Poetry Project

Art and Health Science

Last week I attended the Medical Humanities in Africa Conference, where artists, humanists and medical scientists thrashed out the similarities and differences of approach between artistic practice, biomedical science and the humanities. One of the questions the new discipline is trying to address is what these other fields can bring to the way medicine is practiced.

Write a poem that investigates the intersection between art and the health sciences including medicines for the heart as physiotru, or for example, a poem written out of a place of suffering that helps resolution, or about an experience of illness or medical systems.

Please give your poem/s a heading, and send your submissions in the body of an email to slip.stellenbosch@gmail.com by 16 September 2014.

Examples to inspire you:


Monet Refuses the Operation

by Lisel Mueller

Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
The Ship Of Death (extract)

by D. H. Lawrence

Build then the ship of death, for you must take
the longest journey, to oblivion.

And die the death, the long and painful death
that lies between the old self and the new.

Already our bodies are fallen, bruised, badly bruised,
already our souls are oozing through the exit
of the cruel bruise.

Already the dark and endless ocean of the end
is washing in through the breaches of our wounds,
already the flood is upon us.

Oh build your ship of death, your little ark
and furnish it with food, with little cakes, and wine
for the dark flight down oblivion.



by Eli Coppola, a poet who died of muscular dystrophy

and all we can do
is defy gravity and sense and
climb the sheer face of it all
speaking what we can
even as the air thins
fitting flesh to stone
there’s always a moment when faith asks more
than physics has promised
a synapse you lean your whole life on...
if you look you’ll see
i’m strung to some other cliff
latitudinally your bride

only this:
to fall
is the closest we may ever come
to flying

Or you are welcome to submit a poem on any other topic.

Dawn Garisch

Submitted Poems

Cheryl Ziervogel
The HIV Dying Song

All alone in my pain
I regret all the old days, I was ignorant then
I remember the time what happiness was – wish my future could begin again…

Every needle
Seems to be a fatal burning searing…
Some nurse mutters,
And my life’s eye shutters,
Soon it will be mourning

Daylight, I must hope for a new life
When my shadow has passed,
I only pray that you will learn today
From my memory, that moves on…

Burnt out feelings
Of hapless daze
The hard cold smell of yearning
The nurse – she cries
Another night is longer, another death is pending!

Teach us, plead for
And lead us,
It’s not easy but you’ll see
If you teach them they’ll understand
What kindness is,
And a new life can begin

All alone in my pain
Make this life not in vain
Let a new hope begin….again.

Kgahlishang Mametja
Status Quo

The fight towards Enlightened Common-sense,
Looks trivial in the eyes of the blind
Intelligence is a practice,
Wonderland is for White girls like Alice,
the Black girl was never allowed to dream that far....

No, imagination is not only for the chosen sons,
Binary could've been two's and ones,
blueberries could've been a key ingredient for Chelsea Buns,
if only words were used instead of guns.
Word by word - bullet by bullet
though the impact is still the same,
the only thing different is the pain.

Taught to be sane via society's mouth,
no different to learning about sanity in a Mad House.
With Mad-House Music in the background,
missioned to target women and arouse,
Virility: our Currency,
Pornography and Cocaine: our Economy!
In that, what is my Poetry worth?

Jeannie McKeown

engineered to separate
you from yourself
                                                                                                no more epiphanies
a buffer zone
                                                                                                no whitespark moments of bliss
against swimming
in sadness
                                                                                                you’ve never learnt the trick
                                                                                                of creative drowning
one morning
                                                                                                rainwashed into brilliance
you feel something
                                                                                                emotions well up
against the chemical cushion
                                                                                                but silence
but nothing
                                                                                                bursts through

Bertrand Tufuor

dormant minds,
broken wings fold,
the graying
moody above

with strings, reeds
and brass-wind
heartily dipped
in full colour

then we soared

Ross Ian Fleming
Thirty-one years

to the day

Or to express it differently
Eleven thousand three hundred and twenty five mornings later

However you say it,
A long time to spend
With a bath full of rocks
Across the back of your neck.

A lifetime ago,
Good Friday 1982
A thoughtful, concerned-looking man
Kindly, tired expression
"Take these with some warm milk
Before retiring.
Come back in a month's time"

Suddenly drowning,
half of me undead, under, undone
the rest dragging my heart around.
a permanent hangover,
Rage, Confusion, Minotaur, Loan sum
the threat of destitution.

Waiting hopelessly
thirty-one years
for release.

Easter Monday, broadly speaking, 2013
A different man
(I dimly recognised the typically concerned expression)
"Try these etcetera"
I knew the story.
What else does one do?

Apparently a similarly gentle, altruistic scientist
From a faraway land
Had given a lifetime to research
And come up with
A winning formula.

"Hope springs eternal in the human breast?"

