making the unfamiliar familiar again, not the opposite—her motto is not “make it new,” but “make it old.” As Fausch explains, early cultures understood the importance of engaging the body as well as the mind in art: “Preliterate Greeks knew that all of the senses and [End Page 194] emotions must be engaged in order to remember; thus they inculcated important cultural knowledge with rhyme, rhythm, dance, song, and story. All knowledge was body language.”38 And that is finally what distinguishes “A Place Apart”—it offers the comfort of history through cadences familiar to the body. The poem’s purpose is to cradle the Quiet Room visitor in a familiar context as he or she prepares to enter the contemplation space, that “Place Apart,” which involves an inevitable encounter with human mortality.

Once Gillies had finished her draft, she presented it to the staff and clients of the hospice. She confided to me that she expected them to ask for revisions and was fully prepared to revise.39 However, it received immediate approbation and her first draft to them was also her last, perhaps because its radical approach to healing—returning the sick body to itself—is coupled with so much that is familiar.

The poem itself is a significant creation, symbolized by its eventual publication in a traditional volume, but it is also important to realize that the visual display of the poem is as much a contribution to the hospice, and its goals, as the poem itself. In this, Gillies can be seen as responding to the third of the feminist design elements, the importance of subjectivity and feelings. Gillies was as interested in how her readers would approach the poem as she was in the poem itself.

The poem, written out in green ink in Gillies’s own hand, is displayed in a clear plexiglass frame immediately next to the Quiet Room door. Two objects exist in the transitional space outside the door. First, there is a large, comfortable orange chair. It is intended that visitors will sit in the chair for a moment, on their way into the Quiet Room. Its bright colors recall the rest of the hospital, not the soothing greens of the Quiet Room. The poem itself, on the other hand, is tied to the inside of the room, and prepares patients for the room to follow.

It was Gillies who was responsible for the calligraphy of the poem. She chose an organic script and green ink so that the poem would tie into the green colors and the nature emphasis in the room beyond the door. In true collaborative fashion, it was Chaplain Gordon, however, who created the “frame” for the poem. He made a simple transparent frame so there are no barriers between the viewer and the poem. The viewer easily becomes a part of the poem.

According to Chaplain Gordon, it was Gillies’s decision that the poem be placed outside the Quiet Room rather than inside.40 Many would find this an odd decision, because Gillies elected, in effect, not to be part of the Quiet Room itself. Here, Gillies was thinking [End Page 195] of visitors to the room, and particularly the patients.41 She did not want the patients to be distracted by words within the room itself. She understood that the Quiet Room needed to fulfill its mission of being a place of silence and reflection. In addition, she recognized that going into the Quiet Room, the “Place Apart” to which her title refers, could be a frightening moment. Outside the Quiet Room, there are distractions from disease. Inside, one must confront death and one’s mortality. Her poem is therefore intended to deconstruct the dichotomy of “inside” and “outside,” in the process offering a transitional space. Gillies’s poem, therefore, is not a “decoration,” in the way that Anna Ray’s tapestries act as a decoration; it is its own separate space, with its own function, though one that of course relates to the function of the Quiet Room. Like the Celtic well, her poem serves as a bridge between the human world and the spiritual world.

This emphasis on patients’ possible reactions to the poem, their feelings, led to the fourth and final design element—the emphasis on complexity and flexibility. Together, Gillies and Gordon created a space additional to, yet at the same time connected to, the Quiet Room. This space could and does serve many functions. It can be that transitional space for the patient or family member who needs time to enter the room. But it can also be a waiting area for family members or staff who have a patient inside the room. As with the work of the designers in the Quiet Room itself, this poetic space acts to integrate traditional dichotomies, such as inside/outside, nature/culture, private/public, sick/well. In the process, it acts to heal its patients—to reconnect the disconnected aspects of their lives. As Gillies emphasized in her interview about the Marie Curie project, it may not be possible to cure a human being, but healing is always a possibility.42 This is the goal of palliative medicine, and Gillies’s goal for this space as well.

The Poet and Poetry

Gillies’s poem, “A Place Apart,” is by itself an unassuming piece of art, centered as it is on tradition rather than originality. But it is important to recognize that the poem itself is not Gillies’s total artistic contribution to the Marie Curie Hospice. Her contribution encompasses her interaction with the hospice, her creation of the poem, her display of the poem, and her ongoing relationship with the hospice. It is in this wider understanding of poetic activity that the more radical implications of Gillies’s involvement in the Marie Curie Hospice project [End Page 196] can be seen. Her contribution involves transforming our notions of the poet, the reader, and poetry itself.

The Marie Curie project first of all involves a re-conceptualization of the poet and her role that is based on Gaelic, bardic traditions descending down through the makar tradition rather than the English Romantic tradition. In Gillies’s conception, the poet is not a solitary figure who consciously separates herself from the world in order to create. Instead, the poet is an involved community member who seeks out others in order to collaborate on issues of importance. For Gillies, the poet is finally a craftsperson, a makar, who uses her talents for the benefits of others. As a craftsperson, the poet is less elevated in her role than an “artist,” but, at the same time, she is closer to her audience and its needs. Craft, traditionally the domain of women, represents the coming together of the aesthetic and the useful.

