Hitchhiking in the Hospital|
by Shirley A. Serviss
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|Just Making the Rounds
by Shane Neilson
As a physician who occasionally prescribes poetry to patients, I believe in the power of poems to heal. Yet I have, on the whole, misgivings about poems written as therapy. Shirley Serviss is a poet who has been a writer-in-residence at a hospital in Alberta for the past several years. To my knowledge, there is no other program like it in Canada. As part of her job, she encourages patients to keep a journal and write poems. A major part of her job, however, is to write poems for patients based on the experiences they provide her. The results are, I'm willing to admit, good medicine but make for dreadful poetry.
The challenge in Hitchhiking in the Hospital is monumental. Serviss needs to remake first-person patient narratives-stories of bodies in extremis-into compelling second-person accounts. The dangers of this brand of poetic witness are clearly and quickly seen: the protagonists of Serviss's poems become disembodied. It's the difference between writing a get-well-soon card versus listening first-hand to a patient's ordeal. Serviss is the screen for their stories, but her powers as a poet aren't enough to craft a single convincing account:
You can tell the regulars. The staff call them by
Fill their orders without even asking.
Bring them their thrombocytes, pamidronate,
remicade or cyclophosphamide . . .
The [patients] pick up conversations
Where they left off, peruse old magazines.
They'll hang out here all day
or as long as the refills keep coming.
They aren't in a rush to get to work;
this is their job. Like anyone else
they do what they have to
to stay alive.
This is mere transcription of data, and though the tone is, I assume, meant to be matter of fact, there isn't much poetry going on-no internal rhyme, no assonance, no rhythm. I would have hoped a collection of what is supposed to be medical poetry to have a pulse, but all of Serviss is a slack flat line. Ho-hum, the patients are trying to stay alive, but what is the poet doing? Observing, yes; offering insight, or a heightened sense, no. Other problems, such as dead-obvious and fanatically belaboured metaphors, appear regularly in poems like "Storm Warning":
Her face registers pain the way
a prairie sky forecasts a storm.
a flash in her clear blue eyes
lightning on the distant horizon.
A tightening of her brow as laden
clouds begin to build and gather force.
Distress erases her smile. She clenches
her jaw, tries not to give voice to the
throbbing that thunders inside. But one
sharp cry escapes. Tears she can't
restrain run down her cheeks.
We get it, we get it! Furthermore, note the utter lack of music, a recurrent fault in this monotonous collection. Serviss should know better; she writes in "Poem for a Ward Clerk", "But a poem can't be about anything/ so general. It's like prescribing the right pill/ for an illness; you have to know where it/ hurts; you can't just hand out multivitamins." Exactly. Yet the only targets this book hits are melodrama and sentiment, really the universal death knell for all illness poetry. Outpourings of emotion in the sick room are forgiveable, but in poetry grief must be controlled. Illness tends to devolve into sentiment, but poetry mustn't, ever.
One gets the sense, finally, that the matter of these poem, those patient experiences, are mere incidentals. In fact, one get the sense that Serviss could have just written her poems about anybody. There is no overarching logic to the collection, no immediacy, no rightness. Just manipulative one-offs to the sorrowfully sick. As illness is overwhelmingly personal, so should be the poetry about it. Yet Serviss espouses the poetry of one-size-fits-all therapy. And that's where this collection fails-by not making the jump from therapy to poetry. ò