Archives for posts with tag: Julia Darling

I have been thinking about this most unique of relationships, partly in the wake of Medicine Unboxed 2013, and also as I am currently writing chapters for a book on Illness and the Arts.

Jonathon Tomlinson has written a very comprehensive and insightful essay on the notion of the ‘patient’ (http://abetternhs.wordpress/2012/04/09/whats-in-a-name/).

Here, I just want to draw attention to words from those who have expressed their experience of the patient-doctor through their poetry.

Firstly, Raymond Carver, who died as a result of lung cancer, and his poem What the Doctor Said:

‘He said it doesn’t look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them…’

Later in the poem:

‘he said I am real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you’

Carver concludes:

‘I just looked at him

for a minute and he looked back and it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me

something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may even have thanked him habit being so strong’

This is one of my all time favourite poems. It manages to say so much with so few words – the essence of poetry itself – and within 23 short lines the poem delivers such a strong sense of what the sufferer was experiencing at the ‘other side’ of the desk.

Secondly, to another poet who died as a result of cancer, Julia Darling. The anthology The Poetry Cure, which she edited with Cynthia Fuller, contains much to enlighten those who wish to gain insight into the suffering of illness.

In her poem Too Heavy, Darling directly addresses the medical profession:

‘Dear Doctor,

I am writing to complain about these words

you have given me, that I carry in my bag

lymphatic, nodal, progressive, metastatic…’

‘…And then you say

Where are your words Mrs Patient?

What have you done with your words?

Or worse, you give me that dewy look

Poor Mrs Patient has lost all her words, but shush,

don’t upset her, I’ve got spares in the files.

Thank god for files.’

Finally, also from The Poetry Cure, from Carole Satyamurti’s Out-Patients:

‘My turn. He reads my breasts

like braille, finding the lump

I knew was there. This is

the episode I could see coming —

although he’s reassuring,

doesn’t think it’s sinister

but to be quite clear…

He’s taking over,

he’ll be the writer now,

the plot-master,

and I must wait

to read my next instalment.’

The poets say it all.

I have nothing to add.


…and lastly, at least for now (I have asked Father Christmas for the Collected Poems, so…), I will end these limited musings on the works of Stephen Dunn on a positive note.

What I like most about the poem Happiness (in: Staying Alive. Neil Astley (ed). Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2005, p.81), is the poet’s acknowledgement that happiness, like most emotions, is fleeting and transient:

‘A state you must dare not enter

with hopes of staying…’

But, in the the space of a very short poem, he also recognises that happiness, although transient, always remains a possibility:

‘But there it is, as promised,

with its perfect bridge above

the crocodiles,

and its doors forever open.’

I thought of Julia Darling’s poem, Chemotherapy (in: Signs and Humours: The Poetry of Medicine. Lavinia Greenlaw (ed). London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2007, p.62) in which, although Darling openly acknowledges that her life with cancer has changed dramatically – ‘I never thought that life could get this small…’, she also observes that hers is a life that is not without a joy of sorts:

‘I am not unhappy. I have learnt to drift

and sip. The smallest things are gifts.’


I have long been a Hitchens fan, a huge admirer of his intellect, his extraordinary brightness, as well as his fearlessless, when well, but even more so when ill.

I followed his column in Vanity Fair from the diagnosis of oesophageal cancer, much of which is now available in the posthumously published book Mortality (London: Atlantic Books, 2012). Perhaps a somewhat mellower representation of the writer, Hitchens, within the framework of illness and the possibility of imminent death, is still Hitchens, ascerbic, ironic, pretty fearless, and palpably authentic.

Mortality opens with a terrifying image, on the day he was forced to confront his symptoms and seek medical advice:

‘The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement.’

This, almost shocking, metaphor leads quickly to acute medical intervention, and ultimately ‘the diagnosis’.

Susan Sonntag spoke of the separate Kingdoms of the sick and of the well, and how narrow in reality the divide is between the two. Hitchens similarly speaks of moving from one world to another, following the diagnosis:

‘a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.’

Despite the confirmed reality of cancer, and the strange world Hitchens has sudddenly been catapulted into, a wry humour remains:

‘The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everyone smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism.’

But with the new land, comes a new language, both verbal (‘metastasized’, ‘ondansetron’) and non-verbal, gestures that needed getting used to and interpreting. I was reminded me of the words of the poet Julia Darling, who died of breast cancer, and her poem Too Heavy (The Poetry Cure, Julia Darling & Cynthia Fuller (eds), Northumberland: Bloodaxe Poetry, 2005, ps.35-36):

‘Dear Doctor,

I am writing to complain about these words

you have given me, that I carry in my bag

lymphatic, nodal, progressive, metastatic

There is much more I need to say about Hitchen’s Mortality.

More tomorrow.

For now, I end with this:

‘To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: “Why not?”‘