Literature Annotations


Ferris, Jim
The Hospital Poems


On-Line Text
Genre Collection (Poems) (55 pp.)
KeywordsAbandonment, Adolescence, Anatomy, Anesthesia, Caregivers, Children, Disability, Empathy, Hospitalization, Human Worth, Medical Ethics, Patient Experience, Power Relations, Suffering, Surgery, Survival, Technology
Summary

The first poem begins: "Let me be a poet of cripples, / of hollow men and boys groping / to be whole, of girls limping toward / womanhood. . . " This Whitmanesque introduction bespeaks two sides of Jim Ferris’s poetry. First, this is poetry of celebration: "I sing for cripples, I sing for you." But at the same time, the poems look unflinchingly at the failures, phoniness, and self-righteousness of the "fix it" establishment. They also portray (and celebrate) the community of suffering among the inmates destined to be "fixed."

In "Meat" (5) Ferris lays it on the line," Between four and five they bring down the meat / from recovery--those poor dopes have been simmering / up there for hours, bubbling up to the surface. . . " But even the children who have become "meat" have feelings. For example, the narrator of "Mercy" (18) expresses horror when two healthy classmates from the 8th grade manipulate the hospital rules in order to bring him a Get Well greeting. "How did these aliens get in?" he asks. "Leave now, trespassers, you who seek to gaze / on my humiliation." Perhaps the merciful will obtain mercy from God, he comments, "but not from me." In "Miss Karen" (25) the narrator sustains himself with erotic fantasies about his nurse and discovers to his mortification that he babbled these thoughts to his mother during recovery from anesthesia.

The culture of medicine looks cruel--or at least uncaring--though this crippled narrator’s eyes. "The Coliseum" (42) gives a telling description of the patient’s appearance at Grand Rounds: "You are a specimen / for study, a toy, a puzzle--they speak to each other / as if you were unconscious. . . " "Standard Operating Procedure" (44) reads like an ironic crib-sheet for orthopedic surgery: "Bust a chuck / of bone the rest of the way out; chisel it if you have to. . . He won’t remember much; kids are like animals / that way."

Commentary

As a child the poet Jim Ferris was hospitalized numerous times for "corrective" surgery and rehabilitation. According to Paul Longmore who introduces The Hospital Poems, Jim Ferris describes this book as "a memoir in verse" about the experience of being a defective child caught in the grips of a system intent on "fixing" him (i.e. having his physical disabilities corrected). Longmore acknowledges, "The course of corrective treatments utterly failed to meet its medical goals, let alone its social ones." Yet, Ferris has transformed the experience into poetry that is Whitmanesque in its "barbaric yawp" that combines unabashed physicality--and not just the phony silicone and face-lift physicality that has replaced religion in our culture--with an enormously warm and open heart.

The presumably "unfixed" adult Jim Ferris has worked as a newspaper reporter and television producer and taught communication and disability studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He now chairs the Disabilities Studies Program at the University of Toledo in Ohio.

One more comment on "The Coliseum" (42). This poem describes the experience of a patient being presented at Grand Rounds. Today, many of us lament the disappearance of patients from Grand Rounds; once the in depth discussion of a difficult patient case, nowadays Grand Rounds has become a lecture series on recent research in the field. This, of course, parallels what has happened in the hospital unit itself, where the patient has also largely disappeared from morning rounds, to be replaced by a collection of images and numbers. "The Coliseum" gives us a different perspective. Is it better to ignore the patient completely (as we do now), or treat him with condescending dismissiveness (as we did in the past)?

PublisherMain Street Rag
Edition2004
Place PublishedCharlotte, N.C.
Annotated by Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 01/25/05
Last Revised 10/15/08