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This delightful, provocative collection is subdivided into five sections that are not easily categorized. Rios, who grew up in the borderland culture of Nogales, Arizona, writes about this culture and his childhood (sections 1,5), family and local legends (section 1), the Sonoran desert and its animal life (section 4) and the complexities and wonder of human experience and human relationships (all sections). Rios deals with both the real and the imagined, often moving from the former to the latter. Deceptively simple language lures the reader into the rich, original landscape of the poet’s vision.
At the heart of this novel is a simple love story. Dr. Bruno Sachs, a slight, stooped, and somewhat unkempt general practitioner in a French village is dedicated to his work and loved by his patients. Sachs is a solitary, self-effacing man who takes his Hippocratic duties seriously and is especially sensitive to the needs of his patients.
In addition to his private practice, Sachs works part-time at an abortion clinic, where he performs an abortion on a distraught young woman named Pauline Kasser. Soon the doctor and his patient fall in love. She moves in with him and becomes pregnant. An editor by profession, Pauline also encourages and assists Dr. Sachs in completing the book he is writing.
The story has many additional layers and dimensions. The reader views Sachs through the eyes of multiple narrators--his patients, colleagues, friends and acquaintances, all of whom write in the first person and present Bruno Sachs as "you" or "he." Thus, the reader gradually builds up a "connection" (empathy) with Sachs by synthesizing multiple glimpses of his behavior and facets of his character. At the same time, Sachs is trying to find his own voice, his own connection, by becoming a writer. At first he jots down random thoughts, then he keeps a notebook, and eventually he produces a complete manuscript.
The book has innovative structural elements that introduce other layers of meaning. For example, the 112 short chapters are organized into seven sections, corresponding with the components of a complete clinical case history: presentation (as in "chief complaint"), history, clinical examination, further investigations, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis. Similarly, the narratives delve progressively into Sachs' "illness" and follow the "patient" through his course of "treatment."
Another structural element is the cycle of fertility and gestation. The story takes place from September through June, precisely 40 weeks, a pregnancy of nine months, during which Sachs is re-born.
Tim Metcalfe is an Australian general practitioner who gave up medical practice to become a full-time poet and writer. A statement on the back cover summarizes the process in relation to this collection of 38 poems: " ’Cut to the Word’ is a moving account of one man’s transition from doctor to poet." He begins with the customary initiation: "We were introduced, respectfully, / to the volunteer dead . . . " (p. 13) He discovers the limitations and uncertainties of his new profession: "In tense moments / I wish my stethoscope / was all they want it to be." (p. 18) And the omnivorous demands of medicine: "I come home from work / and there it is: the family / the oldest crying / at the youngest crying / at her mother’s anger / at her crying . . . " (p. 21)
Metcalfe carries the reader through a series of short, incisive poems describing the doctor’s day-to-day work ("Morning Session, " pp. 47-50), as well as through a number of disturbing poems about the world of mental illness, but the book’s climax--so to speak--arrives with "The Doctor’s Complaint, " in which the physician heals herself "by laying down her stethoscope / and walking right out / of that in-patient clinic." At the end the poet writes, "Like a patient I have learned silence . . . Fine steel scissors in hand, / I cut to the word." (p. 63)
In this five-stanza free verse poem the speaker, a physician, observes the patient, a young man dying of cancer and suffering pain in the arm he has lost to the disease. The patient watches television, and sees the fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of D Day, the Allied landing in France in World War II. The old soldiers, the war veterans, are enviable for the "honor" provided by the source of their losses and injuries, the sense of meaning that comes from winning a war, which is so unlike the arbitrary and passive suffering of cancer in which, as the speaker says, there's "no honor."
The patient has asked whether a scan would explain the pain in his phantom limb; the physician muses that a scan is the wrong place to look, not just because there is no arm to scan, but because what the cancer patient really lacks is a story which can make sense of and justify his misery. The veterans have such a story. Although they are aging and have suffered, the speaker longs to give his patient "their battles," the sense of significance and value (a story recognized by the whole world, as the TV broadcast indicates) which cancer lacks.
The poet plays with the "D's" of D Day: "deception, danger, death," are all inherent in the world, but seldom accessible to confrontation as they are in war (to this extent war is like the scan, making the sources of pain visible and so manageable). A fourth "D" is added, for "deliverance," implying that the "old men's stories" of battles and victory compensate for their suffering in a way that nothing can for the cancer patient.
En route to the way to the Trojan War, warrior Philoctetes, wielder of the bow of Heracles, is bitten by a poisonous snake at the shrine of the goddess Chryse. The infected wound becomes so painful that Philoctetes’s screams of agony repel the Greek commanders, who order Odysseus to leave him on the island of Lemnos. Ten years later (the time of the play’s opening scene), Odysseus returns to Lemnos with Neoptolemus, son of the now-dead Achilles, to retrieve Philoctetes’s bow. It has been prophesied that only with this bow can Troy be conquered.
