29 August 2011

The title is a lie.

(to follow)

There is literally nothing that did not happen today.

I spoke with a friend in Cameroun.
I found out that the research article section I wrote is, in fact, good, even with the inclusion of some writerliness.
I went to a county hospital, participated in infectious disease rounds; spoke with HIV doctors and people working in public health in Africa and people teaching about narrative medicine.
And then I went to a poetry reading with a new poet friend and we went out with one of the readers and all her writer friends after.


I was in three of my major communities – Peace Corps/Cameroon/public health, medicine, and poetry.
And only in the third did I feel intimidated and like an outsider with little to say or knowledge of how to interact.

I carried a white coat to the poetry reading in my doctor bag. I wore Cameroonian clothes. I had my med student ID. Just in case. It’s next to the MFA student one. I wrote new poems on the subway. I’m better at that than reading in transit.

At the hospital, not-quite-just-a-visitor and not-quite-a-student, I asked, “should I masquerade?”

 Meaning, wear white coat + ID, even bring stethoscope, to show I belonged. Walking along with the team, though, and dressed as I was, I didn’t look out of place. Comfortable, except I don’t know these hallways. Even the cafeteria was comfortable with that coffee-bad-in-a-particular-way. Going on my good things about this city list? Hospital food was cheaper; apple cost 35 cents rather than 75.

There, I know what I’m talking about. “Do you know Pharos?” in rounds, we were speaking of medical publications that incorporate literature. “I’m published in Pharos, actually.”
“Why do you still want to be a doctor, after this?” “Because it’s the best job in the world.” Nods. They know. They get it, too. There is no other reason to work so hard and not sleep.
I was remembering the antibiotics – I knew, I knew, I took notes, I thought of the antibiotics cards I needed…and I still haven’t done the poetry homework for first workshop, the explication of the long poem.

This hospital is four stops from MFA school on the same line. Convenient. In any kind of metaphor, MFA school is the last stop on this line.

Three worlds and drinks at night with the one I’m least comfortable, have the least to say and interact the least – but 3 writers* – THREE! – were mentioned whom I know, personally, including my mentor and two I met last summer. I have signed copies of the books we discussed; I’ve read all of one of them.

*Promoting poets, the three are: Olga Broumas, college mentor and leading/initial writer in Calyx, Ross Gay, over whose poetry book I actually met a friend, last year, and Bhanu Kapil, whose work is indescribable.

I should see it like medicine. I was asked to teach a class on Whitman’s Brooklyn poems – I’ve barely read Whitman, and I certainly didn’t know he was from Brooklyn. The professor asked me to teach that day as the poetry “expert.” So, just like in medicine, I pretend to know. I’ll learn. See one-do one-teach one. See one-do one-teach one.

Medicine feels appropriately fast. In my head space, I am thinking through the body. Where are the offenders, the intruders, and who could they be? How do we find the intruders, how do we get to them, and how to eradicate them, and how do we make the patient better? Better.

In rounds at the hospital, this hospital, where I’m not a student, I take notes, whether I will need them or not. I’m remembering, I’m thinking, I’m trying to keep up and realizing how much in just these few weeks has moved to the back of my brain. Maybe that’s why we work so many hours in a row.

So there is poetry homework. I did buy the book, early, and I identified the poem and counted the pages. A poem to dissect, to explicate* (one of my favorite words). Can I approach with a differential? It’s a scalpel, I say. I call this. “Approach words with a scalpel.” (line poached from my poem).

*Explaining a poem. It is like dissection – the nerves/arteries/veins/lymph channels (NAVL we say for the femoral triangle), where they are in relation to each other and how they work together and what that means. What is the brachial plexus of the poem and what-leads-to-what and how; this is also the derivation and the allusions. What nerves mix to create what other nerves, and where do they go. We don’t make up dances or mnemonics for that in poetry, though. Unless it’s formal poetry and you’re talking about meter or shapes or rhyme schemes – each dance is different. A little different. And each author’s dances are related to each other, somehow, and the thread might be the voice.

It’s false. Everything I’ve said, this title, is false. I’ve been approaching scalpels with words. My MFA applications? About how I see medicine. How medicine is like poetry.

I wrote, I explained, I sold why-should-a-doctor-be-a-poet. Why, then, should a poet be a doctor? It’s why, perhaps, they want me here. Whatever that is.

I’ve approached scalpels with words.

I brought the poet’s eye, hand to medicine. And somewhere along the line, my old explanation ceased to be true. No.

“I’m a writer. Medicine is what I do.”

“Doctor” is who I am, too. Will be. Were I staying, I’d be applying for residency right now. And it’s not a brainwashing or mind-melding or beating-into-shape transformation.
Writing, neither, is not my “hobby.” I hear that a lot.

But up until now, for the past several years, I’ve been learning about scalpels and approaching them with words.

Writer and a doctor.

Now is the time to approach words with a scalpel. To learn why that’s a good thing (assuming it is). The doctor will graduate more balanced – words with a scalpel with words.

And there’s a white coat in my doctor bag and two poetry books and notebooks, one of which has medical lecture notes – all that’s missing to make this “normal” is a stethoscope, many more than the one highlighter, and some papers. These have gone together for awhile. There is poetry inside the white coat at times. Maybe I should wear it to write. Maybe I should wear it to teach poetry, wear it to readings, and be subversive – there, it won’t represent the hierarchy it does in the hospital. In the hospital where I don’t like to wear it for reasons other than practical pockets. It represents who I am. Maybe the stethoscope would be easier to carry.

On the subway on the way to my first day on poet-campus, I considered bringing JAMA to read. For med school, I often had poetry with me. Close to always. Novels. I brought a poetry book(s) for boards – totems of good luck, things of balance. To my first workshop in college, I brought what was, at the time, my favorite book of poetry. You didn’t know until you arrived at the door if you had made it in. We had turned in the pieces – applications – the week before. I didn’t expect to get in. If I didn’t, the reasoning went, I would still and always have poetry.
And then I got in.
The first poem read in that first workshop – it’s Li-Young Lee’s “Words for Worry” – became my touchstone, after that. I started a reading I did with that one. I’ve started workshops I’ve run with that one. Any poetry class I teach should begin with that poem. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILPbJHqEXu8)
So JAMA on the way to poetry school for balance? Maybe it should have been. Instead, the compromise, I read a book of ‘psychological poems’ – by providers and patients.
That’s where I belong. And today I wrote in the hospital.

I’m not the writer who graduated with dual degrees and dual theses in college. I’m not the writer who returned from Peace Corps. I’m the writer whose signature has not degenerated, per se, but is often accompanied with an identifying code and a pager number. I’m the writer who uses abbreviations and bullet points in the hopes that maybe notes will be easier for others to read. And shorter for her to write. There are so many…

I’m the writer who could have been, would be, a doctor in less than a year. Who’s still trying to work on having thorough differentials with a consistent approach. A flow to the physical exam. To work with patients. To presentations. Conciseness. Meaning. What is said and what isn’t said.
That’s what poetry brought to medicine.

Now medicine brings to poetry not-just-subject-matter. I don’t know what else that will mean, yet.

Use it.
Use everything.


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