With a background in the sciences, it’s no great surprise that I am drawn to writing with its roots in such disciplines, and with further interest in the therapeutic nature of words, why wouldn’t I be a big fan of the Hippocrates Society for Poetry and Medicine? Based in the UK, the society provides a forum for people worldwide interested in the connections between poetry and medicine. It hosts an annual medical symposium and runs the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine. It pleased me no end then when Paula Cunningham (a dentist) placed twice in recent years in the NHS (National Health Service) category – winning the award in 2011 (A Chief Radiographer Remembers) and taking third prize this year (A History of Snow) both of which are published below. I met Paula years ago at the Eastern Washington University Summer Workshop in Dublin. I remember her reading upstairs in Bewley’s Oriental Café on Grafton Street (with its façade inspired by Tutankhamen’s Tomb and its magnificent stained-glass windows by renowned Irish artist Harry Clarke). A café made famous by Joyce in Dubliners and by other literary patrons such as Samuel Beckett, Patrick Kavanagh and Sean O’Casey. Paula read a poem that night. It may or may not have been titled “Hats”, but it was filled with hats and filled (like the great café itself) with an historic array of Irish literary figures – on that night as I recall amongst the many hats she wore, she wore her “Brendan Behan hat” and her “Paula Meehan hat”, but that night it was obvious to all that there was only one hat that fit and that was her “Paula Cunningham hat”.
Many of the poems here have, as she herself put it, “bodily/medical under/overtones” – an unintentional, but welcomed, tip of the hat in my direction. Her first full collection was published this year (currently shortlisted for 2014 Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize) and is, naturally, entitled Heimlich’s Manoeuvre.
THE CHIEF RADIOGRAPHER CONSIDERS
Pierre Curie, who was wont to carry radium
in his breast pocket, the red brand
on his chest which would never heal,
his femurs already aglow, and the dray horse
on the narrow Paris street beside Pont Neuf
that robbed the white-hot lesions of their prize.
He dreams the powder Marie kept at her bedside,
its pretty scintillation as she slept; her own death
from leukaemia, the damage accruing slowly like a debt,
the compound interest in the body’s bank.
He imagines her fingertips scraping each page
her notebooks, her letters, her cookbooks yes,
that seventy years from her death are housed in lead,
how researchers at the Bibliotheque Nationale
are required to sign a disclaimer.
He’s surer of DNA, its ladder and its snakes,
how everything unravels and decays. He presses
the bright red button again, again.
A HISTORY OF SNOW
It was wild sudden.
Her daddy phoned me to work.
She was that hot he just had a sheet over her.
I felt the heat before I lifted the sheet and seen the rash.
You’d never forget that rash.
People say to me ‘How would you know?’
and I just say ‘You’d know if you seen it.’
The wee spots and these big blotches like birthmarks –
everywhere only her face.
Her wee lady and all.
I phoned and they said do the glass test.
I pressed really hard
and her bawling, but it didn’t change
so we brung her up.
There was this old man in the queue
very wheezy, he said to the girl
‘I want them to see this child
before they see me.’
And within two minutes we’re in the ambulance.
She was bouncing up and down on the trolley,
you wouldn’t believe it. Like something
out of the Exorcist. The doctor come
and he told us prepare for the worst.
She’s a bit of hearing loss, that’s all,
in big rooms, like, but she’s grand.
They say it’ll all come right, the ear adjusts.
Her daddy brung her in snow in a shoebox –
she’d never seen it before.
They’d pushed her cot right up to the window,
the flakes sweeping past like confetti,
a bit of a rose in her cheeks, and her all eyes.
The cars in the car park were buried in minutes,
it was one snowy evening, the whole
of the country froze. She’d been in four weeks
and I mind she was eating an orange –
a mandarin one of the nurses had peeled.
That’s when I knew she really was on the mend.
They said if we’d even been five minutes later.
I think of that old man yet.
NOTES FROM AN EAR
I’m small enough to fit
into a teacup. You underestimate
me; this flesh means nothing
and mostly I keep
to myself. I love bone,
its occasional braille,
but mainly I cherish its smooth darkness.
