Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus




Peter Pereira, What's Written on the Body.
Copper Canyon Press: Port Townsend, WA, 2007.

                    In Memory of Millie Niss,
whose spirit continues to heal all of us who knew her.



Although books and anthologies of poems by physicians and other healthcare workers are not uncommon, Seattle family physician, Peter Pereira, has a particular gift in revealing of the pulse of his psyche through his relationship with patients. Perhaps this is because he has had to absorb the prejudice that goes with being a gay man in America. Even in his office, when he refused to write a prescription for the powerful pain-killer OxyContin, "because the Xrays / and MRI don't show it," for a man who claimed he had broken his spine in a car accident, the man walked out muttering, "Damn fag."

The words sting. Even in my white coat,
shielded by my stethoscope and tie.

While the doctor's white coat and stethoscope are magical garments of authority that shield him from profane others—as shamans, priests, Zen Masters, et al., don their vestments—, even this magical garment, reinforced with his tie's formal knot, cannot shield him from ignorance; or from questions that have plagued him for most of his life—

Damn fag. How did he
know? Was it written

across my face?

Even after all these years.
Why am I ashamed? (44)

Using functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRI), a team at Friedrich Schiller University, Jena, Germany, headed by Dr. Thomas Weiss, has recently shown that "'it is not only the painful memories and associations that set our pain memory on the alert. Even verbal stimuli lead to reactions in certain areas of the brain,' claims Prof. Weiss. As soon as we hear words like 'tormenting,' 'grueling' or 'plaguing,' exactly those areas in the brain are being activated which process the corresponding pain. 'Verbal stimuli,' the team found, 'have a more important meaning than we have thought so far.'" 1

All good poetry opens a dialogue that is akin to opening a wound. When a poem is dialogical, first person morphs into third, taking the poem beyond the confessional booth and toward the province of creating a figural myth. Unlike Dr. Solomon, the wise family physician of my childhood, who arrived with his black bag filled with an array of diagnostic tools, made me gag with a wooden tongue depressor, listened to my chest, and announced what is ailing me—Pereira listens to a patient's heart as if hearing the beats of a poem.

With this in mind, what needs to be made are poems of ubiquitous consequence. And, so that the authority of the poet's voice doesn't just echo amongst mountains of books or avenues of webpages, a poet must have more than a knowledge of literature, but also have a working acquaintance with other fields in the humanities and sciences. This is one way to coax the sciences back into the humanities, where they would not only have to develop a metaphorical language that challenges their privileged lexicon, but would also have to stop pretending to be ethically neutral. Of course they are not. Like poets, scientists are human all the way through. As physician/poet Rafael Campo wrote:

"Poetry defies the restrictive and segregated version of the postmodernist notion of genre, which held that the form of any narrative takes actually molds or shapes experience in order to contain it." 2

Nor does interrogating oneself in a poem necessarily make it a "confessional poem," which the critic Irving Howe said, "would seem to be one in which the writer speaks to the reader, telling him, without the mediating presence of imagined event or persona, something about his life." 3 However, using Howe's definition, there is no such thing as a confessional poem, because there is no way to write outside of an "imagined event or persona." A poem is only as real as the myth it creates. In fact, I suggest that with our sudden participation in the earth as a field of infinite psycho-electronic connections, poems that are not archetypically brilliant are no longer relevant, except to the poets themselves.



A portion of Peter Pereira's medical practice is with poor immigrants, which is why some of his most thoughtful poems probe the problem of cross-cultural communication. In "Beauty Mark," Dr. Pereira confronts a Cambodian woman, "a survivor of Pol Pot's camps."

The grandmother wants me to excise
a little freckle like a teardrop
just below her granddaughter's left eye.
Too much sadness, she says, suggesting
through an interpreter that if I do not
she will cut it our herself—
It's our culture belief.

