Archives for posts with tag: Poetry

I was so delighted to hear that Sinead Morrissey won the TS Eliot Poetry Prize last night. I have admired her work for some years, and every new poem she creates continues to impress and to move me.

Tonight, I read one of my favourites for my teenage daughter. My daughter’s parents are, like Morrissey’s, divorced, and the poem in question considers the legacy of this, as well as the visceral reality of what we are all products of.

Genetics

My father’s in my fingers, but my mother’s in my palms.

I life them up and look at them in pleasure —

I know my parents made me by my hands.

They may have been repelled to separate lands,

to separate hemispheres, may sleep with other lovers,

but in me they touch where fingers link to palms.

With nothing left of their togetherness but friends

who quarry for their image by a river,

at least I know their marriage by my hands.

I shape a chapel where a steeple stands.

And when I turn it over,

my father’s by my fingers, my mother’s by my palms

demure before a priest reciting psalms.

My body is their marriage register.

I re-enact their wedding with my hands.

So take me with you, take up the skin’s demands

for mirroring in bodies of the future.

I’ll bequeath my fingers, if you bequeath your palms.

We know our parents make us by our hands.

Sinead Morrissey

Advertisements

The Irish poet died on Christmas Eve 2012. He would have been 60 on New Years Day 2014.

It thus feels appropriate today, on the last day of 2013 and the eve of the day of the poet’s birth, to share one of his poems, and one of my absolute favourites.

Life

Life gives

us something

to live for:

we will do

whatever it takes

to make it last.

Kill in just wars

for its survival.

Wolf fast-food

during half-term breaks.

Wash down

chemical cocktails,

as prescribed.

Soak up

hospital radiation.

Prey on kidneys

at roadside pile-ups.

Take heart

from anything

that might

conceivably grant it

a new lease.

We would give

a right hand

to prolong it.

Cannot imagine

living without it.

Dennis O’Driscoll

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.

CQ

I have come across two events over the past week where links between poetry and science or medicine have been initiated.
Firstly, appropriately at Keats House, I attended the launch of a collaborative project between poets and scientists (http://www.poetry.gb.com/BiomedicalScience). Eleven poets teamed with 11 scientists to create poetry that reflected on the life/work of the latter. At the event, both the poet and the scientist of each ‘team’ spoke about their respective experiences throughout the collaboration. The resulting poetry is wonderfully rich and evocative. It was also very moving to hear the scientists speak, and so poetically, of what the experience meant to them.

Secondly, today I came across a piece in a recent New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2013/10/14/131014ta_talk_singer) on poetry and medicine. John F. Martin is a ‘cardiologist, transatlantic academic, specialist in gene therapies for treating heart attacks, clinician, and published poet.’ I guess the ‘poet’ element is last mentioned in order to heighten the impact of this apparent incongruity. There have indeed been clinicians, such as William Carlos Williams and Dannie Abse, who were also published poets. But they are in the minority. I have not yet come across Martin’s poetry, but I will now seek it out.
Apart from his own poetry, Martin has also initiated an annual poetry competition for medical students both at UCL and at Yale School of Medicine. This project arose out of his concerns that ‘medical students are at risk of becoming “intellectually brutalized”…conditioned to focus upon the microscopic at the expense of the holistic.’
The competition is now in its third year, and I have been reading the work of past winners. Impressive. My favourite is Encounters with Death, by Kevin Woo (Yale University, 2012):

‘In the First Year
I gazed upon a body overtaken by Death
The fingers, withered and cold
Eyes as gray as the stainless steel casket
Call her Cadaver, they explained, and learn
Her lines, her edges…
…And in the First Year, I dissected Death.’

There is a separate stanza for each year, of four.

‘In the Second Year
I memorized the signs of Death
A lung, scarred and emptied
The nodes of Osler revealing infection within…
…And in the Second Year, I pathologized Death.’

‘In the Third Year
I saved a man from Death
His heart, so worn and weary
That it had surrendered its rhythm…
…And in the Third Year, I conquered Death.’

‘In the Fourth Year
I had a conversation with Death
Of what do you remain afraid, Death asked
That you might know Death only by dissection, as pathology, to be conquered?
And I learned that Death
Was a companion along the journey of humanity
Along which we travel
I smiled, because I understood
At last
And in Fourth Year, I accepted Death.’

A most impressive journey in just 4 years. For most of us it takes a lifetime, if we do even manage to arrive.

CQ

IMG-20130907-00756

Last night’s viewing of Museum Hours inspired me to re-read Auden’s poem Musee des Beaux Arts today:

‘About suffering, they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…’

‘In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling from the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly by.’

CQ

I just came across this poem in the current issue of The New Yorker, and just love it. It is so eloquently sad and moving.

from Leçons De Ténèbres:

‘But are they lessons, all these things I learn

Through being so far gone in my decline?’

‘…I should have been more kind. It is my fate

To find this out, but find it out too late.’

