What student wouldn’t be intrigued by being allowed “to wear nothing but hats / to school, take naked that test I won’t ever pass”? It’s a tempting, subversive double-violation of our high school dress code … and a major reason, I’m sure, why my English students often choose to analyze Jen Karetnick’s “Ode to Melatonin” (Spring 2017) at the Raleigh, NC, magnet school for medical science where I teach.
To anticipate surgery, I learned before last year’s cystectomy, is to encounter popular caricatures of surgeons. “What’s the difference between God and a surgeon?” a nurse friend asked, quickly quipping, “God doesn’t imagine He’s a surgeon!” (implying, I finally understood, surgeons imagine they’re divine).
In her poem “Overwhelmed” (Spring 2013 Intima), Kendra Peterson shares a terminal diagnosis with her patient. “I told the harsh and ugly truth/ of glioblastoma multiforme,” she writes, “my practiced words unresectable and infiltrating.” In honoring his wish “just to hear it straight,” her words both describe and become his diagnosis. Once spoken, they are “unresectable and infiltrating” his understanding of the rest of his life.
The final stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” has been a favorite of mine since my college English Literature class. My professor had a passion for literature that bordered on fanatical, and all but commanded us to over-analyze “Preludes.” Haunting, perplexing, and illustrative; the words build into a fog of emotion that I have accessed at various intervals since. It feels cataclysmic, desert-like; as if you are observing the experience of another from the sidelines, which consist of nothing but dirt.
There’s certainly a personal bias for me to reveal that the vital sign I most admire is the respiratory rate. The lungs, after all, are a pulmonologist’s favorite organ. Yet the reason for my affection is that the respiratory rate is the one vital sign that can be observed from the doorway of the patient’s room. Before I place my hand on the wrist, before I pull the stethoscope out, before the leads and blood pressure cuff are in place, I can watch the heave of the chest and learn a great deal about my patient in an instant.
Carolyn Welch’s poem “Relapse” from Intima’s Spring 2018 issue speaks deafening volumes of how addiction can be in every corner of mundane family and home life. Especially in the context of America’s current opioid crisis, her poem does the hard work of showing the pain felt by parents in towns all over the country who have to make painful decisions in the hopes of their child’s recovery.
“Birds of Prayer” is striking to me for the writer’s use of metaphor. I believe that both caregivers and the ill need metaphors. We especially need metaphors from nature. They reconnect us to a wider web of life where we can find some sense of belonging. They also give us distance. They help make sense of the senseless.