I would have loved you, wept
with your father and your mother
over these tiny perfect hands, perfect feet
preserved skin-free, en-pointe –
as if alone, as if you could
in life, have raised yourself, have stood –
arms coquetted in strange balletic pose,
thorax peeled, a doublet boned and slashed
exposing the stilled heart.
Oh, little one,
I would have loved you.
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.
I was surprised – and perhaps should not have been – to find this project difficult. Walking round the light and airy Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh Museum and the Public Exhibition, I felt myself constrained, over-constrained, by what Foucalt would have called the medical gaze. Protective, of course. I work as a doctor, practising the minor surgery that even non-surgical dermatologists are called on to do in the daily run of things.
The fine porcelain cupping bowls– things of aesthetic beauty– reminded me of the difficulty all medical personnel encounter when first faced with the need to physically invade another person’s space. But surgical expertise, honed in the field of battle, often reconstructs that space. Surgeons, with their seeing hands, save lives. Every day.
And surgeons have seeing eyes as well. Henry’s Wade’s clear gift for composition, offering us a view of the Rafa-Gaza Road a century ago, I thought remarkable. We, of course, see different things looking at his composition from our vantage point in the twenty-first century. We know the suffering and chaos that followed the still moment on that uncertain road.
And suffering and loss were what I shared on seeing Dissection of an infant– vascular preparation, beautiful as it undoubtedly is. Medicine has gained ground in the last hundred years. Antibiotics would have saved this child. We in the developed world take so much for granted, have been peculiarly blessed. How many other babies gained life because of the knowledge imparted by this dissection?
I came to these poems blinkered by the medical gaze. The project has confirmed two things to me. First, that medicine must never be seen out of context, is never independent of ethics, history or politics. Secondly, Arthur Kleinman is right when he insists that we in medicine must acknowledge our patients’ suffering. Biotechnology is not the whole answer. Illness leaves its mark, affecting patients and their families, not only in their bodies, but in how they are allowed to offer their medical stories. Illness affects their narratives, their voice.
We must listen in gratitude to the tide of humanity that still sings in the resonant voices of all the exhibits in the Royal College of Surgeons Museum. Flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone.