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Poetry, Science and Medicine

19 Oct, 14 | by cquigley

 

Through the Door is a collaborative project involving Archives for London and Poet in the City. Six poets have been commissioned to create new works based on archives that include those of St Paul’s Cathedral and The British Library.

This week I attended a reading from the selection of poems – The Bone Ship – that the poet Mario Petrucci created from his exploration of the archives of The Royal College of Surgeons of England.

The archives contain not only records of the College’s activity, but also hold many collections of letters, diaries (including those of grave robbers), photographs and drawings relating to medicine and surgery from the 16th to the 20th century. The patient files of the First World War plastic surgeon Sir Harold Gillies are also part of the archive.

Mario Petrucci is impressively not only a renowned poet, but also an ecologist and a PhD physicist. The 11 poems that constitute The Bone Ship address issues around war wounds and facial reconstruction during WW1, venereal disease amongst British troops in India, radical surgical techniques, as well as grave digging and body snatching.

Subtitled ‘Poetry and Anatomy’, Petrucci’s poetry extends beyond the physical aspects of the operative procedure and the confines of the human body:

‘Much of the archive material I studied drew a deeply complex, visceral response’ (p.69)

As a result, the poems evoke much compassion around and within the stark language – ‘enucleate’, ‘excise’, ‘snipped’, ‘stripped’ – of surgery.

From Surgical love:

This breast dissected

to beached ribs. My bone ship.

Heart bails alone for you its last salt heat.

 

Hip and thigh.

That softer flesh. To cinerator.

Crematorium. Dust and ash. And oh

 

in their jars these parts so prolonged. But

the sum shall throng in you

wherever you are.

 

And from Methods:

Kneel or recline

for tests that long to bless – what in moderation

 

we tolerate must heal in excess.

 

Also in Methods, Petrucci clearly demonstrates the capacity of poetry to uniquely convey what might otherwise be ineffable:

Malign cells that fraternize

to dominance in cervix, larynx, skin.

Petrucci speaks of a ‘textual music’ in his poetry, which facilitates an understanding that is not dependent on literal meaning. The power of sound within The Bone Ship is perhaps most apparent in P 56, the title reflecting the number of the record recounting the surgeon John Hunter’s transplant of a human tooth into the comb of a cockerel:

Did those jelly-blood

 

teeth in their leather-red comb dryly pliantly rough to touch

wobble with undervalued pain as much as

 

the congealed curls of these girls unhealed?

Similarly in Bullets:

Palpate for a thrill.

With stethoscope hear the bruit.

Exert your will.

The Bone Ship arose from the exploration of an archive, yet it is also about more than history in its consideration of us as embodied beings and as it delves into the suffering that our humanness can entail.

Petrucci speaks of the ‘porous membranes between poetry and science’, which The Bone Ship successfully explores. There have been similar collaborative projects, including the collection sequences and pathogens, which arose from a ‘Poetry Meets Biomedical Science’ venture between poets and scientists, and also includes works from Mario Petrucci.

The poetry collection Pocket Horizon contains the works of seven poets and was inspired by objects from the history of science and medicine, for example Richard Barnett’s That the Heart is a Fist based on one of the original 1815 stethoscopes:

Beating, pounding, pumping – such hard words,

So plump, so tense with action

A dialogue between poetry, medicine and science is an important one, each discipline potentially illuminating the other and enhancing our ability to understand our experiences. In Sylvia Plath’s The Surgeon at 2 a.m., the poet writes from the perspective of a surgeon who sees the patient not as a person but as the sum of her body parts:

It is a garden I have to do with—tubers and fruits

Oozing their jammy substances,

A mat of roots.

Removed body parts – ‘pathological salami’ – are ‘entombed in an icebox’.

Poetry can redress imbalance and restore equilibrium. There is a danger in the dialogue between poetry and disciplines such as medicine and science that the conversation veers to one side. The ‘porous membranes’ that Petrucci so eloquently describes need to allow for a bi-directional flow, thus ensuring that all mutually benefit from the exchange.

 

The Bone Ship: In Through the Door: New Poetry from London’s Archives. Southampton: Indigo Press Limited, 2014.

sequences and pathogens. Litmus Publishing, 2013

Pocket Horizon. Scarborough: Valley Press, 2013

 

Columba Quigley

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