Hey who you Alexander Pope!
You never smelt real despair.
Don't give me that.

But by Ascension day
The rocks are gone
And all is fairies and elves
And my Easter eggs are hatching
And I'm so happy I could

Although I think I will restrain
My joy and merely celebrate
With one of the old, simple pleasures
Like a good book
Or a walk in the light.

"This too shall pass." - Irish Proverb

Linda Zinzi Sealy
My Left Foot

Unable to put my "best foot forward"
I consulted a surgeon,
a "foot man" with a shining reputation.
He said, "Let me open your foot,
re-arrange your bones,
fuse the joint,
put you in a "moon boot" for six months.
The repayments will be
as if you are paying for your "four by four."
(Or mine!)"

The art of medicine should be more than this.
Some healers explore the source of illness.
What symbol for a foot problem?
Unable to take a step forward in your life
or stand on your own two feet,
do you have stable support?
All these have relevance.
All sickness is more than bone deep.

Let me be like Christy Brown,
disabled but powerful,
with his left foot.

Consuelo Roland
The Amphibrach of Life

The beginning
Is so short,
For 9 months ascending
More or less.
That phase
When 10 fingers and toes
And consciousness

The middle
Is an aeon,
An unmapped road-trip
Flatlining the horizon.
From above,
So many
Breaths that the life-line is

The end
Is radical,
A veering down,
We don’t see it.
The out-of-body experience
Simply oxygen
A team of Swiss neuroscientists

Jana van Niekerk
Memorial Service


This is
the long rambling answer to your question,

Your Jane Doe story,
I’m afraid.

I would not want to paint myself in a corner
the Beatnik way

and like the Rose
I am not perfect.

This is your Memorial Service
(and who wants to write about that?)

Broken, unbreakable,
your twenty-gun salute.

Closure. Resolution. Gruesome.

Let’s put the picture
in a new place
and get the hell out of here.


What if we had persevered
with our box of tricks?

But we could not have.

Remembering is not reversible.
We cannot excise the bad memories,
a liturgy,
a book of favourite times.
A black storm of health issues,
I look at photos now.


There is an immediacy about this.
A terrible fear that the number is up,
that this is the end of the road.

You say, Don’t ruin my holiday.
I appreciate it.

We weren’t doing much:
this break,
toast, marmalade,

a convertible.

We’d wink about it.

The time was when we did it.
It was kind of fun.


These little rooms:
the intern, oncology nurse,
Head Man or Head Woman,
I don’t know.
Each a parcel of stuff.
It all turned out well enough.


It’s on a road I use

Indian Falls.

May it be locked,
may the road be slippery,
with just too many people there,
but one.

an ability to function.

In Extremis:
nine-tenths underwater.


The things I want now
are in a kind of museum,
not for sale.

I keep wondering,
will I be back again.
I think I will be back.

Not to finish it,
for reinforcement.


I shall steel myself.
New thorns arise against
my scared white laughing face.

I’ve had my big one,
my feet broken in Forty places.

Oh, the wages of speed.

Bent double for my sins,
not unfamiliar to me.

A holiday –

The green’s still there.


Now my list of Forty Things,
like Thieves.

And the new piece of scenery:
Indian Falls.

Buy a bottle o’ wine,
feed the dog.

our break has broken the chain.


I didn’t get the feeling someone was killed today.

Not the rose, the guns
or anything else.

Are we dying?

you asked.


It is many things,
many many things come through
that I have not designed.

I can only write

that I am able.

Wally Schwim
Urchins of A.i.d.s.

I watched two grubby waifs with bare scraped knees
on garbage littered mounds of broken stone.
They clambered dumps with prickly scrub,
a copse of wattle trees
to a cardboard box of rags that served as home.

Then scampered shoeless down the squalid streets,
to trawl those busy sidewalks stalls and bars.
A hopeful morsel for the day
was gleaned by charm or cheats
while their laughing feet splashed mud on shops and cars.

As starlight dropped its chilling veil of dew,
an urchin gazed up to a savage sky.
His sister dying in his arms
with a song his mom once knew,
this boy-child rocked a weeping lullaby.

Each night two skinny wraiths return
to scramble through my brain
and a little girl runs laughing in the rain.

Emily Buchanan
The Poet Visits the Dermatologist

She inspects me through a large glass -
Her eye giant in the sky -
But her hands are warm and gentle
As they probe between my toes.

And this? she asks, when she sees my back.
Her fingers rest on my shoulder.

Eczema, I say, I’ve had it all my life.

I’m too ashamed to show her my nipples.

It’s my fault: I scratch.
I’m stressed.
I was born at a bad time.

The prescription she writes -
Two pages -
Is set out like verse.

Ten minutes of sun, she adds,
Will inhibit the immune response -
That should help.

