Friday, March 30, 2007

A guy wrote a poem

Donald Hall wrote a poem called "The Ship Pounding" about his wife in a hospital, getting chemotherapy. He talks about how he thinks they are traveling somewhere – that the chemo will get them both home. But as he returns to the hospital with her a little bit later, now with her delirious, and presumably still more sick, he sees the hospital as a ship forever in port, without destination, its massive engines churning as the ship stays still.

I was on a pain and palliative care rotation at the hospital where I suspect that he wrote this poem, and a patient was saying something – which, I have to be honest, I now forget. (Does this make the story better or worse? I'm not sure.) I remember that I said, "There was a guy whose wife was here for cancer treatment in this hospital, and he wrote a poem where he described the hospital as a ship with its engines going all the time but always staying in port." The patient said, "Not going anywhere." And I said, "Right." And the patient gave a little smile in recognition.

I think I marked the moment in my memory not for the rest of the conversation but because I was amused at the way I blurted out my literary reference, as soon as I had done it. Was I going to tell this patient that I was referring to a poem that a literature-minded teacher had passed around to a medical school class, or tell him I was referring to a poem written by one of America's premier poets? (Not to mention that the poem was also partly about one of America's premier poets, Jane Kenyon, who was the one with the leukemia and then the delirium.) No. Somehow it was intuitively important to me that I describe it just as a poem by a guy who'd been in this hospital, as casually as I could, as if he'd written it down on a piece of paper and someone at the nurse's station had xeroxed it, and a nurse posted it up in the break room, and a resident passed it around on rounds with everyone nodding and saying, "Wow, that's cool. That's a really good poem."

Although this is not how the poem found its way to me, it seemed useful to imply that it had. By acting like it was just this poem that the nurses had been handing around, I think I hoped to convey that I was just connecting the experience of one inhabitant of this hospital to another. Perhaps this was my barely conscious effort to play an old role, based on the idea that the doctor should exist only in the social role of doctor. The doctor lives not as the person who goes home and reads a book of poems, but only as one of the crew, on the ship, tending to the churning, pounding engines.


Paul Levy said...

Neat site, Joe. I have linked to mine. Paul

Joe Wright said...

Thank you! I'm honored to have you link to it so early in its life; I'm a regular reader of your blog.

best, joe