Poetry Review – Heart Murmur: Thomas Ovans enjoys Emma Storr’s use of medical language to make well-crafted and engaging poetry.
The jacket of Heart Murmur tells us that Emma Storr is (or has been) a doctor; and this surely explains why the best poems in her new collection are those which take us inside the consulting room where professional expertise contends with the fear of making a mistake. Faced with a ‘hot and fretful’ baby, initial observation shows
no signs of anything serious but I spread out my safety net, check there are no holes where a little one could slip through. [‘Differentials’]
The intimacy of a medical examination is something that neither party ever quite becomes used to:
My hands journey in places where only a lover might touch. We smile with relief when it’s over. [‘Examination’]
Storr also conveys well the awkward and sometimes funny verbal communications between patient and doctor. Sometimes a patient already thinks he knows what medication is needed and when asking for a repeat prescription “he offers a mangled tube of ointment / name half obscured.” He says his skin condition is “nothing serious / he’s had it before” and even though “it seems to be spreading” he is quite sure that “No, he doesn’t want me to look.” Another patient, whose visits are evidently few and far between, is proud to claim “she has ‘saved it all up’” and “flourishes a list on lined paper.” Very occasionally a routine appointment turns out to involve something entirely unexpected: “She took off half her face / before we started.”
At times, a patient’s casual attitude towards their own well-being must undermine the doctor’s professional sense of purpose and calling
You eat. I despair. I did care. You might have cared once. But now you are fat, you don’t care at all. [‘Why I Should Stop Work’]
But then again it is sometimes the patient who is much more concerned about their condition than the doctor. On the eve of a holiday you notice some symptoms
So you thought you’d better pop in. As an urgent appointment? To make sure it wasn’t going onto your chest. Oh come on ... you’re not even coughing In case you need some antibiotics. No you don’t To prevent you getting pneumonia. It’s only a cold ... [‘Consultation’]
But behind the mutual misunderstandings and forgivable impatience with an uninformed layperson’s opinions there remains the unbridgeable gap between what a doctor would like to do and what is possible: “ I want to prescribe panaceas / for teetering marriages, / for kids that disappoint.” And behind that doomed aspiration there is always the dread of making a serious mistake and having to admit “I am a bad doctor, failed to listen. You died six months later.”
Of course doctors are liable to ailments too – but their training may enable them to describe the symptoms more vividly. When afflicted with a damaged shoulder the patient feels as if “I am tethered to myself / and the rope is getting shorter.” And at the onset of dementia
Sometimes connection fails you let go of the thread or wander off ... Numbers confuse. Frac- tions make no sense.
Most of the poems are concerned with physical problems; but in a couple of cases Storr surprises us by dealing with the emotions. The book’s title poem begins with the heart as a machine “My heart doesn’t have to think. / It works on impulse: squeeze, relax.” But its smooth operation is compromised when “skewed by lust”; and after contemplating its erratic behaviour there is nothing to do but “stuff it back behind my ribs, give up on men, again, again.” The breakdown of medical objectivity is even more striking in ‘Clinical Trials’ where an analysis of a relationship reveals
... phases of excitation and inhibition with a standard deviation of Y(h-m), you bastard.
All the above shows that Emma Storr can make good and interesting poetry out of her specialised knowledge. (There are a few instances perhaps where she takes us a little too close to the bowels for my personal taste – but that is hardly a major criticism.) Her well chosen scientific language is complemented by her willingness to experiment with poetic forms. The poems are vary varied and I may have missed something; but I certainly noted two pantoums, a villanelle and a pleasing group of five haiku of which may favourite is
Liver, forgive me. You work overtime. Should I reward you with wine?
This is an enjoyable collection of well-crafted and engaging poems. I have only just noticed that its ISBN contains the 999 sequence for calling an ambulance and this piece of numerical trivia matches rather well the book’s felicitous blending of the light-hearted and the deadly serious.