Poetry of the Times Is 10!

September 1, 2009
Richard M. Berlin, MD

Volume 26, Issue 9

My life as a poet changed dramatically in 1999 when Psychiatric Times founder John L. Schwartz, MD, and editor Christine Potvin decided to include my poems as a monthly column in Psychiatric Times. With the creation of “Poetry of the Times,” I experienced a tremendous jolt of artistic energy, a sense of affirmation, and a huge boost in confidence. Writing the column continues to propel my poetry 10 years later.

My life as a poet changed dramatically in 1999 when Psychiatric Times founder John L. Schwartz, MD, and editor Christine Potvin decided to include my poems as a monthly column in Psychiatric Times. With the creation of “Poetry of the Times,” I experienced a tremendous jolt of artistic energy, a sense of affirmation, and a huge boost in confidence. Writing the column continues to propel my poetry 10 years later.

But I did have one moment of doubt. . . .

On the eve of publication of the first poem, I realized that more than 43,000 colleagues in psychiatry and the allied mental health professions would be able to read my poetry and consider whatever the poems might reveal about me. As you might imagine, I felt exposed and vulnerable. Fortunately, my anxiety was unnecessary; your support and resonance with the poems has been one of the most gratifying aspects of the column. Over the years, your e-mails, letters, and personal words of encouragement have been heartwarming, and knowing that the poems touch your personal and professional lives in a meaningful way continues to be an important source of motivation for me. I have also appreciated the many opportunities you have created for me to speak at medical school grand rounds, literary events, and psychiatric residency training programs around the country. It has been a pleasure to meet so many wonderful colleagues and to have the opportunity to learn more about the poems as you share your insights with me.

Knowing I would have a column to fill each month provided a huge motivation to be disciplined about my writing. Over time, I produced a body of work, and in 2002 my first collection of poems, How JFK Killed My Father, won the Pearl Poetry Prize and was published by Pearl Editions-a literary press. The poems explore my relationship with my father, who suffered with chronic autoimmune disease, and how his illness affected him, our family, and my career as a physician. To continue to honor my father’s memory and to encourage the creative efforts of young writers the way Psychiatric Times had fostered my own writing, I used the Pearl Poetry Prize money to establish and fund the Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Prize for medical students, residents, nursing students, and graduate students at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. The award is designed to stimulate our colleagues in training to reflect on their experiences by writing poetry and essays. The award process also encourages student writers to try on the identity of poet and writer. Their stunning poems and essays are available on my Web site www.richardmberlin.com.

Students and colleagues often ask me how I became a poet and wonder if I began writing during childhood. Looking back, the poetry seed was planted by my extraordinary 10th grade English teacher, Miss Athey. Her goal that year was simple: to convey her own love of poetry and literature to her students. I remember one class spent entirely on discussion of the question, “What do you think are the most beautiful words in the English language?” For a 16-year-old whose main interests were girls, grades, and improving his jump shot, Miss Athey’s class was a transformative experience.

But even after Miss Athey’s class, I didn’t think about actually writing poetry until my mid-40s. At that time, I was having fun making up children’s stories for my daughter when a friend asked me to join her writers’ group. Although I had written many scientific papers, I did not consider myself a writer, and the invitation surprised me. My friend was persistent and convinced me to attend the group, and I suddenly became immersed in the world of contemporary poetry and creative writing. I was gripped by the power and beauty of the poetry produced by members of the group, and I began to set aside time to read the work of other contemporary poets.

Suddenly, I was a man in love.

With the support of the group, I experimented with my own writing, studied the details of the craft and-most important of all-I began to apply the intense discipline and focused energy to writing that had enabled me to learn the skills needed to become a doctor.

Being a psychiatrist, I have reflected on how I chose to become a poet rather than pursue other literary genres like fiction or memoirs. I recalled that Freud said, “Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me,” and I have come to believe that every doctor (and every psychiatrist) carries a black bag filled with poetry. Which is to say that in some basic way, our work as physicians is a kind of poetry. Our interactions with patients tend to be brief, focused, emotionally charged and multilayered-generally conveying the intense flash of pleasure and understanding found in poems. In addition, the psychotherapeutic relationship often relies on the poet’s tool of metaphor. I like to think about the connection between medical history taking, psychotherapy, the doctor-patient relationship, and poetry with a line from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “Poetry is the past breaking out in our hearts.”

