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  • The Rise of Autobiographical Medical Poetry and the Medical Humanities by Johanna Emeney
  • Jane Chamberlin (bio)
Johanna Emeney. The Rise of Autobiographical Medical Poetry and the Medical Humanities. ibidem, 2018. Pp. 241. CAD $40.00 (paper).

In the preface to The Rise of Autobiographical Medical Poetry and the Medical Humanities, Johanna Emeney quotes E. E. Reinke, a physician at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine, who wrote in 1937 that medical education should focus on more than science: "[T]o conceive of the mind as a cold, calculating machine and nothing more leaves us far short of its full capacities. What of the imagination, of insight, of sympathetic understanding? To catch the vision of past generations, the wisdom of the poet and the seer, we must turn to literature" (qtd. in Emeney 48). Emeney harnesses the wisdom of the poet to argue for a more humane medical practice driven by compassion and respect. Her book is a call to action that advocates for key tenets of the medical humanities: a medical education that includes arts-based curriculum; a medical practice that is empathetic and reflective; and a more equitable relationship between doctors and patients. Emeney builds a convincing case for a healthcare system that sees patients not as passive objects but as individuals with rich, complex backstories who should actively participate in their health journeys.

Emeney is a poet from New Zealand with a Ph.D. in English who specializes in medical poetry. She offers a refreshing look at the value of poetry in terms of its capacity to effect change, enable epiphanies, and foster connection. Emeney takes her country's literature as a case in point: New Zealand's significant oeuvre of medical poetry reflects a burgeoning global interest in the medical humanities. She focuses her analysis on autobiographical, socially polemic collections and series.

The first chapter of the text gives a brief history of the medical humanities and explores the medical poetry of four poets from the United States and [End Page 268] the United Kingdom, the two countries leading the adoption of medical humanities strategies. I had to move slowly through this chapter, taking copious notes on writers, physicians, and sociologists who investigate connections between literature and medicine. I heartily wished this book had been available while I was the writer in residence at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine; it is rich with useful resources.

This opening chapter establishes one of the book's key points: poets writing about medical experiences tend to espouse the principles of the medical humanities. Emeney writes: "These poems are in sympathy with current sociolinguistic scholarship in the context of medical practice which champions the personal over the clinical and values the co-construction of a doctor-patient narrative over a doctor-dominated one" (45). She begins her analysis by focusing on poems by two doctor-poets, Rafael Campo and Dannie Abse, and two caregiver-poets, Philip Gross and Sharon Olds.

The second chapter focuses on doctor-poets from New Zealand, including Glenn Colquhoun, whose 2002 collection Playing God is one of the country's bestselling books of poetry. In her analysis of Colquhoun's work, Emeney shows a keen understanding of the physician's complex role, a deep sensitivity to patients, and a sharp awareness of the gap between doctor and patient. This section highlights another of the book's key ideas: medical poetry finds creative ways to critique—and perhaps narrow—the gap between patient and doctor. Emeney highlights the common medical poetry technique of juxtaposing two linguistic realms, which are defined by sociologist Elliot Mishler as the "biomedical voice" and the "voice of the lifeworld" (qtd. in Emeney 107). The "lifeworld" represents the patient's personal, psychological, and social context (qtd. in Emeney 107). The gap between these two voices underscores the impenetrability of medical discourse that privileges physician over patient, scientific over personal (107). In contrasting these two vocal perspectives, Emeney suggests that the road toward a more empathetic and humane healthcare system is bound to be bumpy at best.

In his poem "A mini mental status examination," Colquhoun's doctor-speaker examines a patient with dementia who struggles with short-term memory...


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pp. 268-271
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