Litany of a Cardiologist, Denise Bundred
Against The Grain Poetry Press, 2020 £6.00
Behind the white coat
With humanity and compassion, Denise Bundred gives her reader a unique insight into the world of the paediatric cardiologist in this wonderful collection.
In ‘Weighing Words’ we sit beside her in the clinic as she breaks bad news:
under the weight of words when I say
I’m sorry, there is no more we can do
We share her fascination with the intricacies of an infant’s heart in ‘Disordered Heart’ and walk with her from theatre to waiting room to share good news with the parents:
Sweat maps my back from neck to waist
as I walk fluorescent 4 a.m. corridors
to find your mum and dad
In many of the poems, Bundred addresses the patient, whether it be a foetus on a scan, as in ‘Foetal Scan’ where the unborn child begs ‘Leave me alone, don’t tell my parents yet’, or a newborn on the operating table, as in ‘Open Heart’ in which the dramatic is juxtaposed with the mundane:
Can someone order me a cheese and pickle sandwich
before the canteen closes?
I’ll see his parents on the ward in fifteen minutes.
A deserving winner of the Hippocrates Prize, this poet’s intelligent, clear-eyed, accessible work gives us a masterclass in how to write effectively and movingly about a highly specialised branch of medicine, in a voice which draws in layman and expert alike.
Here is the ending of ‘Litany of a Cardiologist’ which, like all the poems, has the child firmly at its centre:
hypertrophic, hypoplastic, dilated
thickened, unformed, enlarged (as in ventricle)
dyspnoeic, crepitations, syncope
breathless, crackles, faint (as in failure)
Congenital Cardiac Anomaly
born with heart disease (as in child).
I found the poems both emotional and (at the same time) entertaining. This is a collection which is compassionate and ultimately filled with hope.
This pamphlet brims with poignancy. I was struck by the interplay of medical procedures with ordinary aspects of life. The title of the pamphlet comes from the poem ‘Litany of a Cardiologist’ which is an extreme version of this. In each couplet, the first line has specialist medical terms. The second line translates this into something we can all understand — ending with ‘born with heart disease (as in child)’.
In ‘Today’s News’, we are placed in the shoes of a father trying to absorb the bad news about his daughter’s condition: ‘Jargon buffets me like shockwaves’. Bundred contrasts the difficulty of understanding the medical information with the domestic details of a clock, cup of tea, crooked picture and spilled coffee. She caps the sense of things not being right by referring to the collapse of one of the Twin Towers.
I found ‘Passing Something On’ particularly moving. This poem is about the donation of a boy’s heart to a young girl. The first half of the poem charts the cardiologist assessing the boy’s heart: ‘the monitor marks last moments‘. The second half switches to an image of cycling in the countryside to suggest the impact the operation could have:
Your gift will let her crest that rise,
freewheel past celandine, buttercups,
poppies, the first wild strawberry.
‘Foetal Scan’ is devastating in its emotional honesty. The poem starts by describing teenage parents laughing as the mother-to-be has a scan. The cardiologist finds ‘the twisted valve, the missing chamber’ and imagines the baby saying ‘Leave me alone, don’t tell my parents yet’. This line sets up the final couplet brilliantly:
For a few minutes more
they think you are perfect.
This pamphlet gets under the skin of a cardiologist’s life, showing how human sensitivity is at the heart of good medical treatment, however complex the medical terms.
Every now and then a poetry collection issues an extraordinary invitation to its readers: it opens a door to a specialist world. Denise Bundred’s Litany of a Cardiologist offers just such an invitation. And what a world hers is. A world where she, as paediatric cardiologist, shares the experience of operating on the tiniest of patients in the most critical of ways: work of such courage (a word I’m suddenly reminded comes from the Latin cor, meaning heart).
‘I spread cold gel on a newborn chest, / rest the probe on creamy skin’ opens ‘A Cardiologist Seeks Certainty’, a poem which shares the weight of responsibility:
I resolve inconsistencies into diagnosis,
wipe the sweat from my hands,
write my notes; make my decision.
The collection invites us to the other side of the patient-surgeon experience. ‘Open Heart’ powerfully alternates what’s going on for the medical team, in ‘Theatre 7’; and, at the same time, for the infant’s waiting parents. (I like the fact most of these poems are addressed to their small patients):
The perfusionist runs warm fluid
through your veins. At 34°
begins to beat
Your mother crushes a cigarette
kicks it under bushes, prays to a God
she didn’t believe in last week.
And ‘Foetal Scan’ beautifully captures that moment before the doctor has to deliver bad news. The young couple who’ve come in for a scan are vividly wrapped in their own bubble, before the blow falls. I love this opening stanza:
They’re laughing at a private joke. Her blouse glides
a pattern of tiny flowers across her rounded belly.
He should be at school, not sitting here in stained jeans,
stretched brown T-shirt, love-bite purple on his neck.
It’s a privilege to read these poems. To glimpse this doctor’s love for her work, and of her small patients — ‘I weigh words like morphine calculated to a tenth of a milligram’ starts ‘Weighing Words’. A love revealed beyond doubt by the final poems shared on retirement: ‘The Last Night on Call’ ends ‘I switch off the light, leave the door open.’