“Poetry=Medicine”: this was the title of an event with which I was involved as part of last weekend’s 2016 Litcrawl festival in Wellington. We were four poets, plus MC and essayist Paul Stanley-Ward: a doctor, a physiotherapist, a chaplain and a literary scholar.
Medicine can be sweet: a balm, a pharmaceutical concoction that soothes and relaxes, that allows you to temporarily forget your aches and enjoy your life. Medicine can be harsh: strong chemicals, purgative or bitter tonic. Medicine always has side effects, because any attempt to tweak a part always sends ripples through the whole.
Poetry=Medicine? Here are some of the ways we tested that equation.
As the only doctor on the panel it seemed that I might offer poems that capture what a physician does, thinks and feels as well as imagines. Perhaps the poem “Inventory” expresses that latter aspect, when it imagines a person taking stock of their surroundings as their whole world contracts.”
this is my bed
these are my sheets
here is my clock
on unsteady locker
my pillow fixes my scalp
fears from flight
my thoughts turn in
in the locker are my books
my hands, too weak
to hold them now
hold instead, your hand
the morphine comes
between me and thought
between me and pain
between you and me
the nurses do not say
how long, or when
the god who might say why
has long since gone
this is my bed
this is my body
this is my life
these are my letters
The physiotherapist in me has always been drawn to the word “articulate”, to its lovely double meaning in the realms of the body and the voice. Physiotherapy helps people to find a way to move, and so does poetry. Poetry can be a harsh tonic or a sweet balm, but it’s always most medicinal for conditions of uncertainty, fear or rage, for those times when we feel paralysis, numbness, loss of control, dark times a-coming, or that we are falling through the cracks between everything we thought we knew. Poetry is very good for helping us bear dis-ease and for reminding us who we are beneath the labels of our pathologies.”
The Greek god Apollo was associated with healing, poetry and music, but was also seen as bringing deadly illness, suggesting that poetry may be both salve and symptom. This underpins my connection to the Medicine=Poetry theme, a long-running biographical project on the death-obsessed 19th-century poet, anatomist and suicide Thomas Lovell Beddoes. When he arrived in Germany as a medical student in 1825, Beddoes aspired to unite Apollo’s lyre with his pillbox, but became increasingly erratic and disparaging of his own poetic talents. This was context for a reading of poems from Beside Herself (2016), written over the same period as the Beddoes project, which reflect some of the diseases that tend to afflict poets. One of these poems is “Possession No. 33”:
Possession No. 33
I was dusting my head with my hair
when the jaw shot out
of my filing cabinet
with a clack of dental
castanets. Someone was pulling
my strings. Then my legs
began to jitter as if bats
were harnessed to my knee-
caps. It was the ague,
the grippe, the palsy,
the plague – some old
disease, its visiting hour
come at last, had me
in its talons. I will not say
what I said – a dangerous
curse best left to rattle
in my head – but finally
St. Vitus lay down and died, and
I pulled him from the wound
in my side and stained
the paper red.
John’s poem, “Psalm”, about a lost child, speaks of trust and care, and of finding a deep core of strength in patience, faith and love:
You ok, sweetheart? What’s this, what’s this?
You lost someone, sweetheart? Your mum?
Where’s your mum, darling? You don’t think she’ll miss
you out here, in your ballet clothes? You come
with me, we’ll find your mum, it will
be ok, it will be. Is this your home?
No? Maybe we should wait until
she comes to find you. You know, try with
me to remember, what did she tell
you before you dropped in the undergrowth,
before I came up off the road,
heard the small bird, fluttering in your mouth?
It’s normal – hell, I’d be concerned –
but, you know, the thing is this:
you’re lost, right, but in the end
strangely love has appeared to us,
and looking back we’re in good hands.
But I know right now you can’t see this.
So I reckon we’ll just sit tight. That’s a plan.
Rae Varcoe was a Leukaemia and Lymphoma Physician at Auckland Hospital for 30 years. She has been a poetry reader for much longer and began writing poems at Victoria University’s inaugural MA class in 1997. Her collection, Tributary, was published in 2007. Poetry has been one of the buttresses of her life in medicine.
Chris Price is the author of three poetry collection (most recently, Beside Herself), and the genre-bending ‘biographical dictionary’, Brief Lives, which marked the beginning of her Beddoes obsession. She convenes the poetry and creative nonfiction MA workshop at the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University.
John Dennison is a university chaplain at Victoria University, Wellington. His debut poetry collection, Otherwise, was longlisted in the 2016 Okham NZ Book Awards.