After Reading Music from Apartment 8

Berlin, Richard

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Aug-11-2021
  • Last revised: Aug-12-2021

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 Berlins’ 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)

Commentary

This poem is a wonderful encomium to John Stone, who touched so many of our lives so deeply, those who were fortunate to know him, and those who were not but came to know him as readers of his direct, moving poetry that often dealt with medical themes, ranging from the serious (“Cadaver”) to the downright funny (“The Truck”).

The poet artfully sets up his motif early, i.e., himself as a hiker along life’s and then a physician-poet’s trail. Initial readings of Stone’s poetry reveal to Berlin “snow-capped peaks”, at least to his eye (and to those of most of Stone’s other readers as well). Without his father, victim of three “bad’s” (“bad genes, bad luck, and bad doctoring”), Berlin turns to Stone as his compass to guide him not only along his trail of life, presumably (an implicit assumption from the comparison to his absent father no longer able to guide Berlin “north”), but, perhaps more importantly for this poet and his poem, along the trail of poetry as well, towards

a world
where doctors can be poets,
where the pulse of each line
begins with the heartbeat we hear
when we bend close to our patients.

Following this beautiful description of the shared world of a physician-writer and her patient, wherein the physician interprets the patient’s heartsound as her own verse, Berlin prays that Stone, “too”, is drinking “deep from whatever stream brings you to your knees”, clearly implying not just a stream on a hiker’s trail but the stream of inspiration. Indeed, an erudite poet leavening his art with a gentle hand, Berlin here is undoubtedly referring to Alexander Pope’s famous couplet from his Essay on Criticism:

A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:


Berlin’s identification with Stone as fellow physician-poet, so carefully crafted over the preceding 18 lines (in a sense, this 6 line coda, with line 19 as the volta, is the completion of a 24 line sonnet), is nearly complete, as is the identification, humanistically, of the patient and the physician-poet in lines 15-18.

The poem ends with Berlin’s hope that Stone will be able to hear the former’s boots (read “poems” for “boots”), both of them on the same trail, but the former’s boots “striding behind yours”, as befits a fellow traveler following his guide, his compass, his mentor. The final two lines inject a Propertian ambiguity into the poem, an interesting and highly poetic technique with which to end a paean to one’s muse. For Berlin’s final four lines are


                              And I hope
you can hear my boots striding
behind yours, cracked from the heat,
covered with dust, both soles still strong.


Does “cracked from the heat,/covered with dust, both soles still strong” refer to the immediately antecedent possessive adjective, “yours”, i.e., Stone’s boots? Or Berlin’s, whose boots (“my boots”) are the subject of the participle “striding”? Or does “cracked from the heat ...” refer to both men’s boots?

And does “both soles still strong” refer, again, to the soles of Stone, of Berlin, or the soles of both men? Or, as tired a pun as it is, does “both soles” refer to both of their “souls”?  The ambiguity of the pun rests on the confusion whether “both soles[read “souls”]” refers to the antecedent “yours” (Stone’s) or to the “souls” of both (an adjective almost strictly referring to two nouns) men. This confusion is augmented since, if “soles” referred to both their “soles” and not “souls”, it would not be “both” but “all [four of our] soles”, since two travelers have two souls but four soles. Nonetheless, the effect of this slyly injected doubt, more syntactic than lexical, is to relieve the pun of its usual burden as a “sole-soul” pun, the more so since one is too busier attempting to decode the multiply interpretable endings than worrying about the legitimacy of the pun.

I was lucky enough to have known John Stone for 25 years and can see him now, smiling as he read this poem.


Miscellaneous

(1) Berlin, R.M. Introduction - Drinking Deep: A Tribute to John Stone. J Med Humanit 30, 271 (2009). https://doi-org.online.uchc.edu/10.1007/s10912-009-9092-6

Primary Source

Berlin, Richard M.