There are a number of people who have encouraged poetry to break out in my heart, and they merit special thanks. Founding editor John L. Schwartz supported the creation of “Poetry of the Times,” and I applaud him for opening the pages of Psychiatric Times to other writers to encourage their creative development. I am certain my fellow columnists share my appreciation of Psychiatric Times for providing the opportunity to publish our work on a regular basis. Fellow columnists Ronald Pies, MD (our editor-in-chief and a fine poet and writer), Alexandra N. Helper, MD, and the late Paul Genova, MD, have all been extremely generous with their encouragement over the years. The entire staff of Psychiatric Times have been meticulous in laying out the poems and honoring the special needs of poetry. Over the years, editors Christine Potvin, Leo Cristofar, and Susan Kweskin and art director Paola DiMeglio have carefully guided the poems through the publication pro-cess each month.

And to all my readers, please know there is always a moment in my creative process when I imagine you and how you might respond to the poem. I feel very lucky to have you out there and look forward to hearing from you and meeting you in the coming years.

For this 10th anniversary, I have reviewed the 120 poems that have appeared in Psychiatric Times and selected 10 that generated enthusiastic responses from readers and poetry editors who have reprinted many of them in anthologies. I invite you to celebrate the anniversary by reading these poems again.

Dr Berlin’s Top 10 Poems From the Past 10 Years . . . in order!

1. If You Ask Me My Name

I will say healer, priest,

turner of textbook pages,

searcher, listener, arrogant crow

costumed in white, reflecting moon.

My name is scared and foolish

and sometimes too tired to care.

I am death’s reluctant lover,

a child’s guide, mother, father,

hero and fool,

and if you like it simple,

doctor will do.

2. Anatomy Lab

She was stretched out naked,

young and blonde,

wild and frightening

when the others were so old,

everyone at the steel table

pretending not to notice

the fortune of her body.

That first day I sliced off her breast,

scalpel circling round and round

the way I might halve a peach,

to study her glistening secrets

with detachment and awe.

We explored the deep insertions

where muscle joins bone,

subtracted her face, her arms,

plucked ovaries and heart like thieves,

but lost count of the treasures

severed from ourselves.

By year’s end, brittle with guilt,

we hovered over our hollow creation,

pretending to look away

from the short blonde braid

at the base of her skull

no one had the courage to cut.

3. What a Dying Woman Saw

She was clear-eyed and dying

when I knew her, soft breaths feathering

from her chest like distant smoke,

face bleached white as burnt out sky.

Propped in a chair, oxygen prongs pulled

to her neck, she commanded like a queen

for morphine, lobster, a second phone,

her mind still ruling an 80 pound body.

She allowed me to sit at the foot

of her bed like a commoner, let me ask

the details of lineage and disease,

revealed the smothering-fear in her dream.

And on the last morning, when I’d suctioned

dark secretions, she wheezed,

You’re a poet, aren’t you?

That was before I thought to write

more than a patient’s history in a chart,

before I knew what lets us breathe easier,

before their stories engraved me like stone.

4. Hospital Food

We lower a plastic tray on his ribs

as if food can stop the dying:

cold potato scooped like a snowball,

canned spinach oozing green,

microwaved chicken thigh.

I’ve watched anorectic men clog

N-G tubes with brown rice

and Kombacha mushroom tea,

listened to wives plead

just make him take a few bites,

withstood lectures on macrobiotics

delivered by a Camel chain smoker.

No, I’ve never seen hospital food

stop the dying.

Some days, worn and hungry,

I take refuge in smooth noodles

glistening black beans and red chilis,

fragrant sips of jasmine tea,

sweet white sesame balls the size of prayers.

And I think about the sick men

dissolving like tailpipes in the sea,

what they long to devour,

how we die without appetite

and the way we live with hungers

that consume our hearts like another kind of dying.

5. What a Psychiatrist Remembers

I remember rain hammering a green tin roof,

the light at each prescribed hour.

I remember perfumes and anxious sweat,

who preferred the big leather chair

and who liked to hide in the sofa’s corner.

I remember watching hairlines recede,

weight gained and lost from faces

like snow drifted high and melted by sunlight.

I remember empty men who devoured my words

and those too full of themselves.

I remember invisible families

I could describe as if gazing at an old photo,

how people rehearsed new lines

like actors in a foreign city.

I remember women and men on fire

and the frozen who needed me for kindling.

I remember forgetting

a session with a man whose words

whipped me like his father’s belt,

my small amnesias for anniversaries,

who said what when,

and how much my lapses hurt them.

I remember sitting like my patients

when time expired,

entire lives grasped in a 50 minute hour,

how at baffled moments

I leaned too far back in my rocker

and knew the fear of falling.

6. Tools

-for Barry Sternlieb

They hang from the rack:

my father’s spade saving last year’s mud,

a long-tined rake, the swan-neck hoe.

Each spring, when earth warms and begs

me to open its dark skin, I carry them

past flowering apples and pears to the quiet

square of garden, to excite what lies buried

beneath the surface. The spade slices deep,

turns clay and compost in a wet, fertile dough

combed smooth by the rake’s thin hand.

