Peter Pereira, What's
Written on the Body.
Copper Canyon Press: Port Townsend, WA, 2007.
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."
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—
How did he
know? Was it written
across my face?
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:
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."
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. (31)
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
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."
patient was talking.
I was listening and I wasn't.
about an extra piece of bone
inside his head. One eye that won't track...
patient was talking about her...about this...
The patient was talking and I was watching... (29)
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
patient was talking and I was not
hearing a sound. But I was listening and
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."
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. (46)
Informed that his
lungs are healthy, the patient' s shoulders "relax and he folds
his head as if in blessing.
says, All better now." (46)
I'm wondering whether
What's Written on the Body was inspired by this paragraph by
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."
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
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
at the mountain,
makes my mind feel
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,
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
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
a cleft inside.
And something shadowed begins.
way a scorpion will hide
in a conch's dark hollow.
Death disguised as beauty. (67)
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
crab sweeps up on shore,
pincers opening and closing around air.
How it claws for its small life,
the endlessly departing sea. (99)