At the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh
My only talent lay in these.
My father rubbed his hands together,
stared as though their whorls held codes
of thirty years obstetric surgery –
It’s a manual craft; the rest’s just memory
and application. The hard art
lay in knowing when to stop.
He curled his fingers like a safe-cracker
recalling a demanding lock;
I glimpse a thousand silent break-ins:
the scalpel’s shining jemmy pops
a window in the body, then – quick! –
working in the dark remove or
re-arrange, clean up, quit,
seal the way in. Oh strange burglar
who leaves things better than he found them!
On good days it seemed my fingertips
could see through skin, and once inside
had little lamps attached, that lit
exactly how and where to go.
He felt kin to painters, plumbers, joiners,
men whose hands were eloquent.
I wander through the college, stare
at portraits of those names he’d list,
Simpson, Lister, Wade and Bell,
the legends of his craft, recalled
as though he’d known them personally.
Impossible, of course. Fingers don’t see.
Yet it gave me confidence, so I could proceed.
I stare at the College coat of arms,
that eye wide-open in the palm,
hear his long-dead voice, and see
those skilful hands that now are ash;
working these words I feel him by me,
lighting up the branching pathways.
Impossible, of course, and yet it gives
me confidence. Surely we need
to believe we are not working blind;
with his eye open in my mind
I open the notebook and proceed.
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.
My father, Donald Stewart Greig F.R.C.O.G., became an obstetrician and gynaecologist in the1930s, and spent most of his working life as Chief Consultant at Stirling Royal Infirmary and Airthrey Castle near Bridge of Allan. He seldom talked about his work, other than to say he regarded himself as very fortunate in having never been bored a day in his working life.
Because my father is long dead, it was emotional for me to walk round the College in the certain knowledge he had been here. This was his world. I looked on portraits and photos of names he had mentioned with reverence and respect: Simpson, Lister, Wade, Bell. But the real moment of contact – and the opening of this poem – came when I asked about the meaning of the mysterious ‘Eye in the hand’ in the stained glass window.
I recalled then my father saying his real talent wasn’t diagnostic or intellectual, it was in his hands, which were large, long-fingered, powerful, exact. He rubbed them together and said to me ‘It’s odd – at times I felt I could almost see through the skin.’
So that’s it. The poem is a memoir of my father, a gesture of respect to him and his profession. You might notice it is half-rhymed throughout, in a four beat line. I felt the occasion demanded a degree of fluid formality, a manifestation of the very different craft and skills of poetry.
I only wish he was here to read it. I hope he would nod, chuckle, approve.