Frankness, honesty, and humor make this doctor’s poetry collection special.
by Richard M. Berlin, MD; DOS Madres Press, 2021
106 pages • $19.00 (paperback)
Reviewed by Ronald W. Pies, MD
Poetry can be dangerous. Plato knew the potentially subversive power of poetry and banned poets from his authoritarian utopia, the Republic. With the exception of some poetry that extolled the state, Plato feared that poetry would “corrupt youth and incite the passions instead of the faculties of reason.”1 Sigmund Freud—whose theories of infantile sexuality were themselves viewed as subversive by Victorian society—appreciated the power and psychological depth of poetry, famously writing, “Everywhere I go, I find that a poet has been there before me.” Indeed, this is the epigram that begins Richard M. Berlin, MD’s latest collection of poems, aptly titled Freud on My Couch.
Most Psychiatric TimesTM readers know Dr Berlin’s work from his monthly “Poetry of the Times” columns, which have been an enlivening feature of this publication since 1997. As a friend and colleague of Dr Berlin, and as a contributor to Psychiatric TimesTM since forever, I have been privileged to witness the evolution of his poetry over nearly a quarter century. Rich is widely regarded as one of the foremost physician-poets writing today, and has been the recipient of several awards, including the 2010 John Ciardi Prize in Poetry for his collection Secret Wounds. His latest collection represents a worthy addition to his body of work—and, given Dr Berlin’s many medically-situated poems, the word body seems particularly appropriate.
Dr Berlin’s world of medicine is no place for starry-eyed idealists or worshippers at the shrine of Doctor God. If there is one feature that runs like a dark thread through Berlin’s poetry, it is his own doubts, fallibility, and perceived weaknesses. In his poem, “Confessions/Prayer,” he writes of “…an altar where I worship and pray / For mercy for all my failings;” and “how I hide behind my white coat’s / illusion of purity and perfection…” He prays “…to remember the healer / I yearned to become when I started / my studies…” There is, indeed, a kind of lamentation that runs through this collection of poems. To be sure, Dr Berlin’s medical vocation gives him a sense of deep pride and personal satisfaction, but also a wistful sense of what might have been. He feels drawn to the wider life beyond medical care. In “Daydreaming,” Berlin writes, “It’s hard to listen to patients / when songbirds sing outside / my open window and laughter / drifts up from families strolling / the shop-lined street.”
And, not surprisingly, there are complaints that will strike a chord with many practicing physicians: the endless battles with “the insurance mob…demanding records of patients’ private confessions”; the insurance company reviewer “who always wins”; and the ambiguities of psychiatric diagnosis (“all the old Borderlines and angry / adolescents melted down to Bipolar/slush.”).
What becomes of old Freud in Dr Berlin’s hands? The striking cover of the book shows a leather-upholstered couch floating in a swirling sea of brown-toned fabric. The dream-like image seems quite fitting for a book titled, Freud on My Couch. In the 3 linked poems of the same title, Berlin takes us into the many-layered world of the father of psychoanalysis, from his “twelve years deep into coca”; to the odor of the cigars Freud ceaselessly smoked; to his hiking through the Dolomites with his young daughter, Anna.
Of course, Richard Berlin the man is more than Berlin the physician. He is also a husband, father, and sometime jokester. His poem “Sleeping Daughter” strikes the poignant chords that epitomize a father’s love for his daughter, “…desperate to protect her any way I can.” I recall here one of the formative poems of my own development as a poet: W.D. Snodgrass’s, “Heart’s Needle,” and its epigram drawn from Irish legend: “…an only daughter is the needle of the heart.”2 In “Psychiatrist Baseball Cards,” Dr Berlin allows himself and his colleagues a bit of good-natured fun: “So take heart, dear colleague, misses / and swings are part of The Show.” Finally, Dr Berlin provides the reader a few pages of helpful notes that explain some of the less familiar medical and biographical terms that appear in the poems.
I suspect that for his frankness, honesty, and humor, Rich Berlin would have been among the poets banned from Plato’s Republic. Plato’s loss, our gain. I believe that Freud on My Couch will ennoble the physician’s calling and deepen both the medical and nonmedical reader’s perspective on our profession—even as Dr Berlin casts a cold eye on some of our collective shortcomings.
Dr Pies is professor emeritus of psychiatry and lecturer on bioethics and humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University; clinical professor of psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine; and Editor in Chief emeritus of Psychiatric TimesTM (2007-2010).
1. Plato. From the Republic. Poetry Foundation. Accessed June 30, 2021. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69373/from-the-republic
2. Snodgrass WD. Heart’s needle. Poetry Foundation. Accessed June 30, 2021. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42794/hearts-needle