The graceful hoe chops dandelions

that intrude like obsessions

and waits patiently to scrape purslane

when it grows fast as jealousy in July.

I love their simple handles, the smooth taper

of oiled oak and ash, their honest grains

spiraling like a patient’s thoughts.

My psychiatrist tools are simple too:

a room with a closed door, a few chairs, pills,

and packets of words I cultivate like, that hurts or yes, I see,

words that smooth a surface or dig up something dormant

like last year’s seeds stirred from below

whispering green shoots toward the first hope of warmth.

7. All the Sad Doctors

With black bags stuffed

below their eyes,

all the sad doctors

come to me now

like mourners

in the time of plague.

Crying in their office

bathrooms, carrying boxes

of charts home at night,

they are too tired to eat,

and sex excites them

less than a committee meeting.

Without dreams,

their eyes watch the clock

tick off

the wounded hours–

thousands of doctors writhing

on the scarred suture line

of American medicine

like a cargo of used syringes

washed up

with drowned birds

on an oil-soaked beach.

8. Pantoum From a Line by Pablo Neruda

It was a headlong act of love

when I kissed her. She was gone.

No one could have saved her.

The dialyzer hummed a little love song.

The way I kissed her (she was gone)

was a reflex, a hand to break my fall.

The dialyzer hummed a little love song.

No one saw us, the curtains were drawn.

It was a reflex, a hand to break my fall.

My mouth was on her lips!

No one saw us, the curtains were drawn.

I’m a man who doesn’t take risks.

My mouth was on her lips!

I closed my eyes, but not for long.

I’m a man who doesn’t take risks.

The corridor was quiet, it was close to dawn.

I closed my eyes, but not for long.

Her lips on mine felt soft and warm.

The corridor was quiet, it was close to dawn.

She was dead, but I sang her a song.

Her lips on mine felt soft and warm.

No one could have saved her.

She was dead. I sang her a song-

It was a headlong act of love.

9. Our Medical Marriage

-for Susanne

We kneeled on the bookstore floor

two students scanning the bodies

of new books, checking out

each other’s Principles

of Internal Medicine.

Scores of textbooks later

we’re a pair of pagers and missed dinners,

companions in sleep-deprived nights.

We suffered the long delay

before our only child while we ran

to slashed wrists and ODs,

sprinted from half-read journal

to school play to board meeting.

In conversation long as summer light

we talked patients and drugs,

recited the simple prayers of the dying,

learned how we both took medicine

as a life-long lover.

One hushed June evening in mid-life

scented rose and thick with fireflies,

the phone steals her.

I sit with my half-filled glass

and a life we knew we were choosing,

our marriage a joining of two strains

of mint, planted close, cross-pollinated

to form a single type, the small, unfailing

flowers arrayed in purple spikes

I can see most clearly

when I’m down on my knees.

10. Playing in the Band

All over this moonlit mountain neighbors call

the cops, and the cops call TURN IT DOWN,

but it’s too late to stop “Wild Night”

with a hundred people dancing so hard

they’ve thrown off their shoes.

I’m turning fifty with a star-burst

guitar hanging on my hips,

rhythm hand keyed to the high hat cymbal,

and when Billy rakes E-D-A and sings

Let me tell you ‘bout my baby,

we crank it up another notch,

sweat pouring, wine pouring,

fireflies flashing like a marquee,

Billy belting out G-L-O-R-I-A, Gloria!,

his hair grown back from chemo, a glory,

my step-father, on vacation from chemo, a glory,

Steven, smiling, one day post-chemo, a glory,

James in his tux, finished with chemo, a glory,

Marlena and my mother dancing

without their breasts, a glory,

all of us shimmering in summer’s halo,

bandaged by rags of music and moonlight,

playing in this glorious band of the living,

shaking in time to our lives.

11 (A Bonus).

At the Residential School Team Conference

the principal turns to the student and says,

“I am here for the educational piece,

Mr. Tan is here for the cottage piece,

Ms. McMillan is here for the drug abuse piece,

Dr. Berlin is here for the psych piece,

and you are the puzzle we’re putting together,”

which makes me think of the thousand pieces

of Manhattan I assembled last summer

in a cottage on an island far out to sea,

wind blowing at 39 knots, swells rising

ten feet, the mail boat gone for the week,

and that scene of the city from high above

on a cloudless day, the corner where he deals

crack, the alley where his mother nods

with a needle in her arm, and his father

on the piece that is missing. But I hate

puzzles, the way each choice constrains

the next until you’ve re-created nothing

more than the picture on the box.

I’d rather think of this team as shipwreck survivors

stroking hard toward a distant lighthouse,

roped together in Arctic water, knowing

if one of us sinks, everyone drowns.