‘A Body of Work: An Anthology of Poetry and Medicine’ reviewed by Ashleigh Blackwood

A Body of Work: An Anthology of Poetry and Medicine edited by Corinna Wagner and Andy Brown (Bloomsbury, 2016)

Following our initial call for clinical and academic reviews of ‘A Body of Work,’ Dr Ashleigh Blackwood offers her perspective as a post-doctoral researcher. You can see the accompanying review offered by Dr Marion Lynch here. 

9781472513298On Thomas De Quincey’s (1821) ‘Confessions of an Opium-Eater,’ Corinna Wagner and Andy Brown suggest that the author ‘meshed personal confessions [about addiction] with rationale, incisive observations’ to develop his text (p.18). While A Body of Work: An Anthology of Poetry and Medicine is not a biographical text, Wagner and Brown’s book might itself be considered similar insofar as its greatest strength lies in bringing together individuals’ intimate reflections about illness and health with broader professionalized and analytical comments about those experiences. As editors they undertake the formidable task of cataloguing a variety of corporeal experiences from the last 350 years; the book’s earliest poetic entry dating from 1657 and the most recent from 2015. Unlike other poetry anthologies, A Body of Work attempts to collect together two types of writing whilst also evaluating the rich history of debate which surrounds disciplinarity. Among the questions Wagner and Brown address are those including whether poetic and medical writings are inherently difficult to place together by virtue of being products of art and science respectively, or if they are not in fact more similar than some twentieth-century models of philosophy would have us believe. The product of their efforts is a fascinating package of texts to unwrap through reading.

Helpfully for readers the book is organised not only by theme but also, within each chapter, chronologically and by genre. Wagner and Brown make clear from the outset that their goal is to align both poetic and medical writings in order to reveal the numerous viewpoints that are worth exploring in the world of healthy and unhealthy bodies. The eight different themes covered within the anthology are ‘The Body as Machine’, ‘Nerves, Mind and Brain’, ‘Consuming’, ‘Illness, Disease and Disability’, ‘Treatment’, ‘Hospitals, Practitioners and Patients’, ‘Sex, Evolution, Genetics and Reproduction’, and ‘Aging and Dying’. These choices capture a sense of both creative and critical thinking about the material selected, following neither the human lifecycle nor any pattern that might be ascribed to medical investigation. Instead, and more interestingly, these themes reveal the ways in which the two editors have sought to question the history of methodological approaches which have been applied within the fields of medical humanities. Wagner and Brown’s rejection of narrowly-focused approaches such as practitioner or patient-centred research indicates that the future of medical humanities requires the careful consideration of both of these perspectives with much more besides.

As the name suggests ‘The Body as Machine’ covers those perspectives of the body which might be considered mechanistic or in some cases, such as the selection of Hannah F. Gould’s ‘To the Automaton Chess Player’, truly mechanical (p. 31). As the first chapter in the book, it is important that these selections lay out a framework for subsequent themes, representative of authors of different times, ages, genders, nationalities, backgrounds and experiences. ‘Nerves, Brain and Mind’, focuses on works which reveal the ever-changing language surrounding nervous disorders and mental wellbeing. In some cases the re-employment of out-dated terminologies highlights individuals’ struggles to articulate their experiences of on-going or recurrent conditions, as in the title of Jane Kenyon’s (2005) poem ‘Having it out with Melancholy’ (p. 115). The idea of ‘Consuming’ is a broad yet inviting one, allowing Wagner and Brown the space to explore what, how and why the body consumes, or indeed fails to do so, with poems from Isaac Hawkins Browne’s (1768) ‘On a Fit of the Gout: An Ode’ to Eavan Boland’s ‘Anorexic’ published in 1980 (‘On a Fit of the Gout’, p.139; ‘Anorexic’, p.155).

Syphilis, smallpox, cholera, typhus, AIDS and cancer each feature among the conditions addressed in ‘Illness, Disease and Disability’, denoting those diagnoses which have at some time been perceived to be most threatening or difficult to manage. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Philip Larkin offer poetic reflections on ‘Treatment,’ rubbing shoulders with prose by authors such as Edward Jenner, Joseph Lister and William Carlos Williams. Hospitals, Practitioners and Professionals’ produces a thought-provoking array of responses to medical environments, practice and equipment, and even responses to the work of individual practitioners (‘A&E,’ p. 360; ‘The Stethoscope Song: A Ballad,’ p.323, ‘To Dr William Hunter,’ p.307). Without over-representing any particular group or issue, ‘Sex, Evolution, Genetics and Reproduction’ alludes to the involvement of women in the development of reproductive medicine by including extracts and works from Jane Sharp, England’s first midwife to publish a midwifery treatise, through to material from the famed twentieth-century author Marie Stopes. Finally, ‘Ageing and Dying’ tackles a diverse range of issues within these headline themes including signs of ageing in both men and women, infant and child death, euthanasia and the treatment of bodies after death.

A Body of Work is likely to appeal to many a scholar’s interests, with possibilities for multiple disciplines including literature, medical history, creative writing and further potential across health and social science studies. Translated and manuscript poems are among some of the book’s most valuable material, less likely to be readily available to readers. Among Wagner and Brown’s motivations for producing the book, they say, was the ‘sheer necessity’ of requiring such material for teaching purposes in Humanities and Literature departments, though one suspects its value may be just as high for medical teaching. True to their aim, Wagner and Brown’s contribution to the field of medical humanities is likely to be at its strongest in terms of impact when used with students. The term ‘Medical Writings’, used to describe the prose sections of each chapter, does not distinctly set the boundaries of what might be included in each of the book’s chapters as medical treatise or textbook. A variety of the titles encompassed within these sections, such as Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722), would be more typically referred to as literary rather than medical works, an area which, with more room, it would perhaps have been helpful to have had additional context and the editors’ interpretations on these texts, particularly for a student readership. This said, the actual inclusion of these pieces increases rather than reduces the value of this book to studies of medicine in its broader cultural contexts. A Body of Work offers a unique perspective into the history of literature and medicine. Wagner and Brown have created a book that is certainly worth having within easy reach for its accessible engagement with some of the fundamental questions which have shaped contemporary understandings of bodily experience throughout history.

Ashleigh Blackwood is a postgraduate researcher at Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne. Her doctoral research operates alongside the Leverhulme-funded project Fashionable Diseases ca.1660-1832 specialising in women’s health and maternity in medical and literary print. She has published on eighteenth-century birth poetry and the obstetric aspects of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

Correspondence to Ashleigh Blackwood.


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