‘… But now I have slowed down. I breathe the air

As if there were not much more of it there

And write these poems, which are funeral songs

That have been taught to me by vanished time:

Not only to enumerate my wrongs

But to pay homage to the late sublime

That comes with seeing how the years have brought

A fitting end, if not the one I sought.’

Clive James

The poet, novelist, playwright and doctor Dannie Abse kept a diary for a year following the death of his wife Joan as a result of a car accident in 2005.

In his first diary entry, some 4 months after Joan’s death, Abse writes:

‘The past survives however much one tries to drive it down and away from one’s consciousness.’

The diary presents itself as both a living record of loss, loneliness and grief, and also a reflection on the past, a looking back. Most entries start with the current date and end with a ‘Then’ section, which relives a memory from Abse’s earlier life, and often one that also includes Joan.

Abse shares the mundane realities that confront the bereaved, as letters continue to arrive addressed to his now dead wife. He includes a poem by Peter Porter, written after Porter’s own wife’s death:

‘A card comes to tell you

you should report

to have your eyes tested.

But your eyes melted in the fire…

and the only tears, which soon dried,

fell in the chapel.

Other things still come –

invoices, subscriptions, renewals,

shiny plastic cards promising credit –

not much for a life spent

in the service of reality…’

Abse is not self-indulgent or maudlin in his grief, and is not seeking our sympathy. The diary was not originally intended for publication, evolving more as a tool for coping with loss, a response to an inner voice saying ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ Thus, the diary became a ‘prescription for self-regeneration.’ However, as the diary progresses he acknowledges that he did presuppose another reader.

Abse tells it like it is. One diary entry just contains the short sentence ‘I cry, therefore I am.’ On another occasion, when asked by a friend how he was coping, he tells us that ‘I confessed, perhaps melodramatically, that for intermittent hours each day I feel like an exile in the Land of Desolation.’

He cries frequently, often waking up with tears in his eyes. A new experience for him, since Joan’s death Abse does not find it difficult to unsettle ‘the too prompt tearducts of my eyes.’

The diary is not all about grief, but more about a life that continues within that loss. Abse speaks of Freud, of current events such as the Iraq war, as well as past events in his own life as a doctor and as a poet. He also includes his own poetry, and speaks of other writers, such as Elias Canetti and the poet Owen Shears.

Abse muses on his own life as a poet:

‘I’ve often thought of poetry as a vocation, even a destiny, rather than a career but sometimes I wish that on certain occasions in my life I had not retreated from the limelight.’

During the year of diary writing, Abse’s older brother dies:

‘I weep for Wilfred. Yet it is hard to mourn for more than one person at a time.’

And Joan’s loss is immense. He remembers the grief he experienced when his parents died, yet it was incomparable to his profound sense of loss following his wife’s death:

‘But I have been so dependent on Joan. Absolutely. Mentally, emotionally, physically.’

Six months after the accident:

‘…as I remember this or think that, my eyes leak like a tap with a half-perished washer. I am, I feel, leading a posthumous life.’

Yet, he can also see that ‘I’m OK. I’m coping. I’m limping along.’ while at the same time accepting that ‘I miss Joan.’

He acknowledges that his grief is not an illness, ‘I’m not clinically depressed. Merely unhappy.’

Eventually, Abse finds his way back into poetry, both writing and reading again in public.

‘Authors, poets, are supposed to be imaginative people but I didn’t, couldn’t picture my life without Joan. Everything is so other. The very silence has changed. It is the very silence of the abyss.’

One of these poetry readings ends with the short poem Valediction:

‘In this exile people call old age

I live between nostalgia and rage.

This is the land of fools and fear.

Thanks be. I’m lucky to be here.’

As he approaches the end of the year since Joan’s death, and the end of his diary entries, Abse wonders whether he will miss the writing ‘not only for my health’s sake’, but also because ‘For doing so has allowed me sometimes the pleasure of escaping into a benign Past. The Past, indeed, can sometimes be a sanctuary.’

‘There is no happy ending’, yet Abse does not leave one feeling desolate. I was touched by his openness, as well as by a realism that allowed for many emotions to sit alongside each other. Abse’s life following Joan’s death reads as one that embraced his unmeasurable loss, and one that allowed grief to accompany rather than to destroy.

The diary ends with Abse’s poem Lachrymae:

‘She is everywhere and nowhere

now that I am less than one…’

‘…Now, solemn, I watch

the spellbound moon again,

its unfocused clone drowned

in Hampstead’s rush-dark pond

where a lone swan sings

without a sound.’

CQ

I am a great fan of the poet Hugo Williams.

Now aged 70, Williams developed kidney problems three years ago and is currently on haemodialysis.

In a recent interview (http://www.camdennewjournal.com/feature-andrew-johnson-speaks-award-winning-poet-hugo-williams), the poet describes how he felt when he first heard the diagnosis:

‘ “There are all kinds of reactions you go through. One is a slight sense of shame, another is depression and a shrink­ing of the world. People who have been through it before say you just have to get a grip really.