Gillies’s Marie Curie Hospice piece also transforms the notion of poetry readers as separate and distinct from the poet, removed by the space and distance of the printed page. Gillies publishes poetry collections, but she also remains dedicated to public projects in which the poet connects directly with her readers. At the Marie Curie Hospice opening, the public was first introduced to her work through her own voice, reading the poem aloud, in the tradition of the Scottish bards. On the hospice wall, her handwritten version of her poem, a trace of her physical presence, connects the poet to her readers. In both these instances, Gillies works within the feminist tradition of relying on the senses of hearing and touching to “balance the exclusive reliance on vision in western philosophy.”43 The poet’s body is thus a way into art, just as the body provides the path to healing for sick patients.

Finally, Gillies is committed to a poetry that locates itself in the world at large. Through her Marie Curie Hospice contribution, she argues for the power of poetry in daily life—in this case, for its potential in human healing. There is a rich tradition that suggests that expressive writing, and, possibly even poetry writing in particular, has health benefits.44 But an argument for the health benefits of poetry reading is also emerging. Poet and physician Rafael Campo has considered that reading poetry might indeed heal because of poetry’s rhythmic qualities:

I wonder, then whether poetry might also be therapeutic. Many of my friends, especially my colleagues in medicine, have teased me for believing in the curative power of words, joking that I should write some doggerel on my prescriptions instead of the names of [End Page 197] medications and directions for their use. If poetry is made of breath, or the beating heart, then surely it is not unreasonable to think it might reach those places in the bodies of its audience, however rarefied. Moreover, I joke back, I have never seen a poem cause fulminant liver failure or bone marrow toxicity, even a really bad one. Putting the mouth to words, and by incantation returning regular rhythms to the working lungs, these were principles by which ancient healers in Native American cultures practiced their art. The Egyptians gave their dead a book full of charms and spells to be used in the afterlife—might not poetry, then, facilitate the passing to another realm? Poetry is a pulsing, organized imagining of what once was, or is to be. What life once was, what life is to be. It is ampules of the purest, clearest drug of all, the essence and distillation of the process of living itself.45

While Campo’s words are suppositions, a small study suggests there may be medical evidence behind his passionate imaginings. Robin Philipp and Imogen Robertson found in their study of the health benefits of poetry that 42% of their interviewed respondents reported that “reading poetry helped them by incantation of rhythm, silent or aloud,” and that 42% also “benefitted from finding that they could identify with the themes of published poems.”46 Based on this work in social medicine, it is not so odd, then, that a sonnet was integrated into the Quiet Room at Marie Curie Hospice.

With “A Place Apart,” Gillies laid the groundwork for the Edinburgh Makar as a poet of the people whose purpose is to address the important issues of the day, in this case the relation between health care and the rights of the sick to live their last days in dignity and comfort. She understood and accepted that her poem was only a part of a larger whole, the Quiet Room itself. As the medical community has begun to understand, the clinical environment itself is paramount in the healing process. In his explanation of the role of the medical community in healing, Mount points out the importance of both the physical and emotional dimensions of space: “While the caregiver-healer does not heal the patient, per se, he or she can facilitate this process by providing a secure environment grounded in a sense of connectedness.”47 The Marie Curie Hospice, and the Quiet Room in particular, provide this environment and assert the importance of both living and dying well, a process that involves acknowledging all needs of the patient, the spiritual as well as the physical. [End Page 198]


The Quiet Room began to be used on March 1, 2006, and was officially opened on April 13, 2006 by Sarah Brown, wife of then-Chancellor Gordon Brown.48 According to the hospice chaplain, she was chosen because of her ongoing commitment to the hospice movement.49 Because of the restrictive size of the room, visitors went through in small groups, with Gillies reading her poem to the first group, and handing out copies of the poem, printed in green, on small, cream-colored postcards. This small but tangible gift, which recalls another of the room’s gifts, the basket of stones from Iona, underscored the notion that the Quiet Room’s emotional and spiritual benefits are often the result of its emphasis on human bodily comfort.

Since then, according to Chaplain Gordon, visitors have continued to use the room and many of them stop outside first to read Gillies’s poem.50 Sometimes, they also approach him to discuss its meaning. This process of daily reading and discussion is what Gillies wanted for her poem, and for poetry in general—that it live in the world, and not merely in books. In a place where dying is a common occurrence, Gillies helped to create a space where living continues.

Laura Severin

Laura Severin is a Professor of English and Women’s Studies at North Carolina State University. She is the author of two books, Stevie Smith’s Resistant Antics (1997) and Poetry off the Page: Twentieth-Century British Women in Performance (2004), as well as a number of articles on twentieth-century and contemporary British literature. Her current scholarship focuses on multimedia experimentation in the works of contemporary Scottish women poets, including Kathleen Jamie, Jackie Kay, Liz Lochhead, and Valerie Gillies, around the topics of the environment and health.


1. Gillies, “A Place Apart,” as displayed at Marie Curie Hospice. The poem is reprinted with minor changes in Gillies’s The Spring Teller, 91.

8. Ibid.

15. These may no longer be available online; copies may be requested from the author.

17. Gordon, interview.

19. Ibid., 298.

21. Franck, 299 and 300. [End Page 199] .

22. Gordon, interview.

28. Gillies, interview.

29. Gordon, interview.

30. Gillies, interview.

31. Ibid.

32. Gordon, interview, and Gillies, interview.

39. Gillies, interview.

40. Gordon, interview.

41. Gillies, interview.

42. Ibid.

44. See the work of James W. Pennebaker, in particular, and that of Dominic McLoughlin.

46. Philipp and Roberson, 332–33.

48. Andrews and Gordon, 2.

49. Gordon, interview.

50. Ibid.


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