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Poetry and Medicine XII: Seamus Heaney

The mystique of the medicine man


What do kids make of us doctors? What magic do they ascribe to our tools of the trade? What do they imagine we can see when we peer into their ears, with our special torches that they are not permitted to play with, or that we can hear with those tubes we hold in our own ears as we move the cold piece over their chests?

When I was a young GP, a local primary school teacher invited me to visit her class and bring my house-call bag, full of props for a show and tell. The kids loved the reflex hammer.

Seamus Heaney was an Irishman, and a 20th Century poet laureate and Nobel prize winner in literature. Here are some sections lifted from his long poem, Out of the Bag.


All of us came in Doctor Kerlin’s bag.

He’d arrive with it, disappear to the room

And by the time he’d reappear to wash

Those nosy, rosy, big soft hands of his

In the scullery basin, its lined insides

(The colour of a spaniel’s inside lug)

Were empty for all to see, the trap-sprung mouth

Unsnibbed and gaping wide. Then like a hypnotist

Unwinding us, he’d wind the instruments

Back into their lining…

… and leave

With the bag in his hand…

Until the next time came and in he’d come…

And go stooping up to the room again, a whiff

Of disinfectant, a Dutch interior gleam

Of waistcoat satin and highlights on the forceps.

The room I came from and the rest of us all came from

Stays pure reality where I stand alone,

Standing the passage of time, and she’s asleep

Me at the bedside…

…appearing to her as she closes

And opens her eyes, then lapses back

Into a faraway smile whose precinct of vision

I would enter every time, to assist and be asked

In that hoarsened whisper of triumph,

‘And what do you think

Of the new wee baby the doctor brought for us all

When I was asleep?’


Perhaps nothing is as magical as childbirth, and no aspect of life obfuscated over centuries with so much bullshit. As though children don’t deserve simple but truthful answers to natural questions. Today, it is common practice for a young child to remain in the room to watch the birth of a baby sibling, and I welcome this. Cries of pain and joy, blood and placenta – this is life, to be witnessed and talked about. Or is an instrumental delivery in the home, presumably assisted by ether or chloroform in this case, a gruesome step too far?

Of course, misconceptions can be entertaining, as in this poem, Out of the Bag. Death is the other great life event where myths and bizarre miscommunication abound, but that’s for another poem.

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