July 28, 2010

Erin doctor publishes powerful book of poems

As published in The Erin Advocate

Do you really want to know what goes through the mind of a doctor, facing a daily parade of human weakness and suffering? Consider that question and assess your appetite for ambivalence, biting metaphors and brutal honesty before reading Complete Physical, a book of poems by Dr. Shane Neilson. Then be brave, and read.

If you are a patient of Dr. Neilson, a physician with the East Wellington Family Health Team, you may be aware of his creative side – another career that does not pay as well, but which has earned him high praise on the Canadian poetry stage. Rest assured, too, that no details about you will be found in these poems.

Neilson is a New Brunswick native now living in Guelph. As a doctor he was attracted to Erin by a good job opportunity, and as a poet by The Porcupine's Quill, where I met him during a book signing session during the recent Doors Open event.

One of the privileges of being a publicly-funded Canadian publisher like The Porcupine's Quill is the mandate to seek out writers worthy of admittance to that respectable realm of ink on textured paper. Elke and Tim Inkster have succeeded at this for 35 years.

I went into a Coles bookstore recently and asked to see their poetry section. I was escorted to a shelf with one book, a greatest hits collection dating back to the Middle Ages. Their poetry section was about to be discontinued.

Still, there is an audience for poetry, and Neilson is ambitious for his creation, wanting to reach out beyond the readership of other poets and other doctors to the public – everyone who knows what it is to be a patient.

"The poems are based on a medical perspective," he said. "My aspirations for the book? I hope that people will actually care, and buy it and read it."

It is a collection of 43 short poems, some with a formal structure but most in a lyrical style, with rhythms controlled by the imagery. It is illustrated with quirky art from old medical textbooks that Tim Inkster found in an abandoned building.

There are a few local references. Here is part of the first poem, Standard Advice: "My practice amidst the one-horse town and faltering farms, a usual place where injury blossoms, pain is a boutonnière, when men know I will ask only if necessary, and women ask if."

The opening lines of Love Squawks Through Technology: "Dr Gear sits in his home study, listening to Ella Fitzgerald, tying flies, considering cancelling the New England Journal. Occasionally the intercom buzzes: Mr McGuire has lost a thumb in the thresher..."

Dr. Harry Gear was well-known in Erin village at the turn of the last century, building an Edwardian-style mansion in 1905 that still stands at 119 Main Street. He installed an audio tube at the front porch so patients could speak with him in the master bedroom. The poem imagines the mix-ups that could ensue from garbled communication.

The book shines a light on the amazing resilience of humans, on unrealistic expectations placed on doctors, on the emotional trauma of treating untreatable pain, on regrets for past errors, on impersonal technology, and on pessimism in the profession – as in Taking Charts Home after Work: "Charts snooze in the bag, kershuffle, and sing of lives awry in diagnosis, askew in drug, kerplunk in grief. I take the bag as homework, heavy in hand, and think the more you love, the more you lose."

It is heavy stuff, but achieves much more than therapy for the writer. In its fearless contemplation of pain and death, Complete Physical celebrates the pervasive beauty and power of love.

In his on-line commentary (porcupinesquill.ca), Neilson says his favourite poems are ambivalent – cherishing and despising a thing simultaneously. "The poems in the book freight complicity with beauty, they tend my flock not with judgement but with rueful wonder," he says. "The poems are exercises in answering the most important question the cpx [complete physical examination] begs: how are we to live in this world?"

Neilson published his first book of poems, Exterminate My Heart, with Frog Hollow Press in 2008, and now has four published collections. He edited a book of medical poems by one of his literary heroes, Canadian writer Alden Nowlan.

He also published a memoir about his tumultuous medical education, entitled Call Me Doctor. The Chapters-Indigo website sells that book, with a comment that Neilson "continues to be filled with a sense of wonder about how he made it this far as a doctor."

A prominent Canadian poet, Carmine Starnino, said this: "Doctors share one important thing with poets: an obsession with death. Shane Neilson has turned that obsession — and the special deathwatching vantage of his medical trade — into a collection of poems as beguiling and as brave as any I have recently read. In a clinical universe where suffering is distanced by language, Complete Physical becomes a kind of extraordinary talking cure. The human predicament has rarely found itself in such good hands."