Showing 1 - 10 of 80 annotations contributed by Ratzan, Richard M.

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

This is a poem by one physician-poet, Richard M Berlin, a well published psychiatrist in Massachusetts, that celebrates the life and work of another physician-poet, John Stone, and recounts the effects of the latter’s poetry on Dr. Berlin over thirty years. The poem was published twice, once in JAMA in 2006 and again in Psychiatric Times in August 2008, shortly before John Stone died in his sleep of cancer in November.

The poem is 24 lines in free verse with no stanza breaks. As the title indicates, it is an occasional poem. The occasion? Poet A reading the admired work of Poet B, like Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”. In his poem Berlin commemorates the occasion of his having just read Stone’s 2004 volume of poetry, Music from Apartment 8. The title of Stone’s volume derives from Stone’s mother’s address in Decatur, Georgia. Consisting of five sentences, the poem begins with an account of his reading Stone’s poetry as “a hiker” who stops to “admire the view of snow-capped peaks.” The second sentence records the Berlin’s reflections “three decades later” of Stone and the premature death of Berlin's father. Following this thought, the poet compares Stone’s poetry to the compass his father would have been had he lived longer, Stone’s compass directing him to the possibility of his writing poetry as well, a poetry originating with our patients’ heartbeats. The penultimate sentence is a prayer that Stone is “drinking deep from whatever stream brings you to your knees.” Berlin ends with the further hope that Stone will be able to hear Berlin’s “boots striding behind” Stone’s, “both soles still strong.” There is no published record that I could find that Stone read Berlin’s poem.

In a subsequent essay, Berlin discusses this poem and the history of his relationship to Stone and the latter’s poetry. (1)

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Funeral Mass

PK, Page

Last Updated: Nov-16-2020
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

"Funeral Mass" is a 23- line poem consisting of 11 couplets and one single line (line 8) - all in free verse, unrhymed. It describes a church funeral service for an infant with both parents and family/friends in supportive attendance. Its primary focus is the contrast between the parents' reactions to this death and the behavior of the officiating priests representatives of a Christian denomination, most likely the Roman Catholic Church, since the priests are wearing stoles "embroidered by nuns".

P. K. Page was a Canadian poet and painter who had an intense interest in the mundane aspects of life which, through her microscopic observation and terse but rich style, converted into lapidary poetic gems.






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The Bridge in the Jungle

Traven, B.

Last Updated: May-15-2020
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The Bridge in the Jungle is a novel about the tragic death of Carlos, an 8 or 9 year old (no age is given) hyperactive Mexican boy, and the aftermath of his mother's overwhelming grief for him, sometime in the early 20th Century in a very poor village deep in the jungle. (The lack of specific details are intentional, as I shall discuss below.) The narrator is an American man staying in the village while looking for alligator skins and bird feathers to sell in the U.S.. He observes the little boy's brother, who works in the oil industry in Texas and has just returned for the weekend, give his little brother brand new shoes. Carlos is overjoyed to wear them since all the villagers but the pump master's wife wear threadbare rags for clothes. This is the little boy's first pair of shoes, much less shiny new American ones. While sitting outside in the village with his host, both waiting for an outdoor party, the narrator hears an ominous splash that is Carlos falling to his death off the treacherous bridge, a bridge that has no railings. The remainder of the novel depicts the grief of the young mother - a grief that reaches the suffocating proportions of Greek tragedy - and her villagers' genuine support.

Described in minute detail by the narrator, the villagers - who have turned over every stone in the woods, dived many times in the river, and ridden to nearby villages to find Carlos - turn to an old man who requests a perfectly flat piece of wood and a stout candle. He then meticulously fastens the candle to the wood and carefully launches this raft of mystical exploration and recovery on the river. Every villager watches this ceremony with rapt attention. It is truly a riveting passage, for the raft travels under its own power from the river bank against the current, meandering slowly towards the bridge where it finally stops, despite the current, under the bridge, the only place no diver has yet looked:
"The board in the meanwhile has wandered farther under the bridge, but always in a right angle to the fifth post. Now it is under the middle of the bridge. From here it sails towards the fourth post, though only for about a foot. And here it stops as if it were nailed to the water. It does not mind the current nor the light breeze that sweeps softly across the surface of the river. The manner in which the board has halted is entirely different from that in which it stopped before. Now and then it trembles slightly, as if something were breathing against it from below. But it no longer whirls. ... The board begins softly to dance as if impatient. It seems that it wants to be relieved of its torture. It wriggles, swings about itself, though it does not move as much as two inches. One might think it is trying to go down to the bottom."
(page 110-1)
A villager dives and retrieves Carlos and hands his body to his mother:
"With an indescribable nobility and solemnity, and in his eyes that pitiful sad look which only animals and primitive people possess, he steps slowly forward. And Perez, the man whose daily task it is to fell the hard trees of the jungle and convert them into charcoal, lays that little water-soaked body in the outstretched arms of the mother with a tenderness that makes one think of glass so thin and fragile that a single soft breath could break it."
(page 113)
The villagers, in a procession that is tragicomic, take Carlos' body to the graveyard where a well respected teacher, now drunk from all the mescal others have offered him, gives an eulogy that suggests Christ's Sermon on the Mount. However, with inverted symbolism, this sermon is for, not by, Jesus and is delivered by a drunken priest-figure who is so drunk he falls into the open grave. To Traven's credit he introduces this farcical moment to emphasize how none of the villagers, much less the author, and, consequently, the reader, laughs at a decent man trying his best to honor Carlos. It is truly a most moving finale to a most moving book.



