To the Eye Surgeon
'my eyes have seen what my hand did' — Robert Lowell No matter what we say, we still believe the soul is here, a live daguerreotype recoiling from the laser's perfect stare: the woods at daybreak, rain-light, mother love, preserved intact, behind the tarnished shapes you study and repair, with craft and guile; though what you see is anaesthesia, the opposite of space, antithesis of childhood snow, or torchlight in the stars; what you see is how the tissue looks when things fall silent in the inner rooms of blood and mind – and how else would you work, if not with something like suspended animation, the windows shuttered on an empty house, a random map of old iritis scars and shadows on a damaged retina the ghost companions of your healing eye? No one should have to peer into the quick of one soul, then another, through a haze of cataracts and retinal decay; the soul, when it is visible at all, should always be a glimmer in the green. a hidden thing, part-animal, part-stain, shifting away, to weather long ago forgotten, in a house of sleet and smoke, beyond this work, bevond this field of vision.
John Burnside is a poet and novelist whose work explores fundamental spiritual and ecological issues about the nature of our dwelling on earth.
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About this poem
To celebrate the Quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, twenty-one Scottish poets were commissioned by the Scottish Poetry Library to write poems inspired by the College’s collections and work. Like surgeons they have used ‘the hand that sees’, but in this case the writing hand that acts at the prompting of insight and imagination. The poems and their comments, alongside photographs of items that inspired them, were published in The Hand that Sees: Poems for the quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, edited by Stewart Conn, and published by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in association with the Scottish Poetry Library in 2005.
When I was invited to contribute to this anthology, I immediately knew what I wanted to explore. Visiting the museum at the RCSEd, looking at the instruments surgeons and ophthalmologists have used over the centuries to treat eye disorders, I was reminded not only of the tremendous skill and delicacy of the surgeon who had worked on my own eyes, just eighteen months before, but also of the beauty of the instruments and techniques that have been developed, over just the last decade or so, in the field of eye surgery.
I have always had eye problems. For years, I managed the irritations of iritis and other minor if chronic difficulties, but I had not been obliged to undergo surgery on my eyes until the autumn of 2002, when I suffered a spontaneous retinal detachment. I might well have lost some or all of the vision in my right eye.
The staff at Ninewells were superb. They made what, until that moment, had been my worst nightmare into something not just bearable, but even interesting. Some time during their investigations, the thoughts that inform this poem crossed my mind: what is it like for someone to spend his or her entire life gazing into what we tend to think of as 'the windows of the soul'? Does this bring any extra insight into the human character, or does it prompt the surgeon to develop special defences, to avoid being overly exposed to the life of others? It sounds fanciful, no doubt, but it was a thought that kept recurring and, when I came to write this poem, I could not help but draw upon it. Finally, I added the epigraph from Robert Lowell's 'The Dolphin', in order to suggest another possible reading of the poem: that, for the poet, the question of how one gets at the truth of things is always a question of whether one looks inward, plumbing one's own soul (as Lowell so often did), or outward, away from the self, towards the mysteries of the unnavigable world.