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Poetry and Medicine V: Rachel McAlpine

New Zealand writer and poet, Rachel McAlpine, recently celebrated her 80th birthday by publishing a book of poems, How to be Old.

Here’s one of my favourites from this collection, reproduced with Rachel’s blessing.

Getting old is not like getting pregnant

Preparing for old age is scary

scarier than getting pregnant

twenty thousand miles from home.

Now my body has to face

the prospect of extreme old age.

What scares me most is the unknown

and so I study hard. But hey

old age is not like pregnancy.

I’m carrying a void

and when I say I’m getting old,

nobody says to me, How lovely!


Is this your first old age?

When is it due?

Oh no, they tell me,

you’re not old.

You’ll never be old.

It’s all in the mind.

Age is just a number.

Try homeopathy.

Note the sweet-sour flavours here! I love the way the poet has poignantly blended the scariness of ageing with humour.

What scares her most is the unknown. But she is also a keen observer of other people’s responses and comments, including the tendency of others to minimise the reality of her experience, in an attempt to be reassuring. ‘Oh no, they tell me, you’re not old, you’ll never be old…age is just a number.’ Rachel McAlpine is an astute listener, capturing commonly heard expressions, yet she does not feel well heard herself, when she dares to tell people she is getting old, and how scary that can be.

Poems vary tremendously in style and technique. Some make powerful use of metaphor, some produce a musicality from rhythm and repetition of sounds, but this very accessible poem takes strength from using everyday language to bring together two contrasting aspects of the human life cycle – pregnancy and ageing. This is reminiscent of James Baxter’s lines, discussed in a previous article: “Alone we are born/ And die alone.”

I read the last line of this poem, “Try homeopathy”, as an indirect way of stating that there is no cure for growing old, representative of a range of responses from others which are well meaning but futile.

That is where it ends, on an amusing note. It is one of the techniques of poetry to address a heavy theme with sufficient levity to keep the reader engaged, and in this case to leave them pondering their own mortality while demonstrating that it can still be approached with a sense of fun.

This essay was originally published in NZ Doctor, 2022.

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