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Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Strange Relation is a memoir of the terminal illness of George Edwards, a composer and professor of music at Columbia University, written by Rachel Hadas, his wife, a well- known poet and herself a professor of English at Rutgers University. Hadas begins with the insidious onset of Edwards's dementia, which is eventually diagnosed as frontotemporal dementia, a slow neurodegenerative disease characterized by a progressive paucity - and then absence - of communication, especially speech. She then continues with their meetings with physicians, especially neurologists, social workers, support groups and eventually nursing home personnel, recording, often in the form of her poems, her thoughts and reactions at the time.

The book consists of short chapters, more or less chronological, with occasional flashbacks to earlier periods in her life or their marriage. In addition to her poems, there are ubiquitous references to literature, many of them familiar, as well as not so familiar illness narratives by patients and relatives, especially those involving dementia and bereavement. George died in 2011, the year of the publication of this book, after 33 years of marriage to Ms. Hadas.




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I AM

Clare, John

Last Updated: Jun-24-2019
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

"I AM" is a poem by John Clare with three sestets in iambic pentameter with an ABABAB rhyming pattern unique to each sestet. In it the poet affirms his identity, his sorrows to date and ends with the expressed longing for a happier life in the presence of God and the solitude of Nature. Due to his disorderly life, unconcern for conventional spelling, and transcriptions of his poems by others, there are often multiple versions extant for an individual poem. This is true for "I AM", which Jonathan Bate, the author of a magisterial biography of the poet, states was written in a psychiatric institution about 1846. (1, page 505) For this annotation I have used what many consider to be the most authoritative edition of his poems. The poem also exists in several reliable sites on the internet.

The poet was a troubled man born near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, England, in 1793, in meager circumstances and remaining so throughout his entire life. Save for a five month period in 1841, Clare spent the last 27 of his 71 years in psychiatric institutions. He wrote his poetry, which primarily celebrates the natural world he spent so much time in alone, before and during his hospitalizations. His reputation as a poet has burgeoned significantly in the last 100 years.


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The Anatomy Lesson

Siegal, Nina

Last Updated: Jul-31-2018
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

In 1632, at the age of only 26, Rembrandt finished a large (85.2 in × 66.7 in) oil painting that was destined to become one of his best known works and certainly one of the linchpins in the nexus between the graphic arts and the medical humanities. "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" depicts the dissection of the flexor tendons of the left arm of a cadaver by the eponymous doctor while an attentive audience of his peers, identifiable members of the medical and anatomical community of early 17th century Amsterdam, looks on. Nina Siegal's novel tells her imagined back story of this richly illustrated anatomy lesson which, once you read her captivating novel, will make you ask yourself, as I did, why no one has thought fit to do so heretofore.

