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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).
Having fled Corinth because of a fearful prophecy that he would murder his father and wed his mother, the young Oedipus angrily attacks and kills a small band of travelers who refuse to make way for him at a crossroads, a "place where three roads meet." He ultimately journeys to Thebes, a kingdom without a leader and without any hope of freeing itself from the tyranny of the Sphinx. Relying on his "wit alone," Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx and ascends the throne, eventually marrying the widowed queen, Jocasta, and fathering two sons and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene.
The prosperous and just reign of Oedipus is halted by a devastating outbreak of plague--a pestilence whose only remedy, according to Apollo, is justice for the murder of the murdered Theban king, Laius. An intelligent man and responsible leader, Oedipus launches an investigation, only to discover that he is not the savior of the city but the cause of its destruction. When his true heritage and his terrible crimes of parricide and incest are revealed, Oedipus blinds himself and invites banishment, nobly accepting his fate as "the greatly miserable, the most accursed . . . above all men on earth."
Nick and Fran move into an old house with their family: Miranda, thirteen, Nick's daughter from a previous marriage (her mother has been hospitalized with depression); eleven-year-old Gareth, Fran's son (who was almost aborted); and a toddler, Jasper, the child of both. Fran is pregnant again. Nick tries to hold them together as a family, but must also take care of Geordie, his grandfather, who is dying of cancer at the age of 101.
Geordie believes that what's killing him is a bayonet wound he received in World War I. As his disease progresses, the old man relives the war, especially the battle in which his brother died, with increasing vividness. After Geordie's death, Nick learns that in the battle he had killed his wounded brother who may, he thinks, otherwise have survived.
Geordie tells the story in an interview with a historian working on memory and war, and confesses that he hated his brother. She gently tells him that "a child's hatred" is different, but he--like the novel itself--refuses to see this as mitigation. Geordie's tale resonates both with what Nick learns about the house he bought--in 1904 the older children of the family living there were believed to have murdered their two-year-old sibling--and with Gareth and Miranda's resentment of Jasper, which has near-fatal consequences.
The multiple plots of Our Mutual Friend, Dickens's last complete novel, twine around the miser John Harmon's legacy of profitable heaps of refuse ("dust"). Harmon dies and leaves the dustheap operation to his estranged son John, on the condition that he marry Bella Wilfer, a young woman unknown to him. When a body found in the Thames is believed to be the younger Harmon, travelling home to receive his inheritance, the dustheaps descend instead to Harmon's servant Noddy Boffin ("The Golden Dustman").
Boffin and his wife respond to their new status by hiring Silas Wegg, a "literary man with a wooden leg" to teach Boffin to read; arranging to adopt an orphaned toddler from his poor great-grandmother; and bringing the socially ambitious Bella Wilfer into their home, where she is watched and evaluated by John Rokesmith, a mysterious young man employed as Boffin's secretary.
Rokesmith is actually John Harmon, who has survived betrayal and attempted murder and is living incognito so that he can observe Bella. Boffin's negative transformation by his wealth, Bella's moral awakening as she witnesses the changes wealth produces in Boffin and in herself, and the developing love relationship between Rokesmith and Bella form one key sub-plot.
Another is the romance between gentlemanly idler Eugene Wrayburn and Lizzie Hexam, the daughter of the waterman who finds the drowned body. Class differences and the obsessive love and jealousy of schoolmaster Bradley Headstone threaten their relationship, but they are finally married with the help of the crippled dolls' dressmaker Jenny Wren. The smaller plots that interweave these sensation/romance narratives comment on the hypocrisy of fashionable life ("Podsnappery") and the destruction of the family lives of both rich and poor by an industrialized, materialistic society.
The Shawl is comprised of two stories, "The Shawl" and "Rosa," originally published in The New Yorker respectively in 1980 and 1983. The first and much shorter of the stories is an extremely powerful account of the brutality of the Nazi concentration camps. Rosa, (who we meet again 30 years later in the second story), has been hiding and protecting her daughter Magda in a shawl. Rosa's 14 year old niece, Stella, (who also is central to the second story) takes the shawl from the child for her own comfort. The horrific events that follow, tiny Magda's search for her shawl and discovery by a German soldier who hurtles her to her death against an electrified fence, shape the remainder of Rosa's life--and this book.
