NOT GOD, my play in verse (TriQuarterly – Northwestern University Press, 2006) has two characters, a hospitalized woman and her physician. The poems are internal monologues not specifically addressed to one another. It attempts to illuminate the importance of what is not said and how what one says may be heard by the recipient. It has been staged several times after publication and invariably the audience wanted to know more about the doctor, what he felt about the patient becoming increasingly more ill, and his struggles with the medical care system. I heard the patient as a woman and the doctor a male though gender is not specifically indicated. I am an oncologist and when writing the doctor poems I seem to hear a doctor who is clearly not me. He has a different voice and at times a different point of view.
When the book was complete I thought that the doctor had no more to say to me but then came some funny poems as well as sarcastic and biting ones but still missing was how he was internalizing the impending loss of this woman who had probably meant a great deal to him. And then came “The Farmer, The Hobo, and The Red Cardinal.” It is written in alternating short phrases, one mostly concrete and the other surrealistic, as though there is an outer life, the reality of treating cancer patients every day and the inevitable losses, and then the unconscious life, where one might sequester the enormity of such sickness and so much struggle and death. And as the poem evolves it is an elegy more specifically to a beautiful person, this woman who is terminal.
This poem proved to be highly autobiographical. As a medical resident I was caring for a dairy farmer with terminal lung cancer and my need to find effective treatment for him was the largest reason I became an oncologist. Then there was no known treatment for his variety of disease and having just spent two lab years at the National Cancer Institute I wanted to try something novel and the farmer agreed and he had a complete response. As a scientist in the making I needed to treat more patients with the identical disease and the next patient I found was a hobo in a nearby hospital (who also responded). Eventually they both succumbed to lung cancer but their results (published) changed the landscape.
I had not expected these two people to surface; I had not thought about them in so many years, and then the doctor in my poem brought their memory to life. The Red Cardinal of course is his patient, her song so spectacular. Her impending loss is so painful for the doctor and if he can’t get through it how can he go on? At this moment he is not sure.
“The Last Cloud” is a very recent work; I have mostly retired from oncology, 10,000 patients later. It too reveals itself to me as it is written. I don’t know where these poems start or where they are going for a while. I suspect that its existentialist stance follows for a cancer doctor of forty years.
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