Pereira tells her that in his culture it is called a "beauty mark," and to remove it is "uncalled for with a child." As the grandmother persists, the doctor must weigh his vow to do no harm against her anxiety. As the surgery is superficial, "finger-pricks and immunizations carry as much risk," he wonders what he is protecting the child from. After several visits, he finally agrees "to do a shave-excision." Weeks later, a happy grandmother returns to show the doctor her granddaughter's "unblemished cheek." "Years later," Pereira writes, "I still wonder / if what we did was right."

Psychologist Helene Schuman wrote: "Medical and psychological anthropologists are currently trying to sort out what portions of scientific and medical techniques hold up across cultures. It is extremely difficult, however, to formulate these questions." 4 Could it be that the mark on the child's face was a sign to the grandmother of the tears inside her that she wasn't able to face? In this case, from a Western perspective the wrong kind of doctor treated the wrong patient. However, from the perspective of the grandmother's culture, the harm would have been if the doctor had not removed the mark. What in one culture is beauty, in another may be shame.

With regards to a poem titled, "Laying On of Hands," let's consider what's written by the body. "There," Lewis Thomas wrote, " I think is the oldest and most effective act of doctors, the touching. Some people don’t like being handled by others, but not, or almost never. Sick people. They need to be touched, and part of the dismay in being very sick is the lack of close human contact." 5

The patient was talking.
I was listening and I wasn't.

Something about an extra piece of bone
inside his head. One eye that won't track...

The patient was talking about her...about this...
The patient was talking and I was watching...

"The tendency to downgrade symptoms may be based on the doctor’s knowledge that a patient is in the early stages of an illness and could be much worse. Or the doctor may be making mental comparisons with other patients who are sicker: 'You think your nausea is bad, you should have seen the patient I saw this morning.'" 6

The patient was talking and I was not
hearing a sound. But I was listening and

I was there. I was standing beside and I was
listening with my hands.

Handprints are common in many shrines at Çatal Höyük, a Neolithic town inhabited approximately 7500 BCE to 5700 BCE in what is now Turkey. "Their association with bull heads, honeycombs, whirls, chrysalises, bees, and butterflies places them among symbols promoting the process of becoming." 7 According to archaeologists David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, not only do the handprints at the Neolithic town of Çatal Höyük have significance, the paint of the positive prints was "a powerful substance that effected or enhanced contact with the supernatural." They contend that a negative print (paint sprayed around a hand to form its outline) was, "also painted into the wall; it disappeared behind the paint. This seems to have been the significance of handprints in the deep Paleolithic caves of Western Europe." Lewis-Williams and Pearce then speculate that the Paleolithic cave walls "were probably a 'membrane' between them and the spirit realm into which the cave itself led." 8

As far as we presently know, the appearance of the professional healer began with the figure we call a "shaman," whose pedigree dates back to at least the Upper Paleolithic (about 40,000 BCE). During most of human existence, healing was done with the numinous as its agent. Shamans are still "technicians of the sacred;" so that, even today, when a doctor palpates the integument of a patient's body, a somatic wall, he or she is, usually unconsciously, engaging in a sacred rite. One senses that Dr. Pereira is aware of this; and that, with such patients as the man in the title poem of this book, who informs him that, "In Cambodia, he's been given / a special tea, a prescriptive sacrifice / the right chants to say," how can he not feel like he is still in school? A Westerner, who says he knows "nothing of Chi, of Karma," Dr. Pereira asks his patient to lift the back of his shirt, "so I may listen to his breathing." (After all, "Poetry is breath." 9) As he holds the stethoscope's bell to the man's back, Pereira is "stunned by the whirl of icons and script / tattooed across his back."

I ask the interpreter what it means.
It's a spell, asking the ancestors
to protect him from evil spirits

she is tracing the lines with her fingers—
and those who meet him for kindness.

Informed that his lungs are healthy, the patient' s shoulders "relax and he folds his hands...

above his head as if in blessing.
Ar-kon, he says, All better now."



