Rafael Campo uses his stethoscope to explore rhythms of poetry

BY Anne Davenport  January 7, 2014 at 9:32 AM EDT


Rafael Campo explores poetry through his experience as a doctor. He teaches this practice to his medical students out of the belief that healing is more than just knowing how to respond to symptoms.

Rafael Campo is a doctor, professor and highly-regarded poet who has just published his sixth book of poetry titled, “Alternative Medicine,” which explores the primal relationship between language, empathy and healing.

For Campo, poetry and healing are intricately related.

“To me the patient’s voice, the stories they have to tell are absolutely central to the work of healing. … The poetry of the encounter helps me to think even more effectively and more thoughtfully really about that. I feel like listening to that story and really attuning my ear to the patients voice helps me listen to their heart more clearly .”

A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he teaches there and practices general internal medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. He is also on the faculty of the Lesley University Creative Writing MFA program.

Campo sees poetry everywhere. “It is in every encounter with my patients. I think healing really in a very profound way is about poetry. When we read a poem, we participate in another narrative. We really get inside another person’s head, under their skin and medicine and medical interactions are very very similar you know.”

Campo read three of his current works for us: “Hospital Song,” “Health” and “Primary Care.”

Hospital Song

Someone is dying aline in the night.
The hospital hums like a consciousness.
I see their faces where others see blight.

The doctors make their rounds like satellites,
impossible to fathom distances.
Someone is dying alone under lights,

deficient in some electrolyte.
A mother gives birth: life replenishes.
I see pain in her face where others see fright.

A woman with breast cancer seems to be right
when she refuses our assurances
that we won’t let her die alone tonight;

I see her face when I imagine flight,
when I dream of respite. Life punishes
us, faces searching ours for that lost light

which we cannot restore try as we might.
The nurses’ white sneakers say penances,
contrite as someone dying in the night.

As quiet mercy, the morning’s rites
begin. Over an old man’s grievances,
his face contorted in the early light,

an aide serenely tends to him, her slight
black figure fleeting, yet all hopefulness–
her face the face of others who see light,
like someone dying at peace in the night.

Health

While jogging on the treadmill at the gym,
that exercise in getting nowhere fast,
I realized we need a health pandemic.
Obesity writ large no more, Alzheimer’s
forgotten, we could live carefree again.
We’d chant the painted shaman’s sweaty oaths,
we’d kiss the awful relics of the saints,
we’d sip bitter tea from twisted roots,
we’d listen to grandmother’s advice.
We’d understand the moonlight’s whispering.
We’d exercise by making love outside,
and afterward, while thinking only of
how much we’d lived in just one moment’s time,
forgive ourselves for wanting something more:
to praise the memory of long-lost need,
or not to live forever in a world
made painless by our incurable joy.

Primary Care

You, body, bleed, you stink, you interrupt
with plaintive sounds as if we didn’t know
you suffer. Dressed in youth, you dazzle me
with your perfection, body: your two knees,
two eyes, two nipples, your fraught symmetries.
O body, even as you age you sing,
you are tender in certain places, you
believe you could be dying. Body, please,
repair yourself once more, bleed and stink,
decay again until, beneath your fragile skin,
I see the outlines of the soul you shield.
You, body, you will come again to me,
I see you naked in the shower, in
the mirror, realize that somehow you
must never die. O body, you are us,
all any of us have when we are lost.
You are immodest; you are honesty.
I see how careful you are when you bleed,
and when you stink it is god’s grief we smell.
You, body, weep, you think, you scar as if
to show us our own history, as if
we didn’t know. Body bleed, body stink,
remind us that we suffer, yes, remind
us that we must, or else we never lived.

Videos were shot by Tom Fahey and edited by Victoria Fleischer.

Watch a full report with Dr. Campo on Thursday’s PBS NewsHour. You can also hear from some of his students who use poetry as a way to deal with the emotions they face in their training. If you are a teacher, you can introduce the poetry of Rafael Campo to your class with our original lesson plan.

And learn more about the “Where Poetry Lives” series featuring reports by U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown on issues that matter to Americans through the framework of poetry. This series started on Sept. 12. with a report on a poetry project in New York that works with Alzheimer’s patients. It continued in October with a report on young poets in the city of Detroit.

Watch chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown’s broadcast report on Rafael Campo.