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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).
In my dreams, now, in my re-imaginings, I leap away as easily as a deer, and with as little hesitation. My spandex-covered legs scissor the ditch, and my feet ride the ground instinctively. My brown hair sways as I dart off into the forest . . . In real life, I got into the truck. (p.25)
A young woman retells the story of her rape--to herself, to the reader, and to a therapist who possesses "no startling answers--just a quiet ability to receive and transmute pain." The art of transcending pain through communication is at the heart of this story. The narrator survives by talking to her rapist and challenging his human core, by revealing everything to caregivers, by allowing herself to replay and dissect the details of this trauma.
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."
Poetry is a natural medicine . . . Poetry helps us feel our lives rather than be numb. So begins John Fox, a Certified Poetry Therapist whose aim in this book is to help the reader see the profound relationship between creativity and healing, and to nudge the reader gently into making his or her own poems.
Fox grounds his work in narrative--stories of suffering persons who were able to transform their experience by writing poems. He illustrates the text with the poems of these persons, as well as those of well-known poets from King David to Lucille Clifton.
Fox carries the reader from the silence that leads to poetry (Chapter 1, "Heart, Who Will You Cry Out To?") through the elements that go into writing (Chapter 3, "Poetic Tools For Your Healing Journey") to writing about specific situations, such as illness, loss, and death (Chapter 6, "When God Sighs"). Each chapter includes a number of suggestions and exercises.
Dr. Jonathan Hullah writes a memoir of his life in response to a young reporter who questions him about the death, years ago, of an old Anglican priest during Good Friday services. The tale unfolds of three schoolboy friends in Toronto before the Second World War: Brocky Gilmartin, who becomes a noted professor of literature; Charlie Iredale, who enters the Anglican priesthood; and Hullah himself, who begins as a police surgeon and later becomes a practitioner of his own unusual brand of psychosomatic medicine.
The central image of this story is the sudden death of Father Hobbes, the saintly vicar of St. Aidan's Church. Soon after Hobbes' death, the curate Charlie Iredale leads a movement to declare the elderly priest a saint. This movement is aborted by the bishop and Iredale, his vision crushed, goes on to become an itinerant (and alcoholic) clergyman in rural Ontario.
The central story though is that of Dr. Hullah, the "cunning man" who learns that healing is not just a matter of the body, but also the mind and spirit. He practices a type of "holistic" health care that the Canadian medical authorities find very suspicious. Yet, he is quite successful in his work, serving as physician-of-last-resort for many patients who have not been helped by other doctors.
The "cunning man" is a listener; he seems to stay on the outside, observing carefully, but revealing little of himself. In these memoirs he gradually reveals his rich experience and complex character. Only at the very end, however, does he reveal the true story of Father Hobbes's death.
As Joanne Trautmann Banks indicates in the Foreword of this fine anthology, "when we are sick, very sick, it is often the nurse who is closest to our bodies, minds, and souls." This experience of closeness to suffering is well-reflected in the poetry and prose of the 49 nurses whose work is collected here. While these writings vary widely in form and style, they focus almost exclusively on the nursing interaction; they are nurses' stories of patients and nurses' reflections on nursing. Two major themes pervade the book. One is the powerlessness of nurses in the face of illness and suffering. The other is their tough, unsentimental devotion to their patients and the profession.
Of the poetry, particularly fine pieces include: "Raiment" (Carol Brendsel); "Daffodil Days" (Celia Brown); Butterfly (Jeanne Bryner; see this database); "What the Nurse Likes" and The Body Flute (Cortney Davis); "Hospital Parking Garage" (Jeanne LeVasseur); and "Euthanasia" (Belle Waring). Among the excellent prose pieces are "Nighthawks" (Carolyn Barbier), a tale in the voice of a ventilator-dependent woman who has elected to discontinue treatment and die; "While His Life Went on Around Him" (Angela Kennedy); "Wisteria" (Leslie Nyman); "Where Are You Now, Ella Wade?" (Joyce Renwick); and "Bev Brown" (Sybil Smith).