In the sequel, Rosa, now 59 years old, has moved to Miami (a "hellish place") after literally destroying the junk shop in New York which she had owned. She lives an isolated life in a dilapidated one room apartment. Stella, who remained in New York, supports her financially, and is her primary source of contact with the outside world. A serendipitous meeting at a laundromat with a Mr. Persky, however, changes Rosa's life.
This is not to imply that there is a romanticized ending to this story--just a glimmer of hope of reconnection to the world is offered. For Rosa was still living the holocaust. As she put it--there's life before, life during (Hitler's reign) and life after--"Before is a dream. After is a joke. Only during stays." This orientation to the world is what Persky challenges.
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.
This excerpt from Tim O'Brien's autobiographical fiction about the war in Vietnam is a reverie of memory, dream, and story that resurrects the dead. The dead are fellow soldiers, the enemy dead, and a first love who died in childhood.
Tim, the narrator and writer, was only four days into his tour of duty when his platoon commander ordered an air strike against a village that is the source of sniper fire. When the platoon walked through the destroyed village, they found one old, dead, mutilated villager. Tim's fellow soldiers had developed a ritual of "greeting the dead" in which they pretended the dead person was still alive, was someone to be greeted, spoken to, both in mockery and in respect. They applied this ritual to the enemy dead as well as to their own dead.
Both repelled and fascinated by the ritual, Tim remembered his own method for animating the dead-in childhood-friend, Linda, whom he mourned and continues to mourn. After she died of brain cancer, he intentionally dreamed her alive and held conversations with her, just as his compatriots held conversations with their dead colleagues. Now, years later, he is telling the story of these experiences, these dead, these rituals, "keeping the dead alive," and "trying to save Timmy's [his younger self's] life with a story."
Most of the thirteen stories in this collection portray interactions among pension guests in a German spa town; a few represent the lives of the town's permanent residents. The minor health problems (mostly digestive ailments, or unspecified "internal complaints") of the guests are not the crux of the plot but rather what gives it its texture. Talk about eating, "internal complaints," sexuality, body image, and pregnancy is the vehicle through which people try to relate.
Most of the stories are about failed communications: between men and women, for example, or between German and English people. Several stories are narrated in the first person by a young Englishwoman whose bodily and marital status (ill? pregnant? married or not?) are pointedly ambiguous.
Two stories represent childbirth from "outsider" perspectives. In "At Lehman's," a virginal serving girl sees her mistress's pregnancy as an "ugly, ugly, ugly" state; later, her sexual explorations with a young man are interrupted by her mistress's screams in labor. In "A Birthday," a man waiting for his wife to give birth focuses on his own suffering rather than hers. "The Child-Who-Was-Tired" follows a child-servant through a day of repeated abuses to body and spirit that culminates in infanticide.
This book concerns the care of dying persons. Hospice care provides a multidisciplinary approach to caring for the whole person, including his or her physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs. Often, however, discussion about hospice or palliative care tends to focus almost exclusively on relieving physical symptoms. Kearney tells us a number of dying patients' stories. Some die at peace, in seeming fulfillment. Others die in great distress, with what Kearney calls "soul pain," a deep existential anguish that is not relieved by symptom control or social support.
Kearney proposes two complimentary models to describe what occurs in dying persons whose "soul pain" is relieved. For the first, he recounts the Greek myth of Chiron. The wise centaur Chiron suffered from an incurable arrow wound inflicted by Hercules. Chiron learned that if he would be willing to sacrifice his immortality on behalf of Prometheus, he would be freed from his suffering. After he did this and descended into the underworld, Zeus raised him to the heavens, where he became a constellation.
Thus, the mythological model has a hero who is wounded, struggles, makes a choice, then descends into the depths, and finally returns transformed. The second, psychological model portrays the mind as having a surface rational part (where the ego resides) and a deep symbolic and intuitive part (where the "deep center" resides). The relief of "soul pain" lies in choosing to reject the ego's resistance and "letting go" to get in touch with the deep center.
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]