Vital Signs: Taking the pulse, taking the measure - an opinion piece by Paula Meehan

This week I have been drafting a poem from notes made last November, when I went with an elderly relative to visit his GP. He was being treated for hayfever, a lifelong ailment. But, hayfever in November? His eyes were raw; he’d been in agony for months. The doctor, a pleasant woman, spent the visit looking at a computer screen. No vital signs were checked. In fact no contact beyond the cursory was made between patient and doctor at all. The computer showed what drugs he’d been prescribed in the past. She prescribed more drugs for hayfever. We were out of there in five minutes.

As it turned out (after a visit to A&E and a cursory ophthalmic examination) he’d a condition where the lids of the eyes were turning inwards —  entropion — requiring two surgical procedures.

My own doctor, while qualified in western medicine, is also a homeopath and believes in his patients being proactive in minding their own health. He doesn’t have a computer. He looks into your eyes, examines your fingernails, looks at your hair, asks about the minutiae of your diet, about what goes on in your life; he reads the body, the emotions, the mind, the holistic self. He practices his own brand of social medicine too when it comes to charging: ‘from each according to their means.’ A visit normally lasts 45 minutes.

So I’m trying to write a poem that clusters about ideas of vision and healing: about language and who controls it, machine memory, human memory, the tablet culture, the five minute healer. The elderly relative who knows it’s not hayfever that ails him. And who isn’t listened to. The doctor who encourages his patients to communicate with him, in their own words, at their own pace.

I have spent significant periods of my life as a poet working with people who are in one way or another vulnerable. I go in (to prison, psychiatric facility, hospital, rehabilitation project) as a poet, not as a therapist, not as a healer. There may be a therapeutic dimension, there may even be occasions of healing, there is very often transformation. But it is the craft of poetry I teach. It is poetry I bring to the group. I also go into universities, into communities, into writing workshops. I use the same methods, the same materials; I bring the same self to every encounter.

I stress this because there are profound ethical considerations in these encounters. When it’s over I walk away. I am not locked up for the night. I am free to walk out the door where many of the individuals I work with are not. I can say I’m vulnerable too, as is every human being in the adventure we call life, but not in the same way as those I leave there behind the locked doors.

Once on Grafton Street I heard a didgeridoo. The musician was an aboriginal Australian, an archaeologist traveling the world, busking with his instrument to get by. When I said I could feel the sound in my belly right at the other end of the street, he explained how the instrument was used in traditional healing. We talked of the Sami of Siberia who have used chant for millennia to cure illness; we spoke of the many native traditions where sound, ritualized into specific patterns and rhythms, is a major part of the healing act. We spoke of medicine bundles and healing magic. Of the way chant has been used in all the major religious traditions as a way of achieving unity with the godhead.

The real teaching of the poem is in the creating of a space where it can be heard. The physical experience of the poem is the reading of it aloud. Its breath patterns and rhythms move through the body and mind, effecting a pure change. When I am teaching, I work to make a space where poetry, especially the poetry of those present to each other, might happen. In our bodies and in our minds.

I am drawn to situations where language is put under scrutiny, under pressure; where language is felt as an instrument of oppression; where control of language is used to keep people down; where language and the information coded in it manifests as raw power in action. I work against this. I believe in the truth, and in what truth- telling can do even in the most oppressive situations.

It’s often in these situations that I find my own poems — not in any direct sense, and usually a long way down the line from the room or cell or ward of their inception. As a hunter-gatherer poet it’s where I hunt, where I gather, behind the locked doors of the Republic. I bring words in, I bring words out.

Paula Mehan is a poet, playwright and member of Aósdana. This is one of a series of opinion pieces commissioned as part of the Vital Signs arts and health programme. This opinion piece was published in the Irish Times on 6 October 2009. Vital Signs is an Arts Council initiative delivered in partnership with Create.

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