Using multiple first person narrators, Siegal examines the characters (some historical, others wholly fictional) and events leading up to the anatomy lesson and Rembrandt's artistic rendering of it. Inventing a life for Aris Kindt (born Adriaen  Adriaenszoon), the historically real career criminal whose recently judicial hanging provides the body we see in the painting, Siegal provides him with Flora, a lover who is carrying his illegitimate child at the time of his public - and quite raucous - hanging. Growing up in Leiden, in the same neighborhood as Flora and Rembrandt himself, Kindt was the physically and emotionally abused son of a leather worker and, in Siegal's imagination, a petty but persistent thief hanged for his inveterate and irremediable life of crime. As was the custom of the day, his body was legally assigned to an anatomist for public dissection. With a non-linear narrative, organized into brief chapters entitled for body parts, Siegal traces the beginnings of three of the protagonists - Kindt, Flora, and Rembrandt. She constructs  how their lives intersect not only before, during and after the hanging, but also in more philosophical strokes, namely the medical, theological and artistic tapestry on which this image rests. There are several minor characters, like Tulp and his family; Jan Fetchet, the "famulus" responsible for securing and preparing Kindt's body immediately following the hanging; and even René Descartes, who seems to have been in town during this momentous occasion pursuing his own polymathic research, which included anatomy at the time.  Siegal adds a few reports dictated by a fictional modern- day conservator offering her interpretation of many of the details of Rembrandt's masterpiece, details that serve to highlight aspects of Siegal's narrative, such as the possible artistic re-implantation of Kindt's amputated right hand.

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Catullus 101

Catullus, Gaius Valerius

Last Updated: Feb-27-2018
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

Latin

Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,
quandoquidem fortuna mihi tete abstulit ipsum,
heu miser indigne frater adempte mihi.
nunc tamen interea haec, prisco quae more parentum
tradita sunt tristi munere ad inferias,
accipe fraterno multum manantia fletu
atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.



English

Brother, I come o'er many seas and lands
To the sad rite which pious love ordains, 
To pay thee the last gift that death demands ;
And oft, though vain, invoke thy mute remains : 
Since death has ravish'd half myself in thee,
Oh wretched brother, sadly torn from me ! 

And now ere fate our souls shall re-unite,
To give me back all it hath snatch'd away, 
Receive the gifts, our fathers' ancient rite
To shades departed still was wont to pay ;
Gifts wet with tears of heartfelt grief that tell,
And ever, brother, bless thee, and farewell!

Catullus, G. V., & Lamb, G. (1821). The poems of Caius Valerius Catullus. London: J. Murray. Vol. II: page 94.

Catullus 101 is a 10 line elegy that Catullus, a Roman lyric poet (84 - 54? BCE), wrote upon the occasion of his visiting the tomb (probably as part of his trip to Bithynia in 57 BCE) of his brother, who had recently died in the Troad. We do not know much about his brother, whom he mentions several times (also in poems 65 and 68) in his 116 poems, but it is clear from this beautiful threnody that he loved him a great deal.

Written in elegiac couplets (comprising a two line sequence of a 6 foot line followed by a 5 foot one), this poem has justly become famous for its depth of emotion and its stylistic elegance, all neatly fitting into a 10 line jewel of poetry. Unlike the bulk of Catullus's oeuvre, which has for its most common subjects love and sex, in all their heights and depths - from marriage hymns to scurrilous poems more appropriately adorning subway walls as graffiti - this poem simply expresses the poet's sadness in profoundly solemn tones, invoking, in almost ritualistic manner, the Roman funeral rites ("inferias" in the original) due the dead by family. Some scholars feel that it might have been inscribed on the tomb. The gifts mentioned would have been modest ones, e.g., wine, lentils, honey and flowers.

Although the translation above is antiquated, it nicely renders the Latin. Others abound, including the three I also prefer, listed below.

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Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

This Side of Doctoring is an anthology published in 2002 about the experiences of women in medicine. While the essays span multiple centuries, most are from the past 50 years. They reflect on a multitude of stages in the authors’ personal and professional lives. In 344 pages divided into twelve sections, including "Early Pioneers," "Life in the Trenches," and "Mothering and Doctoring," the 146 authors recount - in excerpts from published memoirs, previously published and unpublished essays, poems and other writings, many of them composed solely for this collection - what it was then and what it was in 2002 to be a woman becoming a doctor in the U.S.. All but a handful of the authors are physicians or surgeons. There is a heavy representation from institutions on both coasts, especially the Northeast. Four men were invited to reflect on being married to physician wives. There is one anonymous essay concerning sexual harassment and a final essay from a mother and daughter, both physicians.   Beginning with the first American female physicians in the mid-19th century, like historic ground-breakers Elizabeth Blackwell and Mary Putnam Jacobi, the anthology proceeds through the phases of medical school, residency, early and mid-careers, up to reflections from older physicians on a life spent in medicine. Many of the authors have names well known in the medical humanities, including Marcia Angell, Leon Eisenberg, Perri Klass, Danielle Ofri, Audrey Shafer, and Marjorie Spurrier Sirridge, to mention a few. 

