Comfort Measures Only

Campo, Rafael

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney
  • Date of entry: Nov-26-2018
  • Last revised: Nov-26-2018


Physician Rafael Campo's collection of new and selected poems is a lovely look back (selected poems are from 1994 to 2016) and an exciting look at thirty-one new poems that continue his trademark use of a variety of poetic forms (the title poem "Comfort Measures Only" is a Villanelle, pg 135) and the moving and personal examination of his interactions with patients.   This collection begins with Campo's excellent introductory essay, "Illness as Muse" (pgs 1-9).  

As the essay opens, an audience member tells Campo that his poems are "really depressing." Even Campo's spouse advises him to lighten things up, a counsel I hope the poet never heeds--for it is precisely Campo's unwavering examination of sorrow, regret, death, and despair that set his poems apart from poems that find "butterflies or snowflakes or flowers as more suitable." Campo responds: "Try as I might to take all of this concern to heart . . . I keep finding myself drawn to write about illness" (pg 1).

Campo recalls how singing and praying consoled his grandmother and seemed to lessen her physical ills: "No wonder I have come to believe in the power of the imagination if not to cure, then to heal" (pg 4).  On page five he notes "To write about illness, to heed this terrible muse, is to reject distancing and to embrace empathy, for which there is no reward or claim on greatness other than perhaps the perverse joy of recognizing oneself as being susceptible to the same foibles and neuroses as anyone."  Indeed it is this vulnerability--the ability to see physician and patient on the same plane, as equal players in a moment in time--that has become another hallmark of Campo's poetry.
Selected poems from previously published collections follow the essay: nine poems from "The Other Man Was Me" (1994); eight poems from "What the Body Told" (1997); nine poems from "Diva" (200); five poems from "Landscape with Human Figure" (2002); seven poems from "The Enemy" (2007); and twenty poems from "Alternative Medicine" (2013).  Of these collections, all but "Landscape with Human Figure" and "The Enemy" have been reviewed in the database.


Reading Campo's new poems against the backdrop of older poems, I sense an ever deepening and ever more open response to his work with patients.  He considers his role as healer without a shred of bravado.  In "Morbidity and Mortality Rounds" the narrator asks forgiveness of the patient: "Forgive me, body before me, for this.  / Forgive me for my bumbling hands, unschooled  /  in how to touch: I meant to understand  /  what fever was, not love . . .  (pg 140).  It is evident that the poet does care for his patients--he looks beyond their charts to see them as individuals ("The Chart," pg 137).  He shares their mortality and cannot feign indifference: "I see my own face in his open coffin.  When the tears come  /  they warn us not to feel anything, but I betray them" ("Lessons Not Learned During Medical Training" pg. 158).

Like many caregivers who write, Campo has a complicated relationship with suffering, both to his own suffering as a physician who cannot always cure, and to that of his patients who may see no end to their pain.  Campo's poems often subtly suggest wider vistas, truths that are often difficult to see or bear in the time of illness:  "Hear me, they implore;
/ adore  / me, let me live. Yet my complain is hard  /  my words  /  elusive.  Suffering, I hate to say, is grace" ("Complaint" pg 139).  A physician may do many things to relieve his or her own suffering, yet a binding oath has been made: "The doctor may  /  reserve the right to look away, but he  /  must always recognize it was his voice  /  that made this harmless, sacred pledge, for you" ("Hippocratic Oath 2.0" pg 145).

Although gently criticized for poems that depress, Campo's poems also reveal his skill with irony and, yes, outright humor.  In "Just Know Your Shit," we might hear the words of a patient as he confronts a doctor who might be Rafael Campo--a physician with an open heart and tender insecurities who might later that day write a poem: "I want a doctor who knows his shit.  /  Don't hold my hand when my heart fibrillates--  /  just shock me with the right amount of juice" and at the poem's end, "For God's  /  sake, don't feel for me.  Just do it, don't sob" (pg 144).

Happily, Rafael Campo is a doctor who delivers excellent and compassionate care as well as a writer who steps back, aware of all the complexities of life, illness, and mortality, to offer us these excellent and compassionate poems.


Campo's introductory essay is the perfect entryway into this collection of poems, an essay that should be required reading in every literature and medicine venue, one that deserves lively discussion.  These poems, both older and newer, will be of interest to poetry lovers in and out of the medical field.  Medical students especially might find these poems both challenging and comforting.  Those experienced in healthcare will recognize themselves and their patients in Campo's words.


Duke University Press

Place Published

Durham and London



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