Promising him glory and honor, Odysseus convinces Neoptolemus to win Philoctetes’s trust and take the bow. Philoctetes, delighted to see any human and especially another Greek, shares his story with Neoptolemus, begs him to take him back to Greece, and entrusts him with the bow when he is overcome by a spasm of pain.
Deeply moved by witnessing Philoctetes’s misery firsthand, Neoptolemus confesses the truth to him, but tries to persuade Philoctetes to accompany him to Troy. When Odysseus appears, Neoptolemus returns the bow, declaring that only with Philoctetes himself wielding it will the prophesy be fulfilled. He asks forgiveness, and invites Philoctetes to come back with him to be healed and then on to Troy to contribute to the battle. The only thing that ends Philoctetes’s refusal is the sudden appearance of Heracles, who announces that Philoctetes and Neoptolemus must join together to take Troy.
The speaker had a childhood disability--"my strange, unruly hands"--that made tying his shoes a task to be dreaded, symbolizing failure. He addresses a caregiver who patiently ("for three years, for an hour each day") had taught him to tie his shoes. She reassured the child, "The doctors don't know / everything. You will be normal // someday. Normal."
The caregiver has also experienced bodily difficulties--from curvature of the spine caused by childhood spinal [tubercular] meningitis. She tells the child about her out of body experience ("You told me you'd died once") when she had seen herself on "the table," the "frantic" doctors calling her back "to the particular / boundaries of the flesh." She allowed them to bring her back.
Now, the adult speaker, no longer disabled, ties his shoes "by instinct," "my mind giving itself // up to the common world / of things" but when he focuses on the task, he slows down and remembers his caregiver; he becomes aware of his body, he becomes aware.
This memoir is DeBaggio's first-person account of his early experience of Alzheimer's disease and its effect on his life and the life of his family. The book is a collection, in loosely narrative form, of the author's diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's; brief excerpts from his journal; excerpts from the medical literature on the disease; and memories from his past that he wants to commit to paper before he can no longer recall them. He documents his struggle simply to write the book, as it becomes more and more difficult to sustain thoughts or find the words to express what he wants to say.
Joe Rose, a popular science writer, and his partner Clarissa, a Keats scholar, are picnicking in the English countryside when an accident happens: a hot air balloon carrying a man and his grandson goes out of control. Five men, including Joe, run to help, holding onto the balloon's ropes; when a gust of wind lifts the balloon, four men, including Joe, let go but the fifth holds on, is lifted high in the air, and falls to his death.
One of the would-be rescuers, Jed Parry, becomes obsessed with Joe, and begins to stalk him, interpreting all rejections as veiled invitations. Jed wants both to convert Joe to charismatic Christianity and, it seems, to become his lover. Communication is impossible, the police are no help, and under the strain Clarissa and Joe's relationship comes apart. In a restaurant, someone at the next table is shot, making Joe realize that Jed is trying to kill him. After breaking into their apartment, threatening Clarissa at knifepoint, and then attempting suicide, Jed is arrested and committed to a psychiatric hospital.
In a subplot, the dead man's widow suffers a loss exacerbated by the belief that her husband had been having an affair. Joe learns the truth about the suspected affair and is able to reveal to the widow that her husband had been faithful after all.
The book ends with two appendices: an invented article from a British psychiatry journal presenting Jed's case, and a letter written to Joe by Jed three years later, still hospitalized, and still, deludedly, in love.
Daughter of a wealthy businessman, tall, beautiful Emily Stockwell Turner falls out of love with her stolid professor husband, Holman, halfway through their first semester at a small college for men in northern New England. She is lonely and miserable in this remote place. Encouraged by her confidante and fellow faculty wife, Miranda, she embarks on a secret affair with the college musician, Will Thomas.
Divorced and sexually experienced, Will initiates Emmy into the powerful romance of physical love. But their on-again, off-again relationship is fraught by its own secrecy, Holman's jealous suspicions, Will's infidelities, Emmy's lies, Miranda's disingenuous disinterest, and the not-so-irrational hatred that Freddy, Emmy's four-year old son, bears Will.
Emmy and Will take ever greater risks with their clandestine encounters; eventually they admit to being truly in love and she decides to join him in his move to New York City. But Holman falls ill and nearly loses his contract position at the University when he tries to kill a student demonstrator whom he wrongly suspects of being Emmy's lover. Emmy postpones her departure indefinitely, because Holman "needs" her more.
The poems in this collection, written by a dermatologist, are not specifically about medicine or medical issues. Threading through them, however, is a sensibility that sees both the natural world and human relationships in terms of the great cycle of awakenings, rising passions, complex relationships, change, aging, and death. Many, though few run more than a page, have a narrative thrust; they offer windows on ordinary life that tie the particulars of events and encounters to large, seasonal, mythic rhythms and stories.
History is present in many poems, in the character of Persephone, for instance, in lacings of Gaelic language, in allusions to old stones and fires and (in the final long poem) to the historical Macbeth, immortalized inaccurately. Natural objects--bird songs, dolphins, nettles, an old pear tree--feature largely as anchoring images of poems that move gracefully from memories to metaphors, linking life observed with interior life lived alertly by a poet who plumbs small experiences for cosmic connections.