“It’s interesting why one feels shame,” he adds. “I suppose it’s because one is no longer quite the physical speci­men one was before. And also feeling ashamed at being so self-obsessed and self-pitying.” ‘

I have mentioned Susan Sontag in the context of illness here previously, and specifically how she believed that we all go through life belonging to one of two camps, either the kingdom of the ill or the kingdom of the well. Although the kingdoms are very distinct, one can find oneself suddenly in the ‘opposite camp’ following a diagnosis of serious illness. A fine line in fact divides both worlds, yet those who find themselves in the land of the ill very quickly feel alienated and isolated from those who are well.

Williams alludes to this experience:

“Sick people tend not to be with well people very much because they remind them about being ill too much. Whereas if you’re with sick people you can say, well, I’m not as sick as him.”

Poetry has to a large extent ‘rescued’ Williams, ‘because to write means going to a mental state where he is neither ill nor well.’

‘ “Poetry is like that – a place where there is no illness or wellness.” ‘

Currently, Williams has dialysis three times a week and is on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. The ‘average’ wait is three years. In the meantime, he shares his experience through his poetry:

Excerpts from ‘From the Dialysis Ward’  (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n02/hugo-williams/from-the-dialysis-ward)

 ‘A Game of Dialysis

The home team appears
in a blue strip, while the visitors
keep on their street clothes.
We find our positions
from the file with our name on it
placed beside our bed.
Now all we can do is wait
for the opposition to make a move.
We don’t like our chances….’

‘The Art of Needling

You find out early on
that some of the nurses
are better than others
at the art of needling.
You have to ascertain

who’s on duty
that knows what they’re doing,
someone familiar
with your fistula arm
and beg him to ‘put you on’….’

‘Diality

The shock of remembering,
having forgotten for a second,
that this isn’t a cure,
but a kind of false health,
like drug addiction.

It performs the trick
of taking off the water
which builds up in your system,
bloating your body,
raising your blood pressure.

It sieves you clean of muck
for a day or two,
by means of a transparent tube
full of pinkish sand
hanging next to your machine.

Your kidneys like the idea
of not having to work any more
and gradually shut down,
leaving you dependent.
Then you stop peeing.

Dialysis is bad for you.
You feel sick
most of the time, until the end.
The shock of remembering,
having forgotten for a second.’

CQ

This collection from the Australian poet Peter Porter (who lived in Paddington, London, from 1968 until his death in 2010) first appeared in 1978.

The Cost of Seriousness was written in the aftermath of tragedy, Porter’s wife having committed suicide in 1974. In the preface, the poet states that the book’s ‘controlling theme is a lament for my first wife.’ This is most overtly seen in two laments, An Exequy and The Delegate.

From An Exequy:

‘In wet May, in months of change,

In a country you wouldn’t visit, strange

Dreams pursue me in my sleep,

Black creatures of the upper deep –

Though you are five months dead, I see

You in guilt’s iconography…’

‘The words and faces proper to

My misery are private…

…The channels of our lives are blocked,

The hand is stopped upon the clock,

No-one can say why hearts will break

And marriages are all opaque:

A map of loss, some posted cards,

The living house reduced to shards,

The abstract hell of memory,

The pointlessness of poetry – ….’

Despite this last line, Porter viewed poetry as “a tub into which you can pour anything”.

For poets (Christopher Reid’s A Scattering comes to mind), writing about traumatic life experiences appears to be less an issue of choice than a compulsion. For Porter:

“I never intended to make those events my subject…but there was a compulsion, something my better self couldn’t suppress. It’s not a question of telling the truth or a lie; it’s not even a question of special pleading. It’s a question of the mind being forced to find a way of dealing with something, not in extenuation and not in therapy, but as a means of presenting the material to itself. I was writing for myself. Poetry was its own answer, its own end.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2009/feb/07/peter-porter-interview-poetry)

The poet Christopher Reid, whose collection A Scattering concerns his wife Lucinda’s illness, dying and the aftermath of her death, said something not so dissimilar:

“[Poems] must be truthful and they must have a specific formal beauty to them. It is when you bring these two things together – deep emotion and technique – that you get something genuine.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2011/oct/28/christopher-reid-life-in-writing)

And that is largely why I love poetry and why it is so important in my life: its capacity to combine the aesthetic with the authentic to create something real and immediate, and its potential to communicate that which might otherwise elude language and a shareable experience.

CQ

… and I am with the poet on this one.

From The North Ship:

‘XVIII

If grief could burn out

Like a sunken coal,

The heart would rest quiet,

The unrent soul

Be still as a veil;

But I have watched all night

The fire grow silent,

The grey ash soft:

And I stir the stubborn flint

The flames have left,

And grief stirs, and the deft

Heart lies impotent.’

CQ