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Poetry and Medicine XVI: Sarah Broom

There is only so much I can do, and must let go of the rest.

This poem is from NZ poet Sarah Broom’s second collection, Gleam, published by AUP.

I love a poem like this, short and simple, yet carrying far more weight on its shoulders than is apparent at first glance.

Of Necessity

This many birds

I will protect and nurture

and the rest I will release

to the wind.

This much earth

I will dig and water

and the rest I will abandon

to the sun.

This much sand

I will hold fast

and the rest I will cede

to the tumbling sea.

At the time she wrote this poem, Sarah had three young children and a cancer in her lungs.

The setting here of the outdoors, and the imagery of birds, wind and sea recur in many of her poems, with the Awhitu peninsula being of special spiritual significance – a place of retreat for reflection and renewal.

There is symmetry and form in this poem, not from rhyme or even line length, but from repeated words, themes and elements in common between corresponding lines in each of the three stanzas.

The theme that comes through most strongly for me is abandoning to the forces of nature, that which one instinctively seeks to protect. Abandonment of necessity, as the title makes clear. There is only so much that one can do, that one can nurture and hold onto, and of necessity the rest will have to take its chances in the world, at the mercy of forces represented by wind, sun and sea.

I sense here Sarah being acutely aware of her diminishing strength and of the uncertain time remaining, yet yearning to keep writing and spending time with family, among other goals. She is forced to prioritise. In the final stanza, the sand she holds onto seems to represent time trickling through her fingers. The last line describes the sea as a tumbling sea, evoking turbulence, a disrupting force that upends our lives and hopes.

Sarah could have written an essay reflecting on the tough choices forced on her by her illness, on the necessity to prioritise, but the images or word pictures she has created in this poem are an art more vivid to the reader.

As doctors, the constraints within which we practise, the need for us to prioritise and to accept the gap between what we long to achieve for our patients and that which we have to settle for, makes this poem very relatable.

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