Hospital Writing Workshop

Rafael Campo

Arriving late, my clinic having run
past six again, I realize I don’t
have cancer, don’t have HIV, like them,
these students who are patients, who I lead
in writing exercises, reading poems.
For them, this isn’t academic, it’s
reality: I ask that they describe
an object right in front of them, to make
it come alive, and one writes about death,
her death, as if by just imagining
the softness of its skin, its panting rush
into her lap, then she might tame it; one
observes instead the love he lost, he’s there,
beside him in his gown and wheelchair,
together finally again. I take
a good, long breath; we’re quiet as newborns.
The little conference room grows warm, and there
before my eyes, I see that what I thought
unspeakable was more than this, was hope.

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Rafael Campo is Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and author of several books, including Alternative Medicine, The Enemy, and Landscape with Human Figure, all also published by Duke University Press, and The Desire to Heal: A Doctor’s Education in Empathy, Identity, and Poetry.

In Comfort Measures Only, Rafael Campo bears witness to the unspeakable beauty bound up with human suffering. Gathered from his over twenty-year career as a poet-physician, these eighty-nine poems—thirty-one of which have never been previously published in a collection—pull back the curtain in the ER, laying bare our pain and joining us all in spellbinding moments of pathos…. Campo’s transcendent poems, in all their modernity amidst the bleep of heart monitors and the wail of ambulance sirens, remind us of what the ancients understood: that poetry sustains us, and whether we live or die, through what we can imagine and create in our shared voices we may yet achieve immortality.

“The poems of Rafael Campo bear witness to human suffering and transform that witness into art, yet never exploit the suffering or sacrifice the art. Indeed, this is an unflinching eye, seeing what most of us would rather not see. Listen to the beating heart of these poems, the breathing lungs of these poems. The luminous language and the luminous vision offer proof that poetry, too, is a healing art, that storytelling is medicinal. In these times, we need poets of eloquent empathy more than ever, and there is no poet more eloquent or empathetic than Rafael Campo.”
—Martín Espada

Comfort Measures Only is the exploration of the sonic life of the body synthesized through the pumping amplifier of left and right ventricle. These nearly two hundred pages of twenty years of poetic witness provide a human swallowing test: How hard can we bite down on bone and not break a tooth? How much rose water and blood can we take in without drowning? Rafael Campo believes grace and levitation are possible until the last breath.”
—Nikky Finney

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