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Poetry and Medicine
January 7, 1998

Before That

Author Affiliations
 

Edited by Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor.

JAMA. 1998;279(1):16. doi:10.1001/jama.279.1.16

Synesthesia, metaplasia. Before that
my language was acquired on the corner of East 10th Street,
Alice Singletary lip-synching every song. Archie
Grover starting every sentence with "hey." Somehow
an occasional three-syllable word entered my vocabulary.
My tenth-grade paper was on Hemingway
and Mrs. Clara Mann wrote across the top in bold red,
"needless to say, you missed the symbolism entirely
in A Farewell to Arms —C minus." For the next exercise
she asked us to write a poem in class. I sat the hour
and angrily penned a dark and pessimistic verse. God
had disappeared in fear (and this was a religious school).
"This is an A plus," she wrote in red in the margin,
"but you must pay more attention to Yeats."
That may have been asking too much, but soon
I had found Rilke, Bishop, William Carlos
Williams, and Stanley Kunitz, who wrote about a slap
his mother gave him across the face when he was five
that still stung sixty years later. Words were pistols
and fireballs lined up like dominoes across a line. Words
etched out the cilia in my throat and held my ankles down.
Later, in college and medical school, language stretched
on an unending yardarm. It became convoluted and specific.
Sometimes I yearned for simplicity—Joe Applebaum
tapping the top of a garbage can—do wop, do wop;
hey everybody, just do the hop.

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