Patients inspire a neurologist to write poems that combine emotion and science

  • Apr. 12, 2017 12:30 a.m.

It’s not exactly accurate to describe Dawn McGuire as both a neurologist and a poet. Because that would imply those are two distinct, separate things. To her, the callings are intertwined.

Her 2013 book, “The Aphasia Café,” won an Indie Book Award for her treatment of how the brain loses language. Flip open her new collection, “American Dream With Exit Wound,” and it doesn’t take long to spot scientific terminology. But there’s nothing clinical about the emotions it evokes. Take this bit from the poem “Love in the Skilled Nursing Unit”:

“That’s when I’d give

“my temporal lobe,

“my hippocampus whole,

“for his cheap blue gown;

“to gaze upon that love again

“by which one is first made,

“inflamed, destroyed”

Inspiration for the book came from McGuire’s patients at her San Francisco clinic who are veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as from another poet with medical experience: Walt Whitman. In 1884, he wrote in the New York Times, “The tremendous war goes on. Every family has directly or indirectly some representative among the vast army of the wounded and sick.”

That quote, which also appears at the beginning of “American Dream With Exit Wound,” rang true to McGuire, who was seeing the suffering continue for those with traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction. The title poem is from the point of view of a warrior’s lover, searching for signs that’s he’s been shooting up. Here’s how it starts:

“She looks at belts differently now

“Not at the grain, the tool work.

“Not thinking what size for which waist

“She looks at where the holes are

“One punched out with a nail file

“a peeler, dug out with a stick

“blunt but strong enough

“to grind a hole in leather

“A hole too close to the buckle”

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