The Poetry of Saving Lives: Anthologies About Sickness & Healing
Like 1 percent of babies born in the U.S. each year, I came into the world with a heart defect: two holes in my heart. However, I was born in Scotland in 1979, when keyhole surgery had yet to become mainstream, so I had open-heart surgery as a toddler. The resultant scar on my chest is something I feel oddly fond of—it’s a constant reminder of how fortunate I am to be here. This experience has also made me extremely curious about the medical world: so much so that I’m now writing a PhD thesis called “The Art of Saving Lives.” I’m researching how poets explore their experiences of sickness, with a focus on the work of Mark Doty and the English poet Jo Shapcott.
When I tell people that I’m writing a PhD on narratives of sickness, they often ask me if my work is depressing. Surprisingly enough, the opposite is true. I’ve found my examination of the poetics of illness to be fascinating, moving, and frequently uplifting.
Illness touches us all at some point in our lives; it is the great leveler. We all know what it is to be sick, or to care for a loved one who is sick; we will all, at some point, have to reckon with our lack of agency over our unpredictable, unknowable bodies. My research led me to the Poets House library stacks, where I found some absorbing collections on the topic. Whether you need to find the words for a friend in pain, are navigating your own health issues, or are simply curious about viewing the world through the eyes of a physician, these anthologies offer a powerful selection of reading. All of the titles mentioned below are available on the Poets House shelves.
In his preface to this collection, editor Mark S. Bauer notes that poetry about mental health plays a vital role in recognizing “these experiences as integral aspects of the human condition in all its beauty and pain.” Considering mental health problems from multiple perspectives, this anthology reflects the full spectrum of human experience, with over 200 poems covering seven centuries, including Theodore Roethke’s contemplative “In a Dark Time”: “My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly, / Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?”
Poet and physician Jon Mukand edited this collection in the hope that it might help patients and their families and friends during the experience of diagnosis and treatment. The collection includes Edward Hirsch’s great poem about sleeplessness, “I Need Help,” which opens “For all the insomniacs in the world / I want to build a new kind of machine / For flying out of the body at night.” The collection also contains Lisel Mueller’s beautiful “Monet Refuses the Operation”: “I tell you it has taken me all my life / to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels, / to soften and blur and finally banish / the edges you regret I don’t see…”
This anthology of poetry by physicians and medical students follows the chronology of the medical student’s training path, with chapters called “Intern,” “Resident,” “Attending,” etc. It gives a wonderful insight into the (sometimes terrifying) world of medical training. You can almost feel the lonely tension in Parker Towle’s “Mary Fletcher Hospital, 1958”: “…Me, night call doctor? No, just another / student, third-year medical, starched white / and green. / We were it, 2.00 A.M. Intern, / resident in bed, charge nurse down the other hall…”
The introduction to this affecting collection reminds us that “the strong vertebral columns of nurses form the infrastructure of the modern health-care system,” and the poems offer vivid insights into the experience of nursing. Paula Sergi’s “Home Visits” draws us into the sphere of people “…near the end of their unpeeling / shedding layers of memory and money”, and Veneta Masson’s “The Secret Lives of Nurses” offers an evocative glimpse into another world: “Nurses keep a safe house hidden / in the spaciousness of imagination— / a dark kiva dug into / the sun-bleached cliff…”
A fascinating anthology split into sections such as “Contagions, Infections & Fevers” and “Powders, Pills, & Other Remedies,” this collection covers a huge range of poetic ground, from William Blake’s “The Sick Rose” to Lucille Clifton’s “Lumpectomy Eve.” Vijay Seshadri’s “Nursing Home” offers up the image of the brain as an urban sprawl—“her perisylvian pathways and declivities / choked by cities, / microscopic mercurial cities…” There’s even a little Ovid—though, rather than giving medical advice, we find him dispensing somewhat dubious-sounding skincare tips from “The Art of Beauty”: “a mixture of incense and nitre is good for black-heads.”
Sarah Stewart is a SGSAH-funded PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She also writes children’s fiction as Sarah Forbes and is Director at Lighthouse Literary. Her poetry pamphlet, Glisk, is published by Tapsalterie.