The essays and poems and letters have, as a partial listing, the following subjects: family influences in becoming a physician; professional friendships; marriage; children and their impact on a woman’s career in medicine; the decision not to have children; ill family members; illness as a physician; establishing one's sexuality as a physician; struggles with male physicians and their egos; mentors, both female and male; memorable patients (often terminal or dying); the life of a wife-physician, or mother-physician; the guilt and sacrifice that accompany such a dual life; the importance - and easy loss - of personal time or what internist Catherine Chang calls “self-care” (page 334).
  The anthology also touches on how women have changed the practice of medicine in various ways, prompted by the growing realization, as family practice physician Alison Moll puts it, "that I didn't have to practice in the traditional way" (page 185)  The authors write about the wisdom of setting limits; training or working part-time or sharing a position with another woman; and the constant face-off with decisions, especially those not normally confronting an American man becoming a doctor. 
One conclusion is evident before the reader is halfway through the book: there are many approaches to becoming a fulfilled female physician including finding one’s identity in the field.  Implicit in most of the essays and writings is the lament from obstetrician-gynecologist Gayle Shore Mayer: "Where is the self ? There are pieces of me everywhere", (page 275) recalling a similar cry from Virginia Woolf's Orlando, another essentially female soul trying to find what Richard Selzer has called "The Exact Location of the Soul".
 Several authors discover that female physicians have unique gifts to offer their patients. As internist Rebekah Wang-Cheng writes, “I am a better physician because I am a mother, and I know because of my experiences as a physician that I am a better mother.” (page 151) 

There are sections at the end devoted to a glossary for the lay reader, resources for women (as of 2002), and generous notes about the contributors (which section also serves as a useful index of each's contributions).

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The Beautician

Gunn, Thom

Last Updated: Nov-06-2017
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

"Beautician" is a short poem about a beautician visiting a dead friend in the morgue, her sorrow at seeing her friend dead and not looking her best, even dead, and the beautician's attempts to rectify the situation. It is fifteen lines long, in three stanzas of five lines each, in iambic pentameter with a rhyming pattern of abbab. The rhyming is best described as approximate, e.g., "skill" with "beautiful" with "all".

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Essex Serpent, The

Perry, Sarah

Last Updated: Sep-07-2017
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

The idea for her second novel came to Sarah Perry in a flash (Ref. 1) as her husband was telling her about the 1699 sighting of a serpent or dragon in Henham, a village slightly to the northwest of the town of Essex, where Ms.Perry was born in 1979. The late 19th century events of the novel occur primarily in Aldwinter, a fictional fishing village on the Blackwater estuary.  Divided into 4 books (with titles derived from a 1669 pamphlet on the Serpent), each with subdivisions by month, further subdivided into chapters, the story takes place over 11 calendar months, from New Year's Eve to November, 1892. Although the story does not feel complicated and should not be difficult to describe in a synopsis, it is a tribute to the novelist's Dickensian talents  that in fact it is somewhat complex, involving four couples and their various children and friends and their increasingly intricate relationships, all revolving around the palpable feeling in Aldwinter that the famous Essex Serpent has returned, resurfaced, or decided to re-animate all the lives therein. The protagonist is Cora Seaborne,  a recently widowed free-thinker, adept in biology and natural sciences, and mother of an adolescent boy, Francis, who would nowadays probably receive the label "autistic." After the death of her abusive husband from oropharyngeal cancer, Cora becomes emotionally involved with Luke Garrett, the treating surgeon, an idiosyncratic, brilliant man, who has a bosom buddy, George Spencer (simply called "Spencer"), a very wealthy former medical school classmate. With an introduction from her friends Charles and Katherine Ambrose, Cora and Martha - her intimate companion - visit William (often referred to as just "Will") and his wife Stella Ransome in Aldwinter, where Will is the parish minister and father to three children. The eldest is Joanna, a precocious adolescent girl one imagines, alongside a younger Cora, as a younger version of this novel's author, who describes herself as vibrantly curious of all her surroundings while growing up in Essex as a young girl. (Ref. 2)

With the arrival of Cora and Martha in Aldwinter, the narrative begins in earnest with the development of the mounting anxiety over the mysterious events (a missing boat, unexplained drownings) attributed to possibly a resurgent Essex Serpent besetting Aldwinter; Luke's miraculous operation saving a man named Edward Burton from a knife wound to the heart; the increasingly romantic relationship between Cora and Will, to Luke's dismay; Stella's rapidly progressive pulmonary tuberculosis; the disappearance of Naomi Banks, a friend of Joanna; and an attack on Luke by the same man who had knifed Edward Burton. By novel's end, without spoiling the plot, most loose ends have been cauterized, left more neatly dangling or deftly retied.  


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