One of the first things you realize on your way to the St. Luke’s College of Medicine is how it’s actually located a few blocks away from the hospital proper. An old man throws up on the bench beside me as I ask two security guards for directions.
The old man puke, if I’m being honest, doesn’t do much for my expectations. My only encounter with the terms “medicine” and “art” are generally limited to the often silent grand piano in the St. Luke’s lobby foyer.
I’m telling you all this because the thing with “Scene,” the poetry event organized by Iatros, the official student publication of St. Luke’s College of Medicine, is that its name betrays the event’s unabashed un-hipness. Hear the word “Scene” and you think edge and rebellion. It’s Riot Grrrl bands and bloody poetry. It’s skinny jeans and some guy proselytizing about how the American hegemony is going to be our downfall.
Instead I get some bespectacled med student in white scrubs gushing about Paul Verlaine as he eases his way through Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Poets repeatedly make unironic references to fallopian tubes, neurology, and something called prosopagnosia. A number of them perform with their white coats in tow. There are stethoscopes and talks about donations for a scholarship fund. It’s quirky and… not much of a scene, if I’m being honest.
Or well, not much at least, until two things start to sink in.
First is that these guys are medical students. The very fact that they got this event up and running is an achievement in itself. There was a frickin’ art exhibit filled with students’ work which honestly was like, gallery worthy. Add the fact that most of the art was made by medical students during their internships or during the school year, and well, you start to question your own talents.
Second is that again, these guys are medical students, and once you get past the jargon (which they try their best to kindly clarify anyway), you realize that their training allows them a unique set of voices and stories. Their internships, clerkships, anatomy subjects, and all these other “-omy” and “-ogy” subjects that take forever to spell, let them know death and life and love, arguably at a level deeper than you and I have known it. The phrase “Intensive Care Unit” takes on a new meaning.
When they say they’re tired and weary, you feel it. There’s this one poet named Carl Celera whose poem tackled the worries associated with rushing his grandfather to his childhood home to die. Hearing him talk about death on such frank terms helped me remember, one, that for all the event’s artsiness, I still was within a hospital complex. And two, despite the bleakness of their fields of study, these students have somehow conjured for themselves a new kind of hospital within a hospital, using nothing more than the memories they’ve kept, and the talents they possess. Think gruelling 30-hour shifts turned to waxings about quality time spent with siblings on the family’s Nintendo Wii, or the process of healing expressed as sonata.
Many times, the most painful things in life cannot fully be solved by numbers, or a nuanced analysis of Patient X’s endocrine system, or the documented effects of malignant brain tumors on the psyche of my 10-year-old cousin. Beyond the act of matching prognosis to cure, healing is a process of creation. Images of sunlight to complement troubling PET scans. Sonatas about Paul Verlaine to help us cope with a lack of updates from the operating table. Hope in the face of despair.
And though it is often awkward, I guess to really end, this is why “Scene” resonates so deeply with me. It deftly navigates memories of sickness, death, and healing, without losing sight of the innate human-ness of each of these experiences. It trafficks in hope, however raw, when despair is the much easier choice. Edge, for all my ramblings on it, ain’t got jack on that.