‘Alternative Medicine’ by Rafael Campo (Duke University Press, 2013)
Rafael Campo’s sixth poetry anthology, Alternative Medicine, is not about alternative medicine in the sense of ‘traditional medicines’; rather the Alternative Medicine to which the title alludes is expressed towards the end of the poem ‘Reforming Health Care’ (p. 62):
I grasp at last what I’m still thankful for:
not the disease that lets me comfort her
but in the final absence of a cure,
the need in all of us for someone’s care.
Drawing on his experience teaching and practising Internal Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre in Boston, Campo explains that ‘A doctor writes/ because she must, because she can’t deny/ the body speaks, and what it tries to say/ is more than what’s recorded in the chart’ (Why Doctors Write, p. 59).
Through reflections on the elements which inform his life – the simultaneous presence and absence of Cuba in his family, his ‘coming out’ and experience as a gay man, and above all, the everyday interactions with his patients in Boston – Campo explores what it means to bring the profession of medicine into the fullness of an identity composed of multiple subjectivities layered over one another and colliding in an increasingly transnational, yet always individually embodied, world.
Alternative Medicine is divided into three sections, ‘Havana’, ‘Alternative Medicine’, and ‘Plonk’.
In the first section, Campo meditates on the geography of family, childhood, and revolution. Poems such as ‘Patriotic Anthem for a Lost Homeland’ (p. 13), ‘New Jersey, the Garden State’ (p. 15), and ‘The Common Mental Health Disorders of Immigrants’ (p. 7) give a taste of the manner in which geopolitics intersects with childhood and career. Campo also reflects on other childhood experiences including both intimations of ‘coming out’ (see ‘Kid’s Games’ p. 24), and the girl he and his classmates dubbed ‘Wilhelmina Shakespeare’ (p. 6):
Blond hair, blue eyes, buck teeth: we taunted you
because of your intelligence. You loved
to read, and secretly I envied how
you gave yourself to poetry, alone
beneath the shade a mango tree provided.
We dubbed you “Wilhelmina Shakespeare” when
we locked you in the basement, proving force
could triumph over wisdom. “She’s a witch!”
we bellowed as we torched your diary –
but nothing we could do would make you cry.
… Out on the porch,
you’d be there with your sketch pad studying
the moths that crowded the bare lightbulb, starved
for that dim light, that least illumination.
Your features softened as I gazed at you:
I understood my insignificance
as I saw it was possible to know
the beauty in even the plainest things.
The second section, from which the title of the entire collection is drawn, begins with a death:
Someone is dying alone in the night.
The hospital hums like a consciousness.
I see their faces where others see blight…
(‘Hospital Song’, p. 33).
Death, in fact, is a recurring theme in this section, a reality of life and profession many doctors must face daily. Campo expresses that learning in the poem ‘On the Wards’ (p. 55). He recalls:
I watched a patient of mine say goodbye
to life. She was alone like you, alone
like me, she was in agony. She looked
at me, and I, afraid to be the last
thing here on earth she saw, twisted my head
to look away. I almost do the same
to you, afraid you might imagine me
as later you lie dying, but I don’t.
The explicitly medical theme continues in the poems which follow, with titles ranging from ‘Faith Healing’ (p. 34) to ‘Iatrogenic’ (p. 35), ‘The Third Step in Obtaining an Arterial Blood Gas’ (p. 36), and the darkly satirical ‘Pharmacopoeia for the New Millennium’ (p. 41). For me, as a gay man who came out in the 1990s, one of the most intense poems to read is ‘Recent Past Events’ (p. 44). Reflecting on the personal experience of gay men who were health care workers in the US and who travelled abroad to treat people during early and middle days of HIV, the poem highlights the concern of professionals who worked with blood: ‘We prayed for it to end. We feared their blood’. The poem encompasses the mixture of optimism about increased visibility and acceptance for the gay community during that time (‘We watched two women kiss on television late one night. We cried.’), the feelings of guilt about symptoms of health among those in the community who were HIV negative (‘our good appetites’ – the implication broader than just hunger for food), and the resignation of working with an epidemic that still remains with us after thirty years.
