Poems about death/dying/medicine
July 14, 2021 9:54 AM   Subscribe

I am helping organize an 8-12 session narrative medicine workshop. Looking for prose, poems, etc. that touch on themes of medicine, healing, death, dying, humanities etc. that are written by non-white poets and queer and trans poets!

We are creating a workshop that runs alongside anatomy lab at my medical school to give students an opportunity to discuss feelings that come up as they are going through cadaver dissections.

In the past, many of the poems had been written by old dead white men. We want this year to include a wide variety of voices, touching on vast emotions that might come up for students.

The poems don't have to be about medicine per se, that can be a more abstract tie-in. The most important piece is works that are relatively accessible (i.e. not too experimental, these are medical students we're talking about) and written by those historically excluded from academia (especially Black feminists, Indigenous poets, queer and trans poets).

Things that I've been thinking about - a passage from Alexis Pauline Gumbs' M Archive that discusses sorting and categorizing, a passage from When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi, Ocean Vuong poems...)
posted by allymusiqua to Education (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: I asked a related question not long ago - some of the responses meet your criteria, especially if you consider lyrics poetry.
posted by headnsouth at 10:40 AM on July 14, 2021


I don’t have a specific piece to recommend, but I suggest you check out the poems of Rafael Campo. He’s a physician and decorated poet, and the gay son of Cuban immigrants. I find his work very accessible and moving.
posted by kwaller at 11:00 AM on July 14, 2021 [1 favorite]


Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon were both poets who suffered from cancer, and each was at one point a caretaker and wrote poetry about it.
posted by gideonfrog at 11:46 AM on July 14, 2021


Seconding Dr. Campo. He’s a phenomenal poet and an outstanding physician. (I was lucky enough to be a patient of his for years and he helped me navigate my MS diagnosis with extraordinary kindness and empathy.)
posted by jesourie at 11:47 AM on July 14, 2021 [1 favorite]


Saeed Jones, Casket Sharp.
posted by jocelmeow at 11:51 AM on July 14, 2021


Three from the AIDS epidemic:
Melvin Dixon, Heartbeats
Marilyn Hacker, Against Elegies
Tim Dlugos, D.O.A.
posted by jocelmeow at 12:01 PM on July 14, 2021




Billy-Ray Belcourt, “If Our Bodies Could Rust, We Would Be Falling Apart”. For context, Belcourt is a queer Cree poet and this poem is about a recent fatal hate crime against an Ojibway woman.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:34 PM on July 14, 2021


Best answer: This is my bread and butter!

*rolls up sleeves*

If you are not yet familiar with the NYU Lit Arts Med Database, they are a fantastic resource for narrative medicine texts. You can sort by theme -- as you can imagine, death/dying is a popular one -- and then by format (poetry, visual, film, prose).

I have loved introducing my students to Audre Lorde, a Black feminist lesbian activist -- she is best known as a poet, although I have found her essays to be more accessible for medical students. The Cancer Journals in particular.

Rafael Campo is a great suggestion (and as jesourie says, also a great person), as is Thom Gunn (gay man, writes extensively about AIDS and substance use and call to action (I love to watch the shock and then realization on the faces of students when I give them that poem.) Similarly, Mark Doty, whose poem "A Green Crab's Shell" is all about opening up the carapace and revealing beauty within

Somewhat older and somewhat out of style, Edna St Vincent Millay (feminist, bisexual) tends to focus on the emotional labor of keeping yourself and everyone around you together even when your world is dissolving.

I also use "Monet Refuses the Operation" by Lisel Mueller and Philip Larkin's "The Mower" which are both a little on-the-nose as poems, but are a useful introduction for medical students who may not have looked at a poem since high school. Actually, my favorite "starter poem" for medical students is Jack Coulehan's "Anatomy Lesson."

And that's the only thing with using poetry in this context -- for some, there's a visceral freeze when you pass out a poem, as they have been taught that poetry needs to be Deep and Symbolic and they are terrified of saying the wrong thing. Maybe they had rotten English teachers in high school. Sometimes you can get around this by using song lyrics (songs being poetry set to music, after all), but I often try to mix it up with prose -- there is now a whole cottage industry in humanities essays written by or about clinical care -- and visual art.
posted by basalganglia at 12:53 PM on July 14, 2021 [4 favorites]


Suggestion to help "The Mower" feel not so on the nose: el_lupino* pairs it with Jean Toomer's "Reapers." He tried Larkin's "Aubade" on his last bunch as the first work of poetry on the syllabus, because it lines up really well with the themes of Todd May's Death, which he also uses, but he said they found "Aubade" so morbid coming right off the bat that they didn't engage with it well. He plans to move it next time.

