I hope you are all well today!
This poem comes from a practising doctor: as well as being the author of eight acclaimed poetry collections, Rafael Campo teaches and works at the Harvard Medical School and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
A good reminder that the boundary between sciences and arts is more permeable than we tend to assume in our modern world! And also proof that poetry can be made out of all sorts of lives and experiences. Sometimes I feel that we get to experience so little in this one short life of ours. But poetry can offer us a window to the millions of other worlds out there that are not ours.
Here’s the poem!
What I Would Give, by Rafael Campo
What I would like to give them for a change
is not the usual prescription with
its hubris of the power to restore,
to cure; what I would like to give them, ill
from not enough of laying in the sun
not caring what the onlookers might think
while feeding some banana to their dogs—
what I would like to offer them is this,
not reassurance that their lungs sound fine,
or that the mole they’ve noticed change is not
a melanoma, but instead of fear
transfigured by some doctorly advice
I’d like to give them my astonishment
at sudden rainfall like the whole world weeping,
and how ridiculously gently it
slicked down my hair; I’d like to give them that,
the joy I felt while staring in your eyes
as you learned epidemiology
(the science of disease in populations),
the night around our bed like timelessness,
like comfort, like what I would give to them.
In this poem, Campo imagines an unconventional medicine for his suffering patients: not drugs or his doctorly expertise, but the ‘astonishment’ and ‘joy’ of a few simple moments.
Too often health is thought of as purely physical, with little consideration for all the tiny things that can make someone feel well. And often – especially in increasingly privatised medical systems across the world – the only remedies that are valued are those whose costs and results can be easily and instantly quantified. But how can you measure human connection? How can you measure the efficacy of a little kindness from a doctor to their patient at their most vulnerable moment? What is the price of love?
Poetry is the enemy of quantification. If your only ideas of ‘value’ are those that can be quantified and easily measured, then poetry is worthless. But the value we get from poetry is of a different kind: it has a unique ability to zoom in on unquantifiable moments, to find words for things there are no words for, to express what would otherwise be inexpressible.
All my love, as ever,