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Good Letters

What I would like to give them for a change
is not the usual prescription with
its hubris of the power to restore,
to cure…

So begins one of my favorite of Rafael Campo’s poems, “What I Would Give,” from his 2002 collection Landscape with Human Figure. Right from the start, the poem enacts Campo’s double vocation: as poet (in the writing of this poem) and physician (writing, or not writing, prescriptions). Campo teaches and practices medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

“What I Would Give” continues:

what I would like to give them, ill
from not enough of laying in the sun
not caring what the onlookers might think
while feeding some banana to their dogs
what I would like to offer them is this,
not reassurance that their lungs sound fine,
or that the mole they’ve noticed change is not
a melanoma, but instead of fear
transfigured by some doctorly advice…

Instead of the usual doctorly advice — or along with it — Campo has sometimes given his patients poems. Not his own, but those of poets who have written about their own illness, like those he collects and parses in his prose book, The Healing Art (2003). Or he sometimes encourages his patients to try writing about their own experience of illness, believing as he does in “the power of the imagination if not to cure, then to heal.” This quote is from the essay “Illness as Muse,” which is the Introduction to Campo’s 2018 collection Comfort Measures Only: New & Selected Poems. This distinction between “curing” and “healing” is core to all his doctoring and writing alike. “Curing” makes illness go away; “healing” transforms one’s attitude toward illness. “To write about illness,” Campo believes, is healing for the physician because it “is to reject distancing and to embrace empathy.”

And so, throughout his seven poetry collections, though Campo’s topics are many, he writes increasingly about illness and doctoring. Titles from the new poems in Comfort Measures Only include “The Chart,” “Morbidity and Mortality Rounds,” “Metastatic Colon Cancer,” “Quatrains from the Clinic,” and “The Stethoscope Replies.” The poems’ empathy is palpable. Take “Iatrogenic,” the only poem he has put on his website (originally in Alternative Medicine, 2013). The title means “illness caused by medical examination or treatment”; and the illness here described is, unexpectedly, what the doctor himself suffers as he examines a patient with self-inflicted cuts: I run gloved fingertips along their course, / as if I could touch pain itself, as if / by touching pain I might alleviate / my own despair.

Such empathy characterizes, also, the way that “What I Would Give” continues:

I’d like to give them my astonishment
at sudden rainfall like the whole world weeping,
and how ridiculously gently it
slicked down my hair;

I love the turn that the poem takes here: a doctor offering his patients “astonishment” — just the joyful wonder of being alive. And then the poem ends by becoming astonishingly (and, to my mind, movingly) personal:

I’d like to give them that,
the joy I felt while staring in your eyes
as you learned epidemiology
(the science of disease in populations),
the night around our bed like timelessness,
like comfort, like what I would give to them.

Campo doesn’t name his bed-partner, but from many other poems and essays we know it’s his longtime partner, then spouse, Jorge. Campo came out as gay in the 1990s, before it was generally acceptable to do so. He writes about this with astounding candidness in “The Desire to Heal” in his 1997 essay collection, The Poetry of Healing: A Doctor’s Education in Empathy, Identity, and Desire.

Also in this book is his painfully forthright essay, “Like a Prayer,” on his relation to the Catholic faith of his Cuban-American heritage. As a child he loved Mass: “Poetic language began for me upon a praying priest’s lips, in the rhythmically intoned words that seemed as luxurious and sensually attractive as his flowing gowns.” But when, as a teenager, he gradually realized he was gay, he came to see with horror that “I was the degenerate homosexual whom I imagined my Church so despised.”  

With this sense of exclusion from the Church and even from God, Campo left the Catholic Church and has only rarely written poems that touch at all on faith. But his two new poems in Image do exactly this: muse on what Christian faith might mean and not mean.  Both poems end with allusions to death: the ultimate mystery of faith and the unsettling reality for every physician. In fact, the end of one of these poems, “Articles of Faith,” evokes death as the final, inevitable link between Campo’s two vocations:

                                                the time a pulse
I counted ceased; just now, when words seemed done.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See her Amazon Author Page for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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