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Editors Angela Belli, professor of English at St. John’s University in New York, and Jack Coulehan, physician-poet and director of the Institute for Medicine in Contemporary Society at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, have selected 100 poems by 32 contemporary physician-poets for this succinct yet meaty anthology. The book is subdivided into four sections, each of which is prefaced by an informative description and highlights of the poems to follow.
Section headings take their names from excerpts of the poems contained therein. There are poems that describe individuals--patients, family members ("from patient one to next"), poems that consider the interface between personal and professional life ("a different picture of me"), poems that "celebrate the learning process" ("in ways that help them see"), and poems in which the poet’s medical training is brought to bear on larger societal issues ("this was the music of our lives").
Several of the poems have been annotated in this database: Abse’s Pathology of Colours (9); Campo’s Towards Curing AIDS (13) and What the Body Told (94); Coulehan’s Anatomy Lesson (97), I’m Gonna Slap Those Doctors (21), The Dynamizer and the Oscilloclast: in memory of Albert Abrams, an American quack (129); Moolten’s Motorcycle Ward (105); Mukand’s Lullaby (33); Stone’s Talking to the Family (79) and Gaudeamus Igitur (109).
Other wonderful poems by these authors are also included in the anthology, e.g. Her Final Show by Rafael Campo, in which the physician tends to a dying drag queen, finally "pronouncing her to no applause" (11); "Lovesickness: a Medieval Text" by Jack Coulehan, wherein the ultimate prescription for this malady is to "prescribe sexual relations, / following which a cure will usually occur" (131); "Madame Butterfly" by David N. Moolten, in which the passengers in a trolley car are jolted out of their cocoons by a deranged screaming woman (142).
Space prohibits descriptions of all 100 poems, but each should be read and savored. Some others are particularly memorable. "Carmelita" by D. A. Feinfeld tells of the physician’s encounter with a feisty tattooed prisoner, who ends up with "a six-inch steel shank" through his chest as the physician labors futiley to save him (23). In "Candor" physician-poet John Graham-Pole struggles with having to tell an eight-year old that he will die from cancer (27). Audrey Shafer writes of a Monday Morning when she makes the transition from the "just-awakened warmth" of her naked little son to tend to the patient whom she will anesthetize "naked under hospital issue / ready to sleep" (72).
In "The Log of Pi" Marc J. Straus muses about being asked "the question / I never knew" that he "pretend[s] not to hear" whose "answer floats on angel’s lips / and is whispered in our ear just once" (113). Richard Donze wants to know why "Vermont Has a Suicide Rate" (132). Vernon Rowe remembers the "hulk of a man" who shriveled away from an abdominal wound and begged, " ’Let me go, Doc,’ / and I did" (44).
This anthology presents a selection of poems from the hundreds that have appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The poets are physicians, nurses, patients, technicians, lay caregivers, and family members; their poems "display the many ways people have of perceiving, conceiving, and coming to terms with what unsettles us." A sampling of titles hints at the variety of topics--occasionally humorous and often startling--that are examined in this slim volume: "Tinnitus," "Dear Left Knee," "Thoughts of a Nurse Returning to the Base Camp at Cu Chi," "Lovesickness: a Medieval Text," "Since the Accident," "Body Language: 5 East, NIH."
This poem of nine four-line stanzas reveals a father's observations as he sits in a support group for parents at the psychiatric hospital where his daughter is a patient. The poem moves from the nervous small talk shared by the parents to the half-heard sounds of a tennis match outside to the "hot potato" of pain that the parents, through their stories, pass around, bringing the reader into the immediacy of the blame, grief, and disbelief that these parents share. In this environment, words fail: "I don't know anything / That can help us all. Words alone / (How many words there were!) have come unstrung // And scatter everywhere."
Narrated in the third person, the poem is a telephone conversation between an adult son and his complaining mother. This is the mother's second phone call of the day to her son, who had spent several hours shopping for groceries with her earlier that same day.
She is tired, says the mother, and there is no food in the house worth eating. Replies the son, "Did you take your iron? He wanted to know. / He sincerely wanted to know. Praying daily, / hopelessly, that iron might make a difference." Food is a touchy subject--"it never brought them anything but grief."
Later the mother frets that she is afraid, "afraid of everything. Help me, please." If her son would only help her, then he could go back to "[w]hatever / it was that was so important / I had to take the trouble / to bring you into this world."
In this poignant poetic rendition of images presented to the narrator as she watches one of her body fluids ooze into an external receptacle, the reader is treated to a vivid array of symbols brought to the poet's imagination. The fluid is lymph, collected into a "little plastic pouch / hung on my side like a monkey." The poem is made up of run-on three line stanzas, flowing like the fluid--from color images, to visions of the sea, to associations with the aroma of fruit.
As the poem progresses, the narrator shifts from the reality of what it means to wear the collection device and empty and measure its contents, to the metaphors of fluid: the narrator is submerged, "I speak from inside / an aquarium," contemplates the metaphysics of the fluid milieu of the human body, "Who knows what's going on / beneath the skin. . ." And yet, the poet-narrator concludes, for their apparent significance, once the body fluids are spilled, the "gates opened," they become irrelevant as they dry into "sticky specks."
The "laboring through what is still undone" is difficult and awkward like a swan's walking. But dying is like the swan leaving dry land. The water "receives him gently" and he moves with grace. The swan appears indifferent as he "condescends to glide." [12 lines]
Imagine bits of conversation you might hear at a meeting of the Hemlock Society. "A very brave woman." "Not wanting to become / a mere vegetable." "A burden to others." Some other people want to hold on, even though the burden is measured in tons. The speaker concludes that he wants to keep his subscription paid up "and keep / the stash handy."[28 lines]
The long journey towards oblivion has begun, the poet announces. "And it is time to go, to bid farewell / to one's own self." He then asks, "Have you built your ship of death, O have you?" Our bodies are dying, we are slipping away piece by piece. The only hope (if it is a hope) for us is to be prepared for death by building a "little ark" and stocking it with the essentials to carry us through "the dark flight down oblivion."
In this way we achieve "quietus." The poet visualizes launching his ship, which has no rudder, upon the sea of death, which has no ports. Yet, after drifting for a long time in darkness, "the little ship wings home" and "the body, like a worn sea-shell / emerges strange and lovely." [106 lines]
The poet contemplates (metaphorically) an abandoned, overgrown garden. "What god is proud / of this garden / of dead flowers, this underwater / grotto of humanity?" he asks. He sees limbs waving, faces drooping, and voices clawing. He recognizes great medical figures like Charcot and Alzheimer. There are no gardeners. As he turns away, he tries to take solace in the thought that somewhere "there is another / garden, all dew and fragrance." [30 lines]
I have this that I must do / One day." I must take the last step, go down into the "green darkness," and find the "door to myself." There is no map, no assurance, and no way of avoiding the final plunge into darkness.