I’m excited about the recent selection of my short film “Astronaut Goes From Migrant Fields To Outer Space” for inclusion in the Hearts and Minds Film Festival in Delaware next month. This will be the film’s premier screening at a festival, and is in fact the first film that I have submitted for consideration.

Here is a synopsis/director’s statement:

“In the U.S., immigration is both proud and tragic legacy. Except for the original people from whom a continent was stolen, we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Yet each new wave that arrives with few possessions and many dreams find they survive, not because of, but in spite of, what they find: the least rewarding and most dangerous work, and the contempt of those already here.

As a child, Jose M. Hernandez trekked from Mexico to the fields of California where he picked strawberries with his family under the tense and squalid conditions migrant laborers still experience. In the summer of 2009, he traveled into space as an astronaut on the Discovery space shuttle.

His story honors both the desperate struggle of immigrants and the greatness of which they are capable.

As a filmmaker and a poet, and someone of Latino descent, I feel I must contribute in some way to the search for justice.  Because as an issue, immigration is so contentious and sensitive, I have also been striving to find a perspective that rises above the standard arguments, that is positive as well as principled, in the hopes that I might reach those on all sides. In making a film about the astronaut Jose Hernandez, I believe I have found this point of view.”

Here are some details about the Hearts and Minds Festival and its artistic mission:

“JOIN US!

5th Annual Hearts & Minds Film Festival

Friday, April 9th, 2010 – Delaware State University Campus

Saturday, April 10th, 2010 – Schwartz Center for the Arts

DOVER, DELAWARE

Our festival showcases “super-independent” films from around the world – things you won’t see screening at just any movie theater or on TV.

Each entry was selected not only for its excellence, but for its focus on social issues and the human condition: from faith to homelessness to race and identity to disability culture. In an era of increasing social and economic challenges, these films herald a timely call to awareness and service. There will be something for everyone who enjoys media that features remarkable characters from many walks of life, fiction and non-fiction films of all kinds.”

“If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, multiply that image by 24 or 30 frames per second and imagine the impact on an audience that a well crafted, issue-oriented film can have! In the best tradition of documentary film-making, independent artists today are lifting their “voices” by pointing their lenses at subjects critical to the health and sustainability of communities around the world. They draw attention. They celebrate. They rage. They entertain. And always, they create conversation.

People the world over love movies. Perhaps like no other art form, good films bring people from disparate backgrounds together, in one room, to share the entertainment experience. By selecting films that focus on topical subjects such as economics, crime, literacy, the environment, and themes that address the human condition like relationships, health, survival, legacy, Hearts and Minds Film seeks to acknowledge new works and to inform, inspire and empower diverse audiences in community-based settings.”

Pamela Johnson Parker is an adjunct professor of composition and creative writing and a medical language specialist in Western Kentucky.  Her poems, flash fiction and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in The Binnacle, The Other Journal, New Madrid, Pebble Lake Review, Holly Rose Review, Six Sentences, MiPOesias, Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal and Anti-.  A Walk Through Memory Palace, published by Qarrtsiluni literary magazine as the winner of its 2009 poetry chapbook contest is Parker’s first chapbook or book-length publication, perfect bound with a glossy cover and surreal art by Carrie Ann Baade.

The chapbook title alludes to a mnemonic device developed in antiquity in which the user associates fragments of oratory or other text with physical locations in an effort to facilitate memorization.  The locations considered together form a “memory palace,” derived from Cicero’s story of Simonides, who escaped the gods’ destruction of a banquet hall, and used his recollection of the guests’ seating to identify the dead.

Consisting of ten poems, several of which are longer pieces, the book ranges far in its psychological and narrative geography, while keeping its temporal focus on the past.  In terms of mood, A Walk Through the Memory Palace relies on intimate rather than objective reporting.  So the title feels apt with respect to the poems, providing them a framework where their own interrelationship is less important than diverse connection with the poet as source.

