Medicine men

By JAMES PARKER  |  November 28, 2008

Campo speaks gently, precisely, closing his eyes from time to time as if testing his words against some interior echo. Beyond his dusty sixth-floor window loom the wellness factories of Longwood Medical Area, alien and grand, with their divided population of impervious nurses and perforated patients. Apollo, god of poetry and healing, lives right here. In his office, Campo hears stories, one after another, each offering its unique symmetry of the imaginal and the corporeal. "A day like any other: 8 am/and I am listening to him explain/exactly where the pain is . . ." begins "On Doctoring," from his 2007 collection The Enemy (Duke University Press), which has just won the Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club.

"I'm pretty much immersed in narrative all day long," he says. "For me, writing isn't something that I do, you know, by candlelight, in a narrow room."

With an owl watching.

"Right. An owl. And blood dripping onto the page. It's more of a collaborative process. Many of the voices that I hear in my practice are not heard in the wider society. They're marginalized for various reasons, and poetry has always struck me as a good place to address that, to speak the unspoken."

Structurally, Campo is a formalist with a taste for the exotic. "Being a hybrid myself," he says (he is Cuban-American), "I'm very interested in playing with Indonesian forms and Middle Eastern forms, importing some of these things, being in a way almost promiscuous with form." But along with his sestinas and his pantoums, he gets a lot of mileage out of the rugged old iambic pentameter: ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. "Well, when you've listened to as many hearts as I have! The iambic pentameter, that's really the music of our humanness. We begin hearing that before we're even conscious of it."

I tell him about the intro to the hardcore band Sepultura's "Refuse/Resist" — the amplified heartbeat, fierce and aqueous, of singer Max Cavalera's unborn son — and he clasps his knees in delight. "Ah, that's wonderful. Wonderful. It's ironic that the stethoscope was invented as a first step in distancing the doctor from the patient. No more ear to the chest. But from my perspective the stethoscope is now an intimacy. Listening to someone's heart or someone's breathing, I experience that empathetic moment. I'm hearing their internal life force!"

Campo's bright eyes brighten further when he hears that I am also speaking to Wright, whose work he has featured in the writing workshops he runs for his patients. "Suffering as something that synthesizes and unifies as a spiritual body — that's something that's very present in his work. That's why we go to his poetry." What do the workshops do for the patients? "Well, we come to poetry I think because we are silenced in many ways. In biomedicine, we're so good at appropriating the narrative — the biopsy report, the CT count, the potassium level. Writing gives patients an opportunity to say, this is my cancer, this is my HIV. It's not a generic, what you see on the mammogram or how many lymph nodes are positive — I'm an individual. We're really kind of retarded in our understanding of the mind/body interface."

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