The idea of light on my body
Is better balm than the ointments -
I feel like I’ve had
A mother’s hand along my brow.

Keith Edwards
People’s Sign [revised]

In New York winter 1980,
greedy flâneur,
doing the city,
hyped up, hungry for sights,
each one required to out-top
the last,
I saw in SoHo district
a sign –
a wonder:

What faith in The People! –
their fine-distinction faculty –
to choose between essential
and other noise-making needs.
Dear anonymous borough-sign author:
you coulda been kinder,
made it easier to obey;
why not


A week goes by.
Twice a day two capsules –
tiny white bombs –
go down my throat.
Nothing changes.
In dreams I run, fly,
free of it;
awake, forgetting:
a sudden move and it nudges:
I’m here.

More weeks go by.
In waking hours I try
to remember life before it came -
squatter, uninvited guest;
try to see a horizon
without it.
The world simplifies to
the sick and the well.

And then it leaves.
(the meds working or the weather warming?)
Soon, its coming again is

Philip Adddo
A Letter to My Mum

Dear Mum,
I am writing from my hospital bed near the pane.
The doctor says he is going to operate on my brain
because he feels I am going insane.
I am scared. I am afraid of the pains
that will travel through my veins.
The thought has made me a slave
of my emotions and I feel I will soon greet my grave.
This is not a journey of the brave
in your fairy-tales I crave;
it is a true account of your only child.
Help me, Mum, terrified.
My dear child,
Even though distance has torn us apart,
I can still feel your pain in my brain; it is sad
I can’t be by your side. Seek the wings of the muses
and fly beyond the thunders of your emotions.
You will be fine on the surgeons table.
Be brave; it’s not time to wave.
Mummy loves you.

Doctors and Patients

Cholera had raided my town;
everybody had sought refuge at the hospital:
young, old; poor, rich; slaves ,nobles.
Nobody had pity on the poor doctor:
he was dying to save lives.
When it was my turn to see him,
he was weak, pale and pathetic.
Stress was swallowing his soul
and his mind refused to think;
he sat motionless on his chair.
Many taunted at him but I read
to him a poem which put smiles
on his face once more.
He said, 'Thank you, doctor.'


The title of Cheryl Ziervogel’s poem The HIV Dying Song implies hope, in that it is not called a lament, despite the tone of regret. There are some lovely off-rhymes pain / then / begin, and images The hard cold smell of yearning and I like the double meaning of mourning. The narrator feels alone, yet the nurse cries for her patients. I wondered who the ‘you’ is who is addressed who could learn from this death, and teach kindness. Is it the reader? The nurse? The system? I would clarify this, pay close attention to the rhythm, and do a bit of pruning, e.g. in the first stanza (and the last) the word Memory does not add anything, and, as a possible edit :

Alone in my pain
I regret the old days, I was ignorant then
I remember the time what happiness was –
wish my future could begin again…


If you teach them they’ll understand kindness,

In Status Quo by Kgahlishang Mametja, the focus swings through the crazy and damaging attitudes of society, from racism and sexism, to war, pornography and drug abuse, and ends on the question of where value lies, whether, as asserted earlier in the poem, the impact of words is the same as the impact of violence in changing attitudes.

I like the humour: blueberries could've been a key ingredient for Chelsea Buns, and would like to hear this poem performed. The form and tone suits the content of the poem – I can feel the angry bullets. I would suggest reviewing some places where the rhymes fall apart. I am all for breaking ‘rules’, but this needs to be motivated, adding to the core content of the poem. Otherwise it can look as though the author hasn’t put enough time and effort into finding the most satisfactory solution to the lovely problem of crafting a poem.

In Tranquilised, Jeannie McKeown has created a poem where form and content work together, emphasising the split between the tranquillised self and the creative self who has had to learn the trick/of creative drowning, an alternative to the chemical cushion. Each side of the page can be read as a separate poem, or the poem can be read as a unified whole. It’s a great idea, well executed, and an encouragement to us all to bend over our creative pencils to explore our difficult emotions as they come up, keeping ourselves open to ephiphanies and whitespark. I did wonder where it was possible to recraft the poem so that each side of the page reads as each side of the personality – one the tranquillised, and the other the creative. As it stands, the poem on the right negates the creative, even as it illuminates it.

Bertrand Tufuor contrasts two states of being, or of mind, in his poem Awakening. The poem suggests that depression can be lifted by music and art. There is a change in tense that is confusing, and I recommend exploring how the poem might benefit by changing the form between the first and second stanzas. As they appear now, they are too similar to adequately convey the altered content and the power of poetry to transform mood. I like the image of the instruments being heartily dipped/ in full colour, although the words full colour don’t convey the actual lived experience of the vividness of colour. I suggest writing on to explore this changed state more fully in the second stanza so that the reader feels what it is to soar.

