Rx for Poetry
RX for Poetry
On January 28th, 2014 in the waiting room of the family medicine unit, I sat down and prescribed poems for people. Patients, staff, doctors, anyone who needed one.
When you walked in the sign on the wall read: “A poem can offer a moment of reflection, something soothing for the heart or a way to engage with what life throws you. Whether you’ve come for health care or you work here, take a minute and get a poetry prescription for what ails you.” The experience inspired me to write this.
Deborah came and sat down. I asked her what was happening. She said ‘I’m scattered.’ She made that gesture of the hands moving quickly away from the body. I had just sat down myself with all these poems in front of me. I was wearing the white coat which itself was odd and wonderful and somehow made me feel more authority. I hadn’t really looked at the poems since I’d sent them to her. Deborah was the office manager and had orchestrated the event. In a sense, I didn’t know my remedies. I was scattered too.
But she had been printing the poems on little pads, cutting them out and getting them ready for the dispensary. She had been immersed in the poems all weekend so she leaned over and chose one: ‘I need this.’ she said.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.
— David Wagoner (1999)
One woman had just had her physical and she was keen. Some folks weren’t. I asked a tired looking woman if she wanted a poem, and she answered ‘I just want to go home.’ But this woman in front of me now was ready. She said, ‘I need something for losing weight. I need to start exercising.’ I could hear the combination of resolve fresh from the doctor’s office mixed with an overarching should. I said, ‘Here is “The Journey” by Mary Oliver.’
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Her face filled with redness. ‘That’s it,’ she said.
Then Michael came over. He came to visit really. Michael is a doctor and since he organized the event with Deborah, I don’t think he thought of himself as a patient. I said, ‘Have a seat. What’s happening that you need a poem for?’ He paused and said, ‘I need something to create a space…’ He moved his hands out from the sides of his head, indicating ‘open,’ indicating ‘open, more, please.’
I picked up one of the blank pads I was keeping in case I needed to write a poem, or for others to write on — prescriptions for themselves or the hospital or their doctors. I tore off one of the pages and left it blank. I held it up. There was nothing on it. ‘Yes,’ he said, and smiled. I put his name at the top, signed, and circled PRN. I handed it over.
There were poems for a woman who lost two loved ones to suicide; a mother who worried her daughter would quit school; an immigrant who missed the ocean; and many people, in the fit of January, who simply wanted heat and sun. (I gave them Emily Dickinson’s “Bees”.) I prescribed two or three at a time, said it was ok to double dose and share medication. I said, ‘I’ll be here until 3 o’clock if you want more.’ I didn’t want to stop. The chair beside me was not empty for more than a minute or two before someone filled it. And I was tired. With new empathy for the practitioner seeing 15-20 people in an hour and a half, all those lives sifting through mine and me and these poems sifting through them and us. With nothing to hold on to.
The waiting room poetry dispensary didn’t fit into any of my frameworks for “ordinary relationships”. This wasn’t therapy, though I’m a therapist. Nor was it friendship or teaching. Was this play? Was healing happening? Art? It felt like play in the sense of Winnicott talking about people in a room playing together. And it felt like a performance in which we took up our roles: I was the Dr./poet with my prescription pad; they were patients/people expressing their ailment. I relied on their willingness to share their story. And I relied on the poem to reflect what might not be articulated any other way. Though its efficacy is uncharted, I relied on it. The way you rely on art to do something when you need something nothing else can do. It was fun. In addition to seeing flickers of delight, recognition, relief, grief, and surprise on people’s faces –– it seemed to work, which is what you say about the treatment when it does: it worked.
Ronna Bloom, 2014