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
lies 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 entrance. 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 most kin to plumbers, sparks and joiners,
men whose hands would speak for them.
I wander through the college, meet
portraits of those names he’d list,
Simpson, Lister, Wade and Bell,
the icons 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, see again
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. 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
This poem is included in the anthology Tools of the Trade: Poems for new doctors (Scottish Poetry Library, 2014). The anthology was edited by Dr Lesley Morrison, GP; Dr John Gillies, GP and Chair, Royal College of GPs in Scotland, Rev Ali Newell, and Lilias Fraser. A copy was given to all graduating doctors in Scotland in 2014. We are very grateful for the individual donations which funded the cost of this anthology, and to the Deans of the Scottish medical schools who made it possible to give the books to their graduating students.