This said, there is a strand of the bucolic, of the country house whose garden offers paths to a nearby pond, which threads a number of the pieces together.  In addition, the poems’ inhabitants and their surroundings tend to be viewed from portrait distance, and the language is well crafted and delicately informed.  Parker’s verse finds its power in gentle irony, quiet onomatopoeia and a lush though domestic lexicon.  The evident structure makes the most of a refined music, primarily brief stanzas and short lines consistent in syllable count, sometimes more formal with respect to meter or rhyme.

The first piece in the book, 78 RPM, demonstrates Parker’s skill at distilling felicity from nostalgia.  Here the second person perspective and a hint at the autobiographical, or at least directly witnessed, allow a sensuous return to the adrenaline and pheromones of adolescence.  The language is a filigree of the precisely observed, a snapshot packed with dynamic tension.

As the heavy arm angles

From left to right, as
The stylus traces
Its sapphire finger

Down the record’s groove,
As he skates a single
Finger along the sun-

Bleached down of your
Arm, and as you
Start to shake,

Heart rising and
Falling like Billie’s
Song, cool water poured

To the top, brimming,

Similarly, in Tattoos, a poem consisting of two parts, the language is a smorgasbord of the exotic, the colorful, and the intricate.  The first part focuses on the materials that compose tattoo ink—

Aisles of densities, textures:
dry dun-colored globes,

the testes of arctic
seals; cicada skins, fingers
of ginseng. Silver

Assam teas, great sacks
of rice, geese screeching from crates.

but ultimately furnishes a male protagonist to give the language an erotic gradient and intensity,

“Good for the kidneys,”

says the clerk — young, stripped
to the waist, a great dragon’s
body rippling across

his back, undulant
as he turns, wrapping spices,
plum wine, packages

in brown kraft

The second part zeroes in on the metaphor of the flesh as canvas for the indelible ink of experience, boosting the erotic mercury level even higher:

I want you
so much it hurts to
breathe, want your voice, telling
me about anchors, hearts, names
like Winona,

or Felecia
(either regional or
seductive); about
needles; about inks
of cinnabar, navy, that
almost piceous

black; about the tattoo
of skin against skin, that
most ephemeral
of canvases…

Breasts, the final poem in the collection, taps into Parker’s other textual expertise as a medical writer, effectively animating the sterile jargon of anatomy and frozen sections by juxtaposing it with a breast cancer patient’s living narrative.  What’s remarkable here is the poet’s emphasis on inspection—visual findings being a key part of diagnosis and medical management.  Parker presents multiple perspectives—that of the woman examining her normal breast, that of a clinically “objective” observer, that of the patient status post mastectomy, that of the pathologist, that of the poet, and that of the poet as affected witness, relative of the afflicted.  The effect, given Parker’s magnifying powers of observation, is striking.

Suturing, suturing,
Interrupted silk. The scar
Crosshatched, diagonal

From shoulder to her
Xiphisternum. Zipper, zipper.
Something’s wrong with this

White leather, this
Epidermis sliced and scraped
And stitched — no nipple,

No tissue, no muscle,
No lilt

Some Yellow Tulips, the one poem in the collection I found unsuccessful, suffered because its subject, the Holocaust, is less easily penetrated by Parker’s intimate tropes.  Genocide brutally resists understanding and even if the survivor-protagonist of the poem stoops to the familiar task of raising tulips, she is not of their world.  Parker relies on aesthetically satisfying comparisons to speak for themselves, and they cannot:

Today, her turban slants
Askew over her blue-rinsed hair; her plants,

Once straight as soldiers on her patio,
Are blitzkrieged out of order, the yellow

Tulips (three days blossoming in a vase
Atop her wrought-iron table) don’t erase

Her frown, her sloppy slippers, or the brown
Age spots (about the size of dimes around)

She often hides with gloves.

