Confession: The work of doctor/poets often leave me disappointed.
(In terms of office visits and poetry, I prefer nurses over doctors any day. What ever happened to the wonderful nurse/poet Belle Waring?)
Often doctors' more presumably autobiographical poems share the same formula: deadened language, straightforward description, a closure containing dull pathos. There is nothing inherently offensive in their work; it just seems the poems were written after a long day’s work. Which I’m sure some of them were. Wound up tight, the poems lack spontaneity.
Reading their poems cause you to feel as if they're hurried, harried. They’re checking off the formal properties of poetry to create art in the same way they rule out a diagnosis based on symptoms. They take inventory of what a poem should include, insert as many of those properties they can, and then -poof!- they brought a blank page to life.
The poems usually seize up to an alarming degree. Rescuing themselves from the hospital chaos, the doctors sometimes seem to panic and impose a strict formal rhyme scheme, something as clear-cut and unmiraculous as possible.
In terms of doctor/poets, I think of Rafael Campo, Peter Pereria, Dwaine Rieves, and C. Dale Young
I find the work of the first three unambitious, too unrumpled.
I’ve always sensed Campo, Pereria, and Rieves would be receptive to critiques of their work, to transcend their obvious limitations, as any good doctor would. Unfortunately, no one’s offered them the help they’ve given so many others.
C. Dale Young is a different story. Even when frustrated with his poems, as I sometimes am, I find that he pushes his work into peculiar realms, making him always worthwhile to read. In The Second Person, Young seemed more obsessed with the opacity of desire, especially in the longer sequence, which produced ambivalence for me.
For this post, I want to focus on his strongest poem I’ve read of his called “Torn.” This is an undoubtedly a significant contribution to this theme of gay male exhaustion as well as a corrective to some of the unconscious self-aggrandizement evident in his peers' writing. Already analyzed in the comic poems of Brent Goodman and Aaron Smith, Young offers a dramatic approach to this theme of gay male exhaustion.
In no way do I want to come across as privileging the dramatic over the comic. That is a stupid mistake poet-critics often make. But I do think it’s necessary to claim that the pitfalls are different, and C. Dale succeeds in an enviable way.
The set-up is simple. A gay man is in the emergency room. Some thugs have gay-bashed him. The doctor begins to stitch up his face.
Who would think that in 2009 you could still make a remarkable poem based on these overly familiar images?
This is what separates this poem from others: the unflinching portrayal of the doctor as bored, jaded, and very tired. Young refuses to show the doctor as a hero, but as potentially extraneous, even replaceable, disposable:
Even though I knew there were others to be seen,
I sat there and slowly threw each stitch.
There were always others to be seen. There was
always the bat and the knife.
And one can no doubt assume that there is always the doctor. Just another spoke in the wheel. The bold closing smartly amplifies this sad fact:
..And when they
came in drunk or high with their own wounds,
when they bragged about their scuffles with the knife
and that other world of men, I sat there and sutured.
I sat there like an old woman and sewed them up.
Stitch after stitch, the slender exactness of my fingers
attempted perfection. I sat there and sewed them up.
You can pinpoint the strength of the poem through its use of the phrase “like an old woman.” By all accounts, this simile should not work; it should be an awkward cliché. But here it emphasizes the endless routine, the lack of specialness in a job that forces you to deal with a steady stream of hurt people needing urgent help, sometimes even those you may too closely find verisimilitude:
Each suture thrown reminded me I would never be safe
in that town. There would always be the bat
and the knife, always a fool willing to tear me open
to see the dirty faggot inside.
These hate crimes will never stop. Plenty of formal strategies contribute to this numbing effect: the deliberate flatness of the language, the repetition of the sonic element in sewn and “sutured” (an oddly wonderful sounding word). Even the anaphora, something as potentially as dull as “there was” produces a deliberate numbing effect. The poem ultimately enlivens this mundane godly activity: bringing gay men back from what could easily have been their grave.
A writing update
3 days ago