Poetry and Medicine VII: Sarah Broom
Because I am alone in this cold room,
because the Siemens Somatom EmotionDuo
CT scanner is about to talk to me again
and tell me, of all things, to breathe normally,
because I cannot hear right now the wind
in the pines just behind the beach, the way
it runs at night so high above your head,
because my gown says HOSPITAL PROPERTY
all over, and because someone said
BUT WE CAN GIVE YOU TIME
and someone else said WELL, YOU SEE,
IT’S NOT MY KIND OF CANCER,
and because just one fist, held close enough,
was enough to block out the light
from the giant white window where the traffic
kept travelling over and over the bridge,
and because they stuck my heart
to its lining and my lung to its lining
to stop up the gaps, and because right now
I cannot hear the wind as it probes
the gaps in the roof, rattles the corrugated
iron, and because I am about to move again,
to look at the red light circling, to be told
again to take a deep breath, again
to breathe normally, because of all this
I am not quite the same as I used to be.
No, but wait. Watch what happens now.
Sarah Broom, from Tigers at Awhitu, Auckland University Press.
Sarah Broom was emerging as a talented poet and literary academic when she was diagnosed with an incurable cancer during her third pregnancy.
Poetry can be taut and philosophical, it can be beautifully lyrical, it can be witty and amusing even as it addresses issues such as ageing. By contrast, I find this poem, Hospital Property, gut-wrenchingly moving.
The narrator is alone and cold, the huge machine mesmerising as it goes through its programmed routines, dehumanising even as it talks to her, telling her to breathe normally, unaware of the irony when it is her lungs that are invaded with tumour. She longs for the comforting sound of wind in the pines, wind rattling the roof, the freedom of air movement that wind represents.
What does the ability of one fist, held close, to block out the light, mean to the narrator in this poem? A simple observation to pass the time in hospital, or the menacing symbolism of a fist held close to the face, the threat of light being extinguished? When our patients use language like that to describe their symptoms, their fears, it is so easy for us to miss the emotional punch behind the words – to not appreciate the possible meaning of those words to the patient in our quest to extract our own meaning from the ‘history’ we are being told.
Then there are the words that so casually spill from our mouths as doctors, stamped in capital letters into our patients’ minds and memories. BUT WE CAN GIVE YOU TIME. Sentences which may be revisited and reinterpreted and repeated to family, and come to form in their own way part of the sentence that follows the verdict.
Sarah concludes this free-flowing poem with an awareness that she is not quite the same as she used to be, and a curiosity as to what will happen next. Writing a poem enables the writer to step outside the storm of events which have engulfed her, to reflect and find meaning and temporarily occupy an observer’s seat.