*I've been cribbing my suggestions from a Death first-year seminar syllabus we developed together; he's too deep in summer writing to answer.
posted by jocelmeow at 3:08 PM on July 14, 2021


You will find several great poems that meet your criteria right here.
posted by shadygrove at 3:10 PM on July 14, 2021


Death Is Before Me Today (Egypt, 19th-20th century BCE). Part of the longer "Dispute between Self and Soul" (longer translation there if you scroll down). I think the whole thing is worth reading for a portrayal of depression as well as a meditation on death.
Death is in my sight today
(Like) the recovery of a sick man,
Like going out into the open after a confinement.
Death is in my sight today
Like the odor of myrrh
Like sitting under an awning on a breezy day.
Death is in my sight today
Like the odor of lotus blossoms,
Like sitting on the bank of drunkenness.
Death is in my sight today
Like the passing away of rain,
Like the return of men to their houses from an expedition.
Death is in my sight today
Like the clearing of the sky,
Like a man fowling thereby for what he knew not.
Death is in my sight today
Like the longing of a man to see his house (again),
After he has spent many years held in captivity.

The bit of Gilgamesh (Mesopotamia, 13th-10th century BCE) where Gilgamesh arrives at Utanapishtim's house and asks for the secret of immortality (Tablet XI) (from here)
Gilgamesh spoke to Utanapishtim, the Faraway:
"I have been looking at you,
but your appearance is not strange--you are like me!
You yourself are not different--you are like me!
My mind was resolved to fight with you,
(but instead?) my arm lies useless over you.
Tell me, how is it that you stand in the Assembly of the Gods,
and have found life!"

[Utnapishtim tells about the Flood, how he and his wife survived it and were made immortal by the gods]

[Utanapishtim:]
"Now then, who will convene the gods on your behalf,
that you may find the life that you are seeking!
Wait! You must not lie down for six days and seven nights."

Soon as he sat down (with his head) between his legs
sleep, like a fog, blew upon him.
Utanapishtim said to his wife:
"Look there! The man, the youth who wanted (eternal) life!
Sleep, like a fog, blew over him."

His wife said to Utanapishtim the Faraway:
"Touch him, let the man awaken.
Let him return safely by the way he came.
Let him return to his land by the gate through which he left."

Utanapishtim said to his wife:
"Mankind is deceptive, and will deceive you.
Come, bake loaves for him and keep setting them by his head
and draw on the wall each day that he lay down."

She baked his loaves and placed them by his head
and marked on the wall the day that he lay down.
The first loaf was dessicated,
the second stale, the third moist(?), the fourth turned white,
its ...,
the fifth sprouted gray (mold), the sixth is still fresh.
the seventh--suddenly he touched him and the man awoke.

Gilgamesh said to Utanapishtim:
"The very moment sleep was pouring over me
you touched me and alerted me!"
Utanapishtim spoke to Gilgamesh, saying:
"Look over here, Gilgamesh, count your loaves!
You should be aware of what is marked on the wall!
Your first loaf is dessicated,
the second stale, the third moist, your fourth turned white,
its ...
the fifth sprouted gray (mold), the sixth is still fresh.
The seventh--suddenly he touched him and the man awoke.

[The repetition is confusing, but it implies that Gilgamesh has slept for another seven days]

Gilgamesh said to Utanapishtim:
"The very moment sleep was pouring over me
you touched me and alerted me!"
Utanapishtim spoke to Gilgamesh, saying:
"Look over here, Gilgamesh, count your loaves!
You should be aware of what is marked on the wall!
Your first loaf is dessicated,
the second stale, the third moist, your fourth turned white,
its ...
the fifth sprouted gray (mold), the sixth is still fresh.
The seventh--at that instant you awoke!"

Gilgamesh said to Utanapishtim the Faraway:
"O woe! What shall I do, Utanapishtim, where shall I go!
The Snatcher has taken hold of my flesh,
in my bedroom Death dwells,
and wherever I set foot there too is Death!"
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:29 PM on July 14, 2021


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