Key to the work as a whole is the title poem, ‘Alternative Medicine’ (p. 46), not only found in this section, but situated at the exact centre of the collection. The poem functions as a series of ten brief ethnographies, in ten lines each. Two parts will convey the flavour of the whole:
I see him sometimes when I’m walking home.
He holds his children’s hands, refuses to
acknowledge me. I know his viral load,
his T cell count, his medication list,
as if these data somehow pinpoint him.
Enveloped in the park’s expanse of snow,
his two small children bobbing next to him
like life preservers, I remember that
he’s leukopenic. Snow begins to fall
again, innumerable tiny white flakes.
X. Alternative Medicine
I won’t take antiretrovirals, don’t
eat processed foods, and remain celibate.
I will take echinacea for a cold —
I wish all medicines came from the earth
and not some toxic lab where they kill rats
with chemicals they claim “treat” HIV.
I exercise six times a week, and pray
to my own God. I believe that someday
we’ll find the cure, and I’ll be here to say
that one of us survived to celebrate.
Interestingly, the tenth part is not an observation of a patient, nor a direct reporting of something a patient said. The author’s voice is ambiguous: Is he speaking from his own perspective, admitting something that many feel biomedical physicians would not embrace? Is he assembling words patients have spoken to him over the years? In this respect, the title discloses the meaning of the work as a whole: a physician revealing his own disquiet, hope, and fragility, sharing mortality and a vulnerable body in common with his patients.
The final section, ‘Plonk’ is themed by the poignancy of life, developing the theme of vulnerability, revealed through friendships, conversation over wine, in the breaking of friendships, and by the loss of loved ones. Despite the vulnerability of living, the sweetness of life is also present, illustrated in ‘Poem Written at 5AM on the Sweetness of Life’ (p. 86):
I woke to you encircled in my arms.
You faced away from me; in the half-light
it seemed you carried me toward what you dreamed.
I studied the back of your ear, but heard
nothing. I trusted that wherever you
were taking me was someplace free of fear.
The final poem, about the destruction of the temples of Machu Picchu, reflects in a Chekhovian twist, the mention of Lima, Peru in the opening poem of the work. This poem, though, puts a different spin on the final section: it isn’t just individual humans who disappear, whose stories fade; it is ultimately those of geography and identity. Even here, that destruction is not random, but effected by the pride of individuals. So it is with all human stories, Campo reminds us in the penultimate poem, through the six stories that endlessly repeat, save the one we always forget.
The style of the poetry varies from spoken Word (‘Rio Grande’, p. 17), through the use of different rhyme schemes (‘Heart Grow Fonder’ p. 25, ‘Hospital Song’, p. 33), and the repetition of particular phrases, the meaning of which subtly shifts as the poem progresses (‘The Thief’, p. 21; ‘Recent Past Events’, p. 44).
Campo’s Alternative Medicine will be of interest to poets of the body, physicians who want to put their experience into words, people interested in the intersections of trans/national identity and profession, and those curious about how physicians reflect on their interactions with patients. The poetic ethnographer among anthropologists will also find this work inspiring, particularly the ten subjects in the title section and the regular reflections on the body throughout the work.
Reviewed by Jason Johnson Peretz, who holds an M.Phil in Medical Anthropology from Linacre College, University of Oxford, and an MAOM from the New England School of Acupuncture. He currently works as an HIV Test Counsellor in San Francisco, California, and consults on projects at the intersection of Global Public Health and Human Rights Law. Jason maintains an active interest in poetry concerned with the body and the embodied experience of being a patient, a practitioner, and a human person who experiences the alternations between illness and health. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonOxon) or Tumblr.
Correspondence to Jason Johnson Peretz.