Parker also asks the stark rigidity of rhymed couplets to supplement the survivor’s concept of order as a source of security.  But this is more earnest than ironic, and misses the mark. The Holocaust is the ultimate corruption of order.  It is Nazi discipline.  It is dirt. It is bits of bone and ash, not the flowers that grow from them.   The poem does glance against a worthy truth: that the present has its own order against which survival can seem a disturbance, a scar, like the tattooed numbers on an old woman’s arm.  But this revelation appears only as a resolving coda.  Ultimately, it is Mrs. Sonnenkrantz herself who represents the terrible blossoming.  Perhaps she deserves a more harrowing exploration, which in the end must undermine beauty.

However, if Some Yellow Tulips misfires aesthetically, it does so like a dark bulb in a string of outdoor lights, letting the rest shine, their circuit still intact.   Parker has a wonderful palette of language, and good instincts for the memorable.  A Walk Through the Memory Palace richly demonstrates both.

Alexander and his Doctor, about 1648-9, Eustache Le Sueur

According to classical anecdote, Alexander the Great suffered from mysterious maladies and from his own mystique. No one dared to treat him for fear that a bad outcome would doom the would-be healer to certain persecution by Alexander’s wildly solicitous minions. Finally, Phillip, Alexander’s physician, frustrated by the young king’s decline, offered care in the form of a salubrious potion. But a general had already impugned Philip in a letter to Alexander, which claimed Philip to be acting seditiously on behalf of Alexander’s Persian enemies, and not to be trusted. Despite this warning, Alexander boldly drank the medicine, as he did so, handing the letter to Philip to read.

In the painting, Philip stands above a recumbent Alexander, as the doctor-patient relationship would demand. But Alexander’s broad chest and raised eyes reveal his power, while Philip’s stooped posture and frown expose the frailty of his position. The painting reveals, perhaps unwittingly, the vital duality of the relationship, each risking himself, proffering his full commitment to the other. Here the physician assumes the role of servant rather than patriarch, though his experience and wisdom are evident.

The intern who cared for Vincent van Gogh after he severed his ear. The painting was a tributary gift. While Dr. Rey was quite fond of Van Gogh, who mentioned the physician favorably and intimately in his letters, Rey did not appreciate the painting, at least not at first. His parents used it to cover a hole in a chicken coop. Nevertheless, Dr. Rey clearly appreciated the essential role art played in his patient’s life, and recommended Van Gogh continue to pursue it. At this time, of course, Van Gogh’s painting was for the most part unknown and/or dismissed.

Haus LebensWert is a philanthropically developed and supported facility in Cologne, Germany where patients may receive oncology services free of charge.  An integral part of Haus LebensWert’s vision and mission is to vigorously help cancer patients cope with life both during treatment and afterwards.  Another key component is the use of alternative and complimentary therapies.  These therapies are made available to patients in addition to traditional measures as part of a seamless whole.   Examples include psycho-oncology, art & music therapy, gymnastics and other exercise, voice instruction, Feldenkrais training, Nordic walking, dance therapy, massage and aroma massage, Tai-Qi, Qi-gong and acupuncture.   The Haus LebensWert, which complements a more traditional hospice, has been well received by both patients and practitioners, including those who refer their patients from outside (Hematology Am Soc Hematol Educ Program. 2009:320-5).

Critics of “complimentary and alternative medicine” (CAM) frequently complain of a double standard, and a lack of rigor in its evaluation.  Some feel this looseness encourages bloat and charlatanism, and risks distracting patients and practitioners from the path to “good outcome.”

“Academic medicine integrates three of the most honorable human activities: treating the ill, teaching, and research. The quality that all three share is persistent quest for truth. However, there is reluctance of academic medicine today to openly defend scientific truth by challenging the arguments and the very existence of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM). There is no sound proof of CAM effectiveness, no hypotheses on the mechanisms of their action, nor scientific reports testing them. The fact that patients are charged for these “healing” activities makes CAM a plain fraud. With these facts in mind, the name “complementary and alternative medicine” is undeserved and misleading. CAM advocates maintain that CAM should be recognized precisely because it is widely practiced and very promising, that it has a special holistic/human approach, and works at least as a placebo in situations where medicine can do nothing more. As it seems that the public interest in paramedicine will only grow stronger before it grows weaker, scientists must raise their voice and question the truthfulness of CAM more openly.”
Croat Med J. 2004 Dec;45(6):684-8.

