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Poetry and Medicine XIV: Rachel McAlpine

As if it was really simple!

After the Fall

After the bath with ragged towels

my Dad

would dry us very carefully;

six little wriggly girls,

each with foamy pigtails,

two rainy legs,

the invisible back we couldn’t reach,

a small wet heart and toes, ten each.

He dried us all

the way he gave the parish

Morning Prayer:

as if it was important,

as if God was fair,

as if it was really simple

if you would just be still

and bare.

Rachel McAlpine

New Zealand poet, Rachel McAlpine, recalls her childhood to capture a scene of fresh innocence, of joy and simplicity within the security of a loving family, with her vicar father carefully and earnestly drying his six young daughters after their bath.

The poem is in free form with irregular line length, but there is rhyme here to be discovered in unpredictable patterns. ‘Towels’, ‘girls’ and ‘pigtails’, followed by ‘reach’ rhyming with ‘each’ in the first stanza; ‘prayer’, ‘fair’ and ‘bare,’ and ‘simple’ paired with ‘still’ in the second stanza. But note that these lines that rhyme with each other are not consistently positioned within the poem, but they seem to wriggle around and end up in different places, like the girls. A more tightly structured and predictable format would be less well suited to the theme of this poem.

The picture the poem creates in our minds is delightfully cute, with wriggly girls and their foamy pigtails, but there is more depth to this poem than just cuteness.

The poem’s title refers to the creation story of Eve and Adam, where those first people were innocently unaware of their nakedness until disobedience and sin were said to enter the world, sometimes referred to as ‘the fall’ in Christian tradition.

When I read this poem I see us GPs in the girls’ father, as he tries to do his job very carefully, as if it is important and as if the world is fair.

The towels he is using are ragged, like many of the tools we use and the systems we work within.

He attends to the invisible backs, the areas of need our patients may not be aware of or able to reach themselves.

‘As if God was fair;’ speaks to me of the inequities in society, the unfairness of disparities in health outcomes.

‘If you would just be still…’ – surely it would be easier if the patient was more cooperative!

‘…and bare.’ Being bare suggests being open and transparent. It would make our jobs easier if every patient gave a straightforward history, telling it as it is, disclosing the abuse when asked, admitting when they’ve stopped using insulin.

Yes, our jobs could be so much simpler, yet I bet this vicar loved the task of drying his wriggly girls, as we still love caring for those patients who make our day more challenging.

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