"Before I knew my own voice, I listened to yours while we learned our trades..."
POETRY OF THE TIMES
Back in the 70s, before I knew
my own voice, I listened to yours
while we learned our trades—
you with comics and writers and rock stars,
me with locked-ward psych patients.
I can still hear us pepper questions,
quick to interrupt, not yet knowing
how silence can spark our work.
And we both got bruised—
Gene Simmons taunting you
like a teenager inflaming his mom,
my patients slamming doors
when I pressed them to tell me,
“How does that make you feel?”
The Way We Work
I almost fell out of my Stressless chair
when I learned your guests sit
in distant studios, your connection
like a blind musician tuned into rhythm
and tone, me in soundproofed,
sweat-soaked exam rooms, high-beam
eye contact, mirrored bodies,
my head nodding yes, my hand
circling, Tell me more,
you and I coaxing people
to reveal themselves with words.
Your two laughs are specialized tools—
the first, deep, spontaneous, seductive,
impossible to fake, a laugh that says,
I love you! You have my attention!
I am your biggest fan! But the second
is a sigh embedded in a little cough,
the flash of a pearl handled dagger
that warns your next question will hurt.
Where I work, laughter risks shaming
or hints seduction, which makes me
serious, reserved, knowing psychotherapy
positions me as close as people can be
without having sex.
Speaking of sex, I love to hear you work
when your guest is a psychoanalyst,
our godparents in the interview family,
a reflective tribe with an allergy
to giving direct answers, like the analyst
promoting her book about sex in the elderly,
how you tiptoed around her, each word,
every question chosen with the care of a sapper
cutting wires on an unexploded bomb.
But other guests aren’t quite so guarded,
and I shift to the edge of my seat
when I hear you make your graceful turn
into questions about parents and childhood,
your arc like a pilot’s approach
to a runway tucked in a mountain valley,
Springsteen’s Oh Terry! awe when
you connected his developmental dots.
My All-Time Favorite Interview
John le Carré, bored by his book promotion tour,
standoffish as a kid in the vice principal’s
office, British monotone, one-word answers,
nothing revealed until you focus on
his growing up with a con man father,
le Carré grudging a few details, you laughing
with appreciation, le Carré spilling more,
a spy coming in from the cold, opening up
as if he had been waiting all his life
to have this conversation with you,
two mates knocking down pints at the pub.
Now that I’ve listened to you longer
than Prozac or Freud, I’ve learned
saying goodbye can be hard, my endings
with patients signaled by a glance
at the clock, a summary of our session,
the next appointment time,
yours closing when you roll the credits
with a list of names my ears savor
like a man with Tourette’s who tics
on sounds: Ann Marie Baldonado
Molly Seavy-Nesper, Mooj Zadie.
But most of all I wait to hear your
Thank You, Goodbye Voice
reveal exactly how much you love
your guest, which reminds me
how much I love my patients,
the way strangers enter our lives
and revive us with a breath of fresh air.
Dr Berlin has been writing a poem about his experience of being a doctor every month for the past 23 years in Psychiatric TimesTM in a column called “Poetry of the Times.” He is instructor in psychiatry, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, Massachusetts.