While a truth-centered paradigm is difficult to dispute, there is more than scientific truth at stake in the quest for human understanding.  There is also existential truth.  While physician-scientists optimize therapeutic regimens by evaluating their effects on controlled trial populations, each individual patient attempts to grapple with his or her radically changed reality both in terms of life, and death.  Quantity—be it months of survival, tumor size, or fraction cured—can be measured with increasing accuracy and predictive value.  Quality can’t be so easily parameterized.  Moreover, even attempts made to evaluate “quality of life” tend to fall short because experience transcends subjective criteria when they are too rigidly circumscribed.  Patients exist within the larger communities of other patients, clinicians, family, and the omnibus of culture.  If society views the sick as mechanisms in need of repair, and devalues anything regarded as “touchy feely,” then those in charge will cut the funds that allow physicians to spend time talking with patients or considering the larger life outside the body, while adding to the already glutted ranks of surgi-centers and MRI scanners.  Certainly the possible advantages of reinvigorating the art of medicine, or even expanding it to include real art, such as expressive writing, or speaking, as therapy,will be viewed as unworthy of “serious” exploration.  This is what has happened so far.  The impersonal and alienating experience of illness is nearly a truism, at least in the U.S.

Hospitals, especially large referral centers, can be daunting and soulless places.  As we move necessarily towards more “cost-effective” healthcare it will be important not to lose sight of the fact that quality and quantity exist to a large degree as orthogonal axes.  Designing healthcare to have a more empirical and inclusive approach to alternative healing strategies assures a better chance at quality of life, and should be encouraged as long as these don’t induce patients to forego proven treatment.   A life of fear and despair may be nearly as much a lost life as for the patient who dies of his or her disease.

Haus LebensWert, by the way, means House for a Life Worth Living.

Understanding how a patient makes sense of chronic or disabling illness can be critical to the effective treatment of that illness.  Repairing the body doesn’t necessarily repair the life. Patients must confront changes to their bodies and in how they live their lives, psychological dimensions of disease physicians and allied practitioners have appropriately tried to address more vigorously.  But human beings, perhaps uniquely, not only live in the here and now but also in a larger narrative of their existence that includes their past and also projects a future.  Our identity and self-esteem are not only tied up in what we see in the mirror, but in what others see, and in who we see ourselves becoming: our plans and expectations for ourselves in the context of a long and healthy life.  All of this helps us tell the story of who we are. The term “biographical disruption” has been applied to the pernicious ability of disease to damage this narrative.   To fully treat disease one must also treat the damaged story.  There is evidence that poetry can be part of such treatment, allowing patients to creatively frame and perhaps modify their story through dialogue with themselves and with others.

Below is a poem written by a young woman afflicted with severe arthritis, reprinted from Cases Journal (Cases J. 2008; 1: 153).

Where have I gone?

Where’s the woman who weighed less than 9 stone?

Who wore a dress size 12 and didn’t need to wear shapeless clothes or jogging suits?

Who had shaped and tidy eyebrows that would complement her latest hair colour and style?

Whose painted nails, with manicured hands and feet, were perfect for holidays in the sun?

Where’s the woman who had a vocation not just a job, but who exists on benefits, a step away from poverty?

Where’s the woman who owned her own home that gave her safety and privacy, it was her pride and joy?”

Where’s the woman whose hobbies include travel, gardening, decorating, furniture restoring, sewing, reading and studying at home?

Here I am and life before my impairment has gone, the only thing I can do is hold a pen with a special grip and writing is agony.

Where has she gone?

Where has she gone?

WHERE HAVE I GONE?

Do you see me?