I thrive on disturbance, I know
about waves, the way molecules
bounce and knock – slow,
fast. I abhor
vacuums. My centre is
all coil and deep canal.
Though I live for sound
and music is everything -
- imbalance is the biggest part
of movement. Because of me
the deaf stand up and dance.
At the Winter Park ski-holiday reunion
who swans in only Stevie
whose legs don’t take him far –
he’d been tinkering under a car
when the bomb went off.
Answer: the skin.
It’s Trivia night
and we’re in with a chance.
All the other tables are offering liver.
What is the largest organ in the body?
In Winter Park we’re triple-
wrapped in thermals
but he’s shirtless:
a sophisticated instrument
Homoeostasis: the body
as a furnace;
and erector pili muscles
co-operate to keep the body cool.
is conductor of the body’s
but skin grafts don’t have glands
and scars are bald.
Anyway Stevie has walked
the twenty yards from his special car
and he’s wrecked
and his stumps are sore
and we get tore in to the drink
and we all get legless
and everyone in the Welly Bar
(we’re only here for the ramps
and we’ve jumped the queue)
is legless and Stevie has taken his off,
all smooth American tan
with the socks and the cool shoes on,
and we laugh out loud
at the pretty woman
on stilts who almost
jumps out of her skin
and the plastered people
they’re seeing things
and we know they are.
…the furthest distances I’ve travelled
have been those between people – Leontia Flynn
(at the Forty-foot Gentlemen’s Bathing Place)
Seven thirty a.m.
and I love that men
leagues of seals,
rapturing the air.
I’m glad the water’s cold.
And though my father
taught me everything
I know about salt water,
for fifty weeks per annum
he remained arms’ length inland.
Not necessarily needing to know
I launch into these buoyant
introductions: ‘Hey Dad, it’s Paula,
your favourite daughter your
beautiful blow-in from Belfast,’
my mother priming him well
in advance, so that I’m a little
deflated but hardly surprised
when he risks ‘Are you married
to one of my sons?’ ‘Father’
I breeze ‘Bishop Hegarty’d
never agree.’ And his smile as he
fathoms the quip soon sinks, repeating
how terribly terribly sorry he is.
Close to the close of your life, you wash up
in a strange house with a woman old enough
to be your mother insisting she is your wife.
Despite your rebuttals she’s wedded to her lies.
You try the doors, her ladyship has them locked.
You spot your father’s shooting-stick,
you’ve really got to fly, you say, and put
a window in. Next thing you la- la- la-
land in some class of hotel where the women
are very much younger with lovely hands;
the exits here, you swiftly establish, are shut
with a hush-hush code. You’ve stashed the stick
and smash a panel in. They belt you in a comfy chair,
to anchor you, they say, and call you ‘pet’.
I don’t think I ever married, did I? This
at the buzz-locked doors as I’m heading, the same day
he’s quizzed me how long this interment (sic) will last.
You did Dad, the Star of the County you claimed.
He grins. And I’ve more to report. Go on.
She bore you six children. Away. It’s true.
Would you like me to introduce you to one?
I would. God. That would be great.
Well Father. We shake.
It’s a pleasure to meet you.
When I leave I am borne
on the keen conviction
he liked me.
Our father one ankle in Heaven
trouser-leg rolled to the knee –
your time not come – the other one
stuck as it is and swollen.
There is yet time in this dry hotel;
as your wide straddle falters the tide recedes
til your greeting’s a watery smile you float
for the flickering hosts of the faces you meet,
above whose static you tune to the sirens –
song with your name on –
well within reach;
though embracing’s beyond us
I’d sing to deliver you
home for the last how long.
Paula Cunningham was born in Omagh and lives in Belfast where she works as a dentist. Her chapbook A Dog called Chance was a winner in The Poetry Business Competition in 1999 and was published by Smith Doorstop. She has also written drama and short fiction and has held awards from the Arts Council of NI. Her poems have been widely published and anthologised.
Her first full poetry collection Heimlich’s Manoeuvre was published by Smith|Doorstop in 2013. It was shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh Best First Collection Prize, and is currently shortlisted for the 2014 Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize for First Full Collection. Individual poems in the collection have also won awards. Paula is now working towards her next collection.