New York, NY: Four Way Books, 2011. 100 pages. $15.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
C. Dale Young’s latest book of poems, Torn, strikes me as haunted: the speakers are preoccupied with human frailty, strength, and lust; with a complex and contradictory relationship with God; and with violence in forms small and large. Particularly haunted—and haunting—are the poems in the book’s third section, which grapple with the speaker’s responsibility and vulnerability as a doctor.
For Young’s speakers, medical practice is a journey into darkness, one that involves learning “how to fail” (“The Ether Dome”). In “The Argument,” the doctor experiences “relish and dread” as he “don[s] the white lab coat” with ambivalence, daily. “Darkness” is involved in any hypothetical refusal to answer his call as healer—but there is darkness, too, in his obligation for tenderness.
. . . Tenderness? How do you
define that? I define it this way: the care to address
another’s concerns with the same exacting care one expects
for himself. And this is dark. It has always been dark.
In some poems, the doctor’s burden is utterly crushing. Young handles this emotional devastation through direct confrontation in “Sepsis,” in which the speaker admits in the final stanza that his profound sleep deficit resulted in a life-threatening error: “I have disobeyed my Oath. I have caused harm / . . . / Dear God, how does a sinner outlast the sin?” Here, the speaker’s declarations indicate that he assumes full responsibility for the medical oversight, marking a shift from the poem’s earlier, more passive construction: “No needle was placed / in the woman’s arm. No IV was started.” In the poem’s final line, the diction compels the reader to ask whether the speaker—one who “covet[s] sleep”—is truly a “sinner” for having yielded to his own body’s needs.
While “Sepsis” is unrelenting in its focus on the speaker’s sense of guilt, a two-part poem, “Documenting the Light,” creates a powerful sense of distance when tackling emotionally difficult material about a terminally ill patient. In part I, “Respect,” a physician regards a dying patient and oscillates between two competing impulses: the urge to reveal to the reader his grief-stricken role as “the usher, the one who precedes the Angel / of Death” and the desire to turn away from difficulty.
The woman in the bed is dying.
There is nothing more I can do to prevent that,
the cancer in her ovaries now filling
her abdomen . . .
The poem pans far from the patient to Port Royal’s bricks and flowers, and to Geneva’s trees and ravines. When the doctor’s apparent attention does, at last, return to the room, he prefers to “to fixate on the light.” What little detail the speaker divulges seems to emerge involuntarily.
No, I will not describe her or the way
in which she holds the blank notebook to her chest . . .
Torn repeatedly points to a need for human tenderness despite the poet’s acknowledgement that “we / are all capable” of cruelty (“Imprimatur”). At times in this collection, we feel a moment-by-moment struggle between competing compulsions to be tender or to be cruel, to help or to harm—a tension that’s thrown into high relief among the medical professionals populating Young’s poems. In several poems, cruelty arises in the form of verbal and psychological assaults, as in “Imprimatur,” in which a pulmonologist utters a racial slur as a budding doctor errs during a first-time procedure. Worse, the pulmonologist exploits his superior position to further humiliate his apprentice on the job—and compromises a patient’s well-being in the process. In the book’s final poem, “Torn,” human cruelty moves from hurtful language to physical aggression, and both push palpably against the doctor’s professional obligations.
In “Torn,” a young man enters the ER after a brutal beating, a hate crime that leaves his “face torn open, the blood congealed // and crusted along his cheek.” Heaped upon the horror of the young man’s predicament is the ER doctor’s command to the speaker: “Stitch up the faggot in Bed 6.” Here, the doctor—a gay man who recognizes he will “never be safe”—“slowly thr[ows] each stitch” to make the victim “beautiful again.” Complicating the exacting tenderness, however, is the knowledge that the physician must always serve the patient, victim and criminal alike, so that when the aggressors “came in drunk or high with their own wounds,” the doctor “ . . . sat there like an old woman and sewed them up. // Stitch after stitch, the slender exactness of [his] fingers / Attempted perfection. [He] sat there and sewed them up.” We can understand Young’s choice of the word “threw” as a common sewing term (“throwing stitches”) but the word reveals a desire to perhaps throw something more than stitches—at the ER doctor, at the perpetrators.
Further complicating the speaker’s determination to heal and to “clos[e] the wound” is the utter helplessness revealed in the repetition of “I sat there and threw stitch after stitch” and later, “I sat there and slowly threw each stitch.” The second phrase, which occurs in reference to treating patients from “that other world of men,” divulges a sense of disbelief at the physician’s requirement to treat all patients alike, without judgment. The speaker’s faith that love and care can “put [the patient] back together again” exists simultaneously with a sense of muted rage and feelings of complete and utter powerlessness about the type of hate acts at hand.
Confronted with the superhuman demands of his profession, Young concludes a poem titled “The Cutting Room” with a convergence of humility, wisdom, and emotion: he questions the limits of human knowledge while expressing unwavering conviction about the strength of the human heart.
And what do I know? What could I possibly know?
That the heart is tougher than you think. That it
does not break. That it, too, becomes dust.