How can you ever know me, when all you see is my chair?

My limitations are all you see and you say they complicate your life.

Will you ever see the deep pools of love in my eyes for you?

When you half close yours with pity and turn away from me.

The beating of my heart in expectation of your closeness isquickly cooled by your fleeting hug or, worse, patting my shoulder.

I wait in anticipation remembering the taste and softness of
your kiss, you offer me a warm ‘peck’ on the cheek.

I smell your aftershave … you say I smell clean!

I remember running my fingers through your hair,

Ripping buttons off your shirt but that’s difficult when you
stand behind me pushing my chair, we can’t even hold hands anymore.

The power of my emotions makes me feel strong,

Then I catch that pitying look in your eye,

They die in my heart.

I do not speak, my smile fills my face but you will never know …

You’ll never see the real woman who is me

Who sits and is seen by the world framed by a wheelchair

Cut off emotionally just because I cannot stand or walk.

Thank you

Thank you to those who take the time to listen to difficult and unclear speech, for you help us to know that if we persevere we can be understood

Thank you to those who walk with us in public places, ignoring stares and whispers from strangers, for in your friendship we find enjoyment, laughter and happiness

Thank you for never asking us to ‘hurry up’, but even more special is you don’t snatch our tasks from us or offer ‘Care’ in such a way as to make us feel that we are still children, with no control and respect

Thank you for standing beside us when we enter new experiences and try new adventures
Though our success may be outweighed by our failure, the experience will stay with us forever and there will be many occasions when we surprise ourselves and maybe even you!

Thank you for asking for our help and expertise,
As self-confidence and awareness come from being needed by you and others

Thank you for giving us respect

You acknowledge our value as experts in our fields and that we require to live with equality in society

We shouldn’t have to ask or have laws to enforce it or remind you

Thank you for assuring us that the things that make us individuals are not our medical impairments, as everyone has those and they don’t define ONE’S SELF, it’s people’s attitudes that create barriers that exclude us from you.

Treat us as we treat you.

It is now a common practice for first year medical students to take part in a ceremony honoring the donors of cadavers used in dissection for the teaching of anatomy. The manner of the students’ participation is up to them; the reading of poetry, including original poems is not uncommon.

Here is such a poem by Fiona Horgan, reprinted from Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.

                                                                 

Lab 16

Today’s session begins just as those gone by.
As my labmates begin to unfurl the gauze and commence our exploring,
instinctively, but unbeknownst to the others,
I am quick to assume my self-appointed duty of rewrapping,
carefully ensuring that her hands are not exposed.
Is this naïve, knowing that today would come
and I would have to spend my entire afternoon focused on them?
And why, after so many hours with her,
so many delicate procedures,
does looking at her hands still stir unparalleled emotion in me?
“Trace the radial artery . . .”
I only see hands that still possess the pallor of life,
nails bearing the remnants of rose-colored polish.
Did a loved one tenderly paint them?
And did they hold her hands as she faded from this life?
I search for her pulse.
“Divide the transverse carpal ligament . . .”
Isee my grandmother’s hands.
Hands that expertly smoothed wrinkled sheets.
Hands that pressed coins to buy sweets into her grandchildren’s eager palms.
Hands that wore a symbol of my grandparents’ love for 56 years.
I trace the fine lines on her palms.
“Examine the thenar muscles . . .”
I see my mother’s hands.
Hands that nurture children when they are sick.
Hands that dance along piano keys.
Hands that feed and clothe the homeless.
I smooth her wrinkled skin.
“Identify the tendons of the superficial and deep digital flexors . . .”
I look at my hands alongside hers.
They are the tool with which I will first touch my future patients.
Each time I lay my hands on those I hope to heal,
I will remember hers.
I reach out and fully grasp her hands.

                                                                  –Fiona Horgan

(From: The 2008 Anatomy Ceremony: Voices, Letter, Poems
Yale J Biol Med. 2009 March; 82(1): 41–46)

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