Monday, November 16, 2015

Monday Muse: 'Poetry In Medicine'

All of us are born as patients. . . .
~ Preface to Poetry in Medicine

Cover Art of Poetry in Medicine

Some time ago I wrote a post titled "The Poetry of Illness". (I might as easily have titled it "The Poetry in Illness".) My book Neruda's Memoirs: Poems (T.S. Poetry Press, 2011) was inspired by my own experience of my late brother's cancer, and charts the arc of highs and lows through his illness. Though it bears repeating that poets don't become poets because they have cared for a loved one or have sickened or faced down death, they, along with visual artists, choreographers, and others in and outside the arts*, have since ancient times made our universal concerns about disease, illness, healing, mortality, loss, and grief fertile and compelling sources for their work. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident than in the recently published Poetry in Medicine: An Anthology of Poems About Doctors, Patients, Illness, and Healing (Persea Books, 2015), edited by Michael Salcman, a poet, neurosurgeon, art historian, lecturer, and author.

At 400 pages and more than 300 poems, this is a generous volume that covers what not only what we suffer but how. Its allotment of poems to 14 well-defined categories — "The Wisdom of the Body: Anatomy & Physiology"; "Contagion, Infections, & Fevers"; "Blindness, Pain, & Other Ailments"; "Powders, Pills, & Other Remedies"; "From the Children's Ward"; "Looking Inside: Procedures, Surgical & Diagnostic"; "Tumors, Trauma, & Tumult"; "Doctors & Other Healers"; "Patients"; "The Wounded Mind: Depression & Dementia"; "The Final Journey: Death & Dying"; "The View from the Other Side of the Bed: Loved Ones of the Sick"; "Hospitals & Other Places of Healing"; "Convalescence" — invites browsing sections of particular interest while also attesting to the considerable breadth and depth of approaches.

More than 150 poets, from the ancients to the contemporary, are represented in the anthology, some in more than one of the thematic sections. The contributors comprise an international "Who's Who" of poetry: Ovid, Chaucer, William Shakespeare, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Charles Baudelaire, William Butler Yeats, Rilke, C. P. Cavafy, D.H. Lawrence, A.A. Milne, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell. Many of the poets I read in depth — Kelly Cherry, Lucille Clifton, Mark Doty, Claudia Emerson, Donald Hall, Seamus Heaney, Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, Jane Kenyon, Denise Levertov, Linda Pastan, Ruth Stone, Wislawa Szymborska — count among the familiar. There also is a selection of poets to whose work I'm newly introduced, among them Robert Cooperman, Alfred Corn, Sarah N. Cross, Thomas James, Brendan Galvin, Jane Mayhall, Anya Silver, Brian Thornton, C. Dale Young. In addition to their positions in literature (poet, writer, author, playwright, editor, translator, critic, scholar) or the arts (painter, art historian, art critic, jazz musician), the poets represent a range of medically related occupations: physician, nurse or nurse-practitioner, cardiologist, pulmonologist, speech therapist, psychologist, oncologist, radiation oncologist.

The illnesses and disorders described in the poems are equally as wide-ranging, from the common cold, to the stomach ache; from migraine, to vertigo, to epilepsy; from "tired blood", to AIDS, Alzheimer's, and numerous forms of cancer. Among the poems about cancer is the shortest in the anthology, David Ferry's remarkable two-line "At the Hospital": "She was the sentence the cancer spoke at last, / Its blurred grammar finally clarified."

Various poetic forms are represented in the anthology: Sandra M. Gilbert's "Colonoscopy Sonnet", Alice Notley's "Sonnet", Anna Seward's "Sonnet: To the Poppy", Mary Jo Salter's "Half a Double Sonnet"; Brian Thornton's "losing -lar degener-", constructed to show visually how macular degeneration affects eyesight; Kimberly Johnson's "Ode on My Belly Button"; T.S. Eliot's prose poem "Hysteria".

There are poems that make the reader laugh, such as Ogden Nash's "The Common Cold" ("Go hang yourself, you old M.D.! / You shall no longer sneer at me. [...]"); and others, like Ellen Bryant Voight's "Damage" ([...] Each time I bathe him / in his little tub, I think // How easy to let go // Let go"), that speak to the profound sadness with which a new mother regards her child; some that create indelible descriptions of our machines, like Grey Gowrie's "The Third Day" ("Respirators sound like trout feeding / [....]") or Stanley Plumley's "The Iron Lung" ("[... ] Once there was a machine for breathing. / It would embrace the body and make a kind of love. / [....]"); still others that remark movingly on the prospect of loss, such as Mark Doty's "The Embrace" ([...] we held / each other for the time the dream allowed. // [....]"). And then there are the doctors' own poems that show us such painful and devastating reality that our hearts hurt well before we reach the last line; to wit, Michael Salcman's "Medulloblastoma":

I hear you're writing a thesis
on the deaths of children expressed in poems.
Perhaps you haven't seen them die yourself
and if you did might forego the subject.

I'm writing to tell you how
the crusts of their scalps become very dry
after chemo and the tiny hairs left behind
curl like watch springs.

They are the first to know—
their eyes glimmering with knowledge.
It's useless to tiptoe around their beds
to whisper and tell them lies.
Their dying is slow
and they see it from a long way off.

For those of us who turn to poetry to make sense of the mysteries of disease and its effects on our bodies, our minds, our emotions, our very sense of identity, this volume, so diverse in its offerings, is hugely welcome. It's essential reading.

Poetry in Medicine thoughtfully includes a Foreword by poet, professor, and Bread Loaf Writers' Conference director Michael Collier; a Preface, and a nine-page Introduction by the editor, as well as brief biographies of each poet, an index of poets, and a list of sources for the poems presented.

* See, for example, my posts "Hollis Sigler: Painting Hope on Canvas"; "Monday Muse: Bettina Judd"; "Patients Like Me"; "Wednesday Wonder: 'Bottle World' Healing Garden"; and "Healing With Poetry: Interview with Poet Fred Foote" (Parts 1, 2, 3) at TweetSpeak Poetry.

Also see the work of Rafael Campo, a poet-physician whose work is included in the anthology. Included on his Website are a selection of his essays on literature and medicine and information on his books, which include What the Body Told, The Desire to Heal, The Healing Art, and Alternative Medicine. PBS interviewed Campo in 2014; see "Rafael Campo Uses His Stethoscope to Explore Rhythms of Poetry" and "Rafael Campo's Student Physicians Embrace Poetry to Hone Art of Healing".

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