Eyeing an African carved leaning tower
Of people holding one another up
For dear life, childishly I bless that stranger
Who in a year of cruel surgical strikes
Did a good job, the on-call Muslim surgeon
Who cut the cancer from my mother’s face.
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 had been thinking about the way ‘surgical’ is now used of precision bombing, and I knew where my poem would end before I went to Surgeons’ Hall, but I had no idea what else might come into it. Eventually, this poem was cut down from a much longer one, too full of paintings and silver services of scalpels from the Pathological Museum. The honed version is still powered by the idea of cutting. It’s hard not to think of surgeons in terms of knives.
My eye was caught by a carved sculpture gifted to the College from Tanzania in thanks for support from surgeons there. I was struck by the explanation that it represented interdependence, since if all the people in the human tower hold on to each other, the tower will stay up. When I first saw it, on the mantelpiece of a neoclassical Edinburgh room, it looked out of place; later, I realised what an artistically just gift it was. A gift of the knife.