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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).
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.
Amy (Mira Sorvino), a New York City architect, takes a needed break at a mountain spa where she falls in love with her blind masseur, Virgil (Val Kilmer). He has congenital cataracts and retinitis pigmentosa. His older sister Jenny (Kelly McGillis) has looked after him for twenty years since their father left and their mother died. She is jealous of Amy’s place in Virgil’s life, and he is angered when Amy contacts a specialist hoping to help him see again.
At first, he resents the implication that his blindness is a problem. But he decides to leave with Amy for New York, where his cataracts are removed. When the bandages are removed he is terrified by the confusing sights that his brain cannot recognize (visual agnosia).
Virgil’s slow adjustment to vision is an exciting challenge, but it drives a wedge between him and Amy. When the retinal disease returns and he begins to go blind again, he leaves her and sets out on his own finding work at a school for blind children. The film ends with a promising moment as Amy and Virgil encounter each other in Central Park.
The Hours begins with a reconstruction of Virginia Woolf's 1941 suicide by drowning. What follows is an exploration of despair and tenacity, of the reasons that some people choose not to continue living, and of the things that enable others to go on. Patterned as a kind of theme and variations on Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, this novel has three strands, each tracing a day in the life of a woman: Virginia Woolf herself, in 1925, as she begins to write Mrs. Dalloway; a middle-aged 1990s New Yorker named Clarissa Vaughan, but nicknamed "Mrs. Dalloway" by Richard, her ex-lover, an acclaimed writer who is dying of AIDS; and Laura Brown, a young mother in Los Angeles in 1949, pregnant, depressed, and reading Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.
Laura's small son, Ritchie, we gradually realize, has grown up to become the Richard in Clarissa Vaughan's story and, as the hours pass in the day-long story of each woman, patterns intertwine. Clarissa (living as a lesbian, so following a path that Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway was offered but chose not to take) is planning a party for Richard. Laura is preparing a birthday dinner for her husband but after a visit from the woman next door, whom she kisses in a moment of profound but disruptive empathy, she checks into a hotel room to read, and to consider suicide. Woolf, recognizing the deep connection between her mental illness and her writing, tries to flee from the faintly suffocating safety of her home and husband.
Each woman survives, and all three days end with a sense of qualified and temporary happiness, drawn together, I think, by the fictional Virginia Woolf's decision about her novel: throughout the day she has thought about her main character, and has intended the book to end with her suicide. Late in the evening, having returned home, Woolf decides to let Mrs. Dalloway live: "sane Clarissa--exultant, ordinary Clarissa--will go on, . . . loving her life of ordinary pleasures, and someone else, a deranged poet, a visionary, will be the one to die."
Ben Givens, a retired surgeon whose wife of several decades has recently died, knows he has inoperable colon cancer. The only other person who knows is a friend and colleague; he hasn't told his daughter or grandson, not wanting to burden them with the news. Not wanting, either, to burden them with his eventual care, or to face the inevitable deterioration and pain to come, he decides to take a putative hunting trip into the mountains where he hunted quail as a boy and there to stage what is to look like an accident by shooting himself.
His plans are thwarted, however, when he gets into a road accident, is helped by a young couple, has to attend to an injured dog and later a young migrant worker giving birth. Life keeps intruding on his plans to die. In the course of several long and eventful days, memories of childhood and young adulthood, love, college, the war, medical school, return to give him back the story of his life and eventually lead him to reconsider how that story should end.
Katie, the twelve-year-old protagonist and narrator, lives with her sister, Diane, and their father, a military man with a violent temper, on a military base in Texas. She remembers their mother, now dead, as a kind, gentle presence, able to temper their father's violence, though Katie begins to realize that the mother had also lived in apprehension of his outbreaks.
The story develops Katie's strategies for coming to terms with the loss of her mother, the fact that her mother never succeeded in protecting her from her father's violence, and eventually the loss of her sister who runs away. She begins to learn how to negotiate with her father and seek and receive nurture both from others and from herself.
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.
An engaging anthology of writings about illness, from over 330 sources, literary and medical, men and women, ranging from Deuteronomy and Hippocrates to Virginia Woolf and Oliver Sacks. Readable explication introduces the chapters devoted to various themes, a list of which will serve best to illustrate the scope.
1. Generalities; 2. Illnesses (greater and lesser); 3. Eyes, Ears and Teeth; 4. Doctors and Cures; 5. Hospitals and Patients; 6. Philosophers and Kings; 7. Intellectual and Spiritual Frets; 8. Strange Complaints, Mishaps, Embarrassments; 9. Imaginary, Feigned, Psychological; 10. Melancholy and Love Sickness; 11. Manias, Phobias, Fantasies, Fears; 12. Breakdown and Madness; 13. Young and Old; 14. Animals; 15. Invalids and Convalescents; 16. Short and Sharp (a collection of pithy aphorisms about illness).
Although the Creation of Adam has been portrayed many times in the history of Western art, no other image is as enduring as Michelangelo’s fresco. Adam lays back on a barren terrain, a small piece of the newly created earth. His languid pose belies his apparent physical strength. Based on classical Greek and Roman prototypes, Adam is the ideal human male with his rippling muscles and elegant contours.
However, at this particular moment, Adam is not complete. He extends his left hand out to meet the finger of God. God hovers in the air, surrounded by angels and a billowing cloak-like form. Adam is clearly made in God’s image, as seen in God’s muscular form. God stretches out with his right hand toward Adam; He looks intently and directly at Adam, who returns the gaze with longing.
As God’s outstretched finger almost meets Adam’s more passive finger, we are poised on the brink of creation. Adam is physically alive, but here God is about to endow Adam with what makes human beings truly alive: the spirit, the soul, the intellect. All of man’s potential, physical and spiritual, is contained in this one timeless moment.