I'm wondering whether What's Written on the Body was inspired by this paragraph by Rafael Campo:

"During the Middle Ages, the body itself was 'read' or interpreted as a text, and manuscripts meditatively produced by monks contained such 'prescriptions' as exhortations against the sinfulness that was thought to cause disease, and specifically linked prayers to healing. After the revolutionary development of the printing press, and as medicine concomitantly evolved into more of a rigorous science—and as scientific disciplines in general began to lay greater claim to the human imagination—the relationship between words and healing changed but did not disappear." 3

Whether it was of not, for the book's opening section Pereira seems to have felt a need to establish his linguistic credentials, resulting in what amounts to not much more than a collection of finger exercises. Consequently, it is the weakest part...followed by, perhaps, its strongest section, titled "Practicing," which contains the poems discussed above. For the last two sections, Pereira has included some of the profound questions he asks himself about reality outside the examining room.

As in his former book, Saying the World, also published by Copper Canyon Press, the place where Pereira lives has a deep effect on how he lives, and on the poems he makes. Thus, the Pacific Northwest Coast, with its riotous ocean and restless volcanic mountains; rain forests and wildflowers mixing heady colors and scents with tended urban gardens; and its immigrants from Southeast Asia, whose culture has left its imprints on the region's green soul.

White peaks float
upon a layer of cloud,
like our small idea of heaven.

This is Mt. Baker, or Koma Kulshan, as the indigenous people call it. Sitting high in the North Cascades, the peaks around it were made famous by fire lookout journals of the Beat Poets—Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac and Philip Whalen, in particular. More than fifty years later, Peter Pereira writes:

Gazing at the mountain,
makes my mind feel empty
as the lake I wouldn't have seen
had I driven the other way.

Roads blasted through the mountain's heart, through deep afternoon shadows alongside turbulent cold streams, with so many paths a mind can take, the poet stops, breathes, and confesses:

Two errors in perceiving
the world this way:
First, seeing only a mirror
of the self. Then, not seeing
the self as part of the world.

Instead of assuming a pontifical voice, too common in poetry, in doctoring too, Pereira admits he has erred, twice. Here is a passage by C.G. Jung that is, I think, immensely important in the relationship of ourselves to the world—

"The uniqueness of the psyche can never enter wholly into reality, it can only be realized approximately, though it still remains the absolute basis of all consciousness. The deeper 'layers' of the psyche lose there individual uniqueness as they retreat farther and farther into darkness. 'Lower down,' that is to say as they approach the autonomous functional systems, they become increasingly collective, until they are universalized and extinguished in the body's materiality, i.e., in chemical substances. The body's carbon is merely carbon. Hence, at bottom, the psyche is simple 'world'" 10

Pereira continues:

It opens a cleft inside.
And something shadowed begins.

The way a scorpion will hide
in a conch's dark hollow.
Death disguised as beauty.

Now walking on the ocean's verge, the last poem of this book is titled"Night Walk." Written at Oregon's Cannon Beach, where we can feel "on bare feet, / sand like wet clay between our toes," it ends with these elegant lines—

A hermit crab sweeps up on shore,
pincers opening and closing around air.
How it claws for its small life,
the endlessly departing sea.



1- http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/03/100330122706.htm
2- Campo, R. (2003) The Healing Art. New York: W.W. Norton.
3- Howe, I. (1979) "The Plath Celebration: A Partial Dissent" in Sylvia Plath. In, E. Butsche, Editor, The Woman and Her Work. London: Peter Owen.
4- Shulman, H. (1997) Living at the Edge of Chaos: Complex Systems in Culture and Psyche. Einsiedeln: Daimon Verlag.
5- Thomas, L. (1983). The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine Watcher. New York: Viking Press.
6- Grady, D. (2010) “In Reporting Symptoms, Don’t Patients Know Best?” The New York Times, April 12.
7- Gimbutas, M. (1989) The Language of the Goddess. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
8- Lewis-Williams, D. and Pearce, D. (2005) Inside the Neolithic Mind. London: Thames & Hudson.
9- Buccino, A. "Poet Allen Ginsberg: "keep on breathing." http://www.anthonysworld.com/allenginsberg.html
10- Jung, C.G. (1969) The Archetypes and the Collective Unconsciousness. Collected Works, Vol 9.1. Princeton: Princeton University Press.