James Roderick Burns looks for vital signs in an anthology of medical poems
The Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine is an annual prize – now in its seventh year – with individual categories for NHS professionals and medical students, UK and international poets, and (since 2012) young poets. The anthology contains a wide selection of both winning and commended poems in each category, and aims, in the words of the editors, to explore “the engagement of medical practitioners with poetry” and “the interests poets take in that very broad spectrum of experiences we call medical”.
As one would expect with an anthology in which the professional lives of most contributors don’t centre on writing poetry, the quality of work is uneven; but the variety and depth of engagement with medicine (broadly defined) more than makes up for this. Across the range of the 50 poems in the book, there are moments where the language is so acute, and the subject matter so affecting (or mournful, chilling, lacerating) that the work is lifted to a place beyond either poetry or medicine. In the concluding two stanzas of ‘Community Medicine 1974’ by Karen Patricia Schofield, for instance, we feel the bleak misery of a miner’s death before arriving at unexpected heights:
We saw his lungs displayed like lights on a butcher’s block. Down a lens, traces of coal etched round each alveolus; a fragile shawl of widow’s lace. He’d smoked to the end. With all that fuel sealed in I wondered if, when he lit up, inhaled, there’d been a spark and his lungs at last saw light, flamed bright before the final dark.
It’s not that the poet offers some kind of bland, ‘He’s gone to a better place’ reassurance (though this may well be true); it’s that in fully entering the man’s experience, living and thinking and feeling through it, she finds learning and release in the most unpromising circumstances. JC Todd finds a similar rejuvenating power in ‘The Morning After’: “His wounds/and hollows are cradles/for flies, the pulpy/tissue of decay/is holy food”. And in Athar Pavis’s ‘Banzai’ we are treated to the slow, heart-breaking realisation that someone’s determination to live on, and attack the challenges of everyday life, may have cost them any chance of actually living that life:
It must have started like this, your resolve To go on living normally – each day The same as any other, a refusal Of medical conditions that might seem More than a parenthesis, the back door To places yet unknown.
And throughout the book, there are moments where the reader simply takes in a breath at the skill of the poet: at the “fat calm hands” of the clinician in Ruth Quinn’s ‘Moon Landing’, or the devastating conclusion to Monica Corish’s ‘A Dying Language’, which – having spent eight stanzas elaborating the sweeping, rococo language of medicine – undercuts its carefully-worked aura of certainty in three brutal lines:
But too much is breaking down, too fast and all together. It’s hard for you to swallow now. Hard to piss. Hard to shit. Hard to think. Hard to breathe.
This kind of insight is naturally hard to sustain over 90 pages, and there are a number of soft spots in the volume. A couple of poems – presumably seeking to puncture the image of a marvellous, beneficent NHS untroubled by difficult realities – veer towards the humble self-awareness of a politician’s speech (Ellen Storm’s “You, Five Minutes, Out” in particular). A couple more are written with great clinical polish, but don’t seem to have much humanity beating below the surface shine. There is a distinct gender imbalance in the selection (only seven male poets seem to be represented). And it is a mystery to me why poets who have been awarded first, second or third prizes in the overall categories also appear with one or more additional selections in the commended sections. Surely winning a category is enough, and would allow the anthology to be more representative of the field as a whole?
But overall these are cavils. The enterprise of a poetry and medicine prize is so clearly worthwhile, and the resulting poems so heartfelt and well-crafted, that it feels shabby to offer anything but encouraging words and the hope that next year’s selection is even better. After all, as one of the young poets, Naabil Khan’s poem ‘My Scars’ (quoted in full below) attests, this work is written in something more precious, and fragile, than ink:
I don’t think of them as cuts and bruises. No. I think of them as little plane trails, that flew across my chest and left marks. I think of them as cracks in a pavement or marks in the rocks at the seaside. But they aren’t, they are not plane trails, or cracks in a pavement, or marks in the rocks. They are chinks in my body armour, but I am strong, I’ve just come out of a rough patch and a few scars don’t change who I am. They are drawings etched on my skin, where pain is the paintbrush and blood is the paint … I draw.