How JFK Killed My Father is a collection of 52 poems by psychiatrist Richard Berlin. The book is divided into five sections--"Learning the Shapes," "Role Models," "Code Blue," "What a Psychiatrist Remembers," and "What I Love"--and these subtitles guide the reader through this physician's poignant journey from medical student to accomplished, and humbled, "healer, priest, turner of textbook pages, searcher, listener, arrogant crow consumed in white" ("If You Ask Me My Name").

Berlin's poems succeed because of strong imagery and the kind of internal "knowing" that only comes when one pays attention to the sights, sounds, and emotional nuances that occur in training, in practice, and in life. A musician as well as a doctor, Berlin sometimes uses jazz as a metaphor: in "Uncle Joe" he writes about "suffering's music" and in "Learning the Shapes" medical students practice examining patients until their fingers are as sensitive as a "blind bluesman" whose fingers can sense the right note "an instant before / touching a tight steel string."

Berlin "gets" the stress of med school and residency just right in "Sunday Parade" and "January Thaw"; as his poems retrace his path from student to practicing psychiatrist, he transmits the deepening of both experience and empathy in the same right-on way: "What I Revealed," "Places We Have Met," "What a Dying Woman Saw," "Transference," "What a Psychiatrist Remembers," "What Makes a Psychiatrist Cry," "Our Medical Marriage," and "What I Love" stand out as examples. The poems in this collection are personal, eloquent, straightforward and well crafted; they move effortlessly between body, mind, and spirit.

A reader could open this collection to any poem and be captivated, but for full impact this collection is best read from beginning to end. Medical students, especially, might welcome this volume as a guide along their way.

(Some of the poems here also appear in Berlin's chapbook, Code Blue, which is annotated in this database.)


Like many physician poets today, Berlin feels an affinity to W. C. Williams and uses a Williams quote as the collection's epigraph, one that in part alludes to the interconnectedness of illness and physician: "It was myself, naked, just as it was, without a lie, telling itself to me in its own terms." Berlin also believes that all caregivers are only one step removed from their patients' fates. But while Williams's poems are sometimes so analytical they bypass empathy, Berlin infuses his poems--even the most visceral--with tenderness: as a medical student in "Anatomy Lab" he could slice off a young cadaver's breast "the way I might halve a peach," but at semester's end, "brittle as guilt," could not cut away the "short blond braid / at the base of her skull."


This collection won the 2002 Pearl Poetry Prize.


Pearl Editions

Place Published

Long Beach, Calif.



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