The poem Thirty-one years by Ross Ian Fleming feels like notes towards a poem. There are a few lines that lift half of me undead, under, undone, and Rage, Confusion, Minotaur, Loan sum, but much is written as prose which needs an edit to get to meaning and the precision of language. The wandering, clumsy form of the poem does mirror the phrase dragging my heart around to an extent, but if this is to be successful, it needs to be approached more consciously in the rewrite.

I liked Linda Zinzi Sealy’s take on the poetry, science and economics of healing in My Left Foot. Also the irony that the operation would cost as much as a 4x4 which would allow the doctor to travel places her poor foot would not be able to take her. I suggest looking closely at what is overwritten. It is a mistake I also tend to make – not trusting the reader enough, not letting them participate in the poem when the poet overstates her intent. For example:

The art of medicine should be more than this.
Some healers explore the source of illness.
What symbol for a foot problem?
Unable to take a step forward in your life
or stand on your own two feet,
do you have stable support?
All these have relevance.
All sickness is more than bone deep.

Could read:

All sickness is more than bone deep:
Can you take a step forward in life,
do you have stable support,
can you stand on your own two feet?

In The Amphibrach of Life, Consuelo Roland has a clever idea, which the reader gets immediately from the title. The term ‘amphibrach’ describes a long syllable between two short syllables. The first two stanzas don’t add to the idea, but the last contained a humorous surprise. I suggest revisiting the first two stanzas to give them something more than the expected. And / or reserve the title for the last line. Also, all the stanzas are 9 lines long, and it might be interesting to shorten the first and the last, or lengthen the middle one.

Jana van Niekerk’s poem Memorial Service begins by stating that the poem is a long rambling answer to your question,/ Jane. The poem ends with the question that was being answered: Are we dying? I like that bracket, and there are many lovely and intriguing moments in the poem (e.g. many things come through / that I have not designed and The things I want now / are in a kind of museum, / not for sale), but, although I have read the poem many times, I still don’t understand it. There are too many personal references, and the poem is too rambling for this reader to get a hold on the content. It sounds as though Jane actually died, rather than metaphorically, but was it an accident (on a road, and broken feet and wages of speed), an assault (guns) or cancer (oncology)? And why the anonymity of Jane Doe? Is this an aspect of the poet herself? I’m all for the reader having to do a bit of work to ‘get’ the poem, but I am also for clarity.

The portrait of street children in Wally Schwim’s Urchins of A.i.d.s. is very moving, and I like the rhyming stanzas with the last one cut short as the child’s life was. I also like how the children scrambling over the refuse of society, trying to eek a living, end up scrambling over the bits of broken memory in the narrator’s brain. I would take out adjectives that do not add to the poem, e.g. grubby, chilling, skinny, then watch for how that alters the rhythm.

The title The Poet Visits the Dermatologist by Emily Buchanan sets the poem up intriguingly. There are great moments that contain the tension between art and science: It’s my fault: I scratch. / I’m stressed. / I was born at a bad time and The prescription she writes - / Two pages - / Is set out like verse. I would prune unnecessary detail, like ‘she writes’, and, cut the last two stanzas to:

Ten minutes of sun, she adds.

Light on my body
Is better balm than the ointments -
A mother’s hand along my brow.

I like the way the dermatologist starts off like a scientist behind the lens, and then starts behaving and sounding like a poet with her prescription and suggestions.

The humour in People’s Sign [revised] by Keith Edwards can be sharpened by pruning unnecessary lines. I would take out:

What faith in The People! –
their fine-distinction faculty –
to choose between essential
and other noise-making needs.

Great irony that the narrator - hyped up, hungry for sights, / each one required to out-top / the last – had noticed the sign.

In Keith’s next poem, Pain, he explores that strange phenomenon where, when one is well it is hard to imagine being unwell, and vice versa. I suggest that the poem starts with the strong image squatter, uninvited guest and develop that further as the pills attempt to dislodge this ‘guest’.

Philip Adddo’s first submission titled A LETTER TO MY MUM is in fact two letters, as the mother replies. The rhyme of the narrator is sometimes a bit forced, yet I did feel the narrator’s distress. However, I was not quite convinced by the mother’s reply. One of the reasons is that the only difference in the two voices is that the narrator leans heavily on rhyme whereas the mother’s does not. I suggest experimenting with the difference in the two voices. There might even be a third letter, after the operation. I am curious as to the narrator’s response to his mother’s advice.

Philip Adddo’s second submission DOCTORS AND PATIENTS has a lovely role reversal, where the patient cares for the overworked doctor by reading him a poem. I would love to know what poem he read! I suggest taking ‘had’ out of the first two lines, as the simple past tense is more immediate.

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