Prompts (for Doctors Who Write Poetry)

Psychiatric Times, Vol 38, Issue 10,

Being a poet isn't a 9 to 5 job.

POETRY OF THE TIMES

—After Dante Di Stefano

No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six. Whoever is a poet is one always, and is continually assaulted by poetry. —Jorge Luis Borges

Write yourself scared the first day

of med school, dying to cure the world.

Write the anatomy lab’s cold steel table,

your cadaver’s swollen face, formalin’s

funk soaked into your skin, the scalpel’s

fierce friction when you severed her breast.

Write your first patient, Vinny T,

a tremulous, belly-bloated alcoholic

veteran, puking blood, cursing

your incompetence and fear.

Write what happened to your heart

when he recovered, corralled your shoulder,

and announced to a twenty bed ward,

This is the doctor who cured me!

Write the names of hospitals you’ll never forget—

Cook County, Cabrini, Rainbow Babies,

the Reed Zone Center, where Jesus Christ himself

blessed you as his psychiatrist and disciple,

the miracle when his face appeared above

the purple-robed Dean as you swore your oath.

Write elegies for prescription pads and progress

notes you carved with ballpoint pens,

odes to the stethoscope and Queen’s Square hammer,

sonnets for nurses who taught you

to care for patients with a caregiver’s love.

Write mentors who modeled bedside manners,

the way their gaze steadied spinal needles

you threaded home. Write about not having time

to write, hours you read journals, double-checked doses,

worried who might crash. Write the fear of getting sued.

Write the cemetery where you commune with dead patients.

Praise their lessons. Then write yourself perfect,

your Hallelujah! when you nailed a diagnosis

and felt like a god. Write a limerick about doctors

who feel like gods. Write every day. Write

what you love. Write a career adding up to a life.

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, MA.