Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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Open invitation

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°
your heart
begins to beat
spontaneously.

[...]

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.’

Charlotte Gann