In July of 1986, author Andre Dubus was assisting some stranded highway motorists when he was struck by a car. After two painful months of hospitalization, one leg had to be amputated at the knee; the other leg, damaged and immobilized in a cast for many months, became virtually useless, but still painful. Dubus was forced to "accept life in a wheelchair." (106)
In meditating on events and people in his life before and after the accident, Dubus leads us to the interior space of his suffering, fear, moodiness, stoicism, and religious faith. Like the Hemingway character he describes in "A Hemingway Story," he has both gotten over and not gotten over the consequences of his accident.
"Sacraments" interweaves the receiving of religious sacraments with the concentration, care, and love associated with making sandwiches for his two young daughters, the emotional pain of carrying on a love relationship by telephone because of his limited mobility, the received sacraments of learning how to drive his specially equipped car, and of getting a bargain from a swimming pool contractor--"the money itself was sacramental: my being alive to receive it and give it for good work." (95) Concluding with the recollection of his father's death; Dubus notes that "I had not lived enough and lost enough" to recognize the grace that accompanied past pain.
Pain and grace continue to compete for his attention: "The memory of having legs that held me upright at this counter and the image of simply turning from the counter and stepping to the drawer are the demons I must keep at bay . . . So I must try to know the spiritual essence of what I am doing." (89) Similarly, mourning--for what he can no longer do-- and gratitude--for what he once was able to do-- go hand in hand as Dubus remembers the joy of running for miles in the countryside (" A Country Road Song").
The body's memory and the losses suffered figure importantly also in "Liv UIlman in Spring." In this powerful piece, Dubus describes his meeting with the actress, how he was moved to tell her "everything," how, bent low, "her eyes looking at mine" she said, 'You cannot compensate.' " (130) For her honesty and understanding Dubus was enormously grateful.
"Witness" relates the uncanny experience of meeting a woman who had witnessed his accident. Wonderment, fear, depression, inspiration, and writing about this incident were the result. As always, Dubus wrote in order to be led to some further understanding. The essay ends, "Today the light came: I'm here."
Four ghosts visit the miserly businessman Ebeneezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. After the apparition of Scrooge's dead business partner Marley, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas As Yet To Come guide Scrooge through his own emotionally charged past, his harsh and loveless present, and his bleak future. The vision of his own headstone and the realization that no one will mourn his death force Scrooge to see the error of his "Bah! Humbug!" attitude toward humanity in general and Christmas in specific.
The primary recipients of Scrooge's moral rebirth are his poor clerk Bob Cratchit and his family, especially the crippled boy Tiny Tim. When Scrooge wakes from his ghostly visitations, he delivers a huge turkey to the Cratchit household and gives Bob a raise. He becomes a "second father" to Tim and reconciles with his own nephew.
To escape accusations of plagiarism, Swedish neurosurgeon Stig Helmer (Ernst Hugo Jaregard) has come to work at The Kingdom, a large Copenhagen hospital. He is a surgical butcher with lamentable bedside manners and utter contempt for Denmark, but he resembles his colleagues in his medical positivism and abhorrence of spiritualism. His inadequacies are easily perceived by the hospital staff and resident Dr. Hook (Soren Pilmark), but his fellow consultants celebrate his arrival and make him a member of their lodge.
The malingering spiritualist Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), admitted for a variety of fictitious ailments, discovers The Kingdom is haunted by a little girl murdered there a century ago by her scientist stepfather. Drusse engages the help of her son, who is an orderly, to trace the child's secret.
Tangents to the main plot involve a pathologist, who is so obsessed with obtaining research tissue that he has a cancerous liver transplanted into himself, and the psychopathic medical student son of the hospital director, whose sick sense of humor leads him to mutilate corpses in the hospital morgue. The ending is pure horror.