Dr. Jerald Winakur

ETHICAL CAREGIVING IN AGING AMERICA

— Reviews

On Human Voices Wake Us
Alan Shapiro

On every page of Jerald Winakur’s Human Voices Wake Us we are reminded of the kinship between art and medicine, poetry and healing, how care for the vulnerable and mortal body isn’t merely rational or scientific, but a supreme act of imagination. The love, insight, and sensitivity embodied in this humane and beautiful book demonstrate how at their best both medicine and poetry (and art in general) engage a combination of faculties we normally think of as antithetical, but in the hands of such an accomplished poet (or healer) become different facets of a single act of attention. The ideal doctor is capable of both appreciating beauty and analyzing symptoms, of empathic devotion and professional distance in the same way that a poet at his or her best must exercise both sympathetic understanding and intellectual clarity in translating pain and suffering into language whose beauty refuses to simplify or ignore what it can’t redeem or transcend.

The poems in this book are unflinchingly direct, plainspoken, and elegant. They confront and embrace the inescapable realities of human vulnerability, attachment, loss, and time; they acknowledge the limits of care even while they celebrate the irreplaceable value of care. The book reads like a novel in verse. And yet the poems themselves are individually strikingly distinct. Many are unadorned poems of direct statement that employ a minimum of figuration
and punctuation, and thereby generate a noticeably unnoticeable beauty:

THIS SADNESS

is a cancer
for which there is no cure
a surgeon might

cut it out from its roots
but it would grow back
an obstetrician might attempt

a high forceps delivery
a psychiatrist might try to talk it out
but this sadness

does not speak the language.

There are poems like “Plastic Caskets” that satirize with great wit the business of death that preys on anxiety and fear:

Anticipating the boom in the demise of Boomers
they’re fashioning terminal boxes out of space-age
material selling them mail-order through Amazon.
The same stuff as your hula hoop and Tonka toys
like the bumpers on your BMW like the tiles
on the Shuttle for God’s sake . . .

In “What We Said,” we find a rueful unforgettable prose poem that’s part narrative, part mini-play about the discrepancy between what the doctor wants to say to a terminal patient desperate to be cured, and what his profession obliges him to say:

Here is what I wanted to say: Go home. Get out of this place. Eat chocolate and pizza, ice cream and French fries when you can, go fishing, take a trip around the world, tell your kids you love them, read mystery novels, go to the movies, watch the clouds drift by, write your memoir, make love to your wife. But go just go.

I guess I should fight this thing right doc? he said.

You should I said.

And then there are stunning pastoral poems in this book, like “Gardeners,”
another form of healing, or “Redbud,” an exquisite lyric celebration of persistence
and beauty in a mutable death-haunted world:

March—I walk
the ravines, the treed
windbreaks, the creek bottom
all the wooded places
searching for redbuds.
One hundred acres and you
are the only one I have ever found
and I never know

waiting through each winter
if you have survived—
your spindly trunk
born from the side of dead oak

and year after year
you bend more and more
toward the light which filters
through the canopy

of hackberry and cedar.
In one night a winter-hungry deer
might strip your bark
down through the cambium

and you’d be gone.
But this morning here you are
your blossoms fragile, so few
the color so faint it’s fanciful

to call it red.
Here you are
and here I am
hanging on.

From poem to poem, Winakur engages passion and cool judgment, sense and intellect; he combines empathy and critical awareness, the long metaphysical view and the up close and personal perspective. He is painfully aware of the limits of medicine, but that awareness only deepens his devotion to the healing arts. That commitment to what he recognizes as inadequate though necessary is a measure of this poet-doctor’s humane and inclusive vision of what it means to be alive.

Human Voices Wake Us should be required reading not just for every medical student or health care professional, but for anyone (meaning all of us) giving or receiving care, having to live, love, and celebrate under the shadow of death.

Alan Shapiro
William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing
University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill

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