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Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine 2010: Prizewinning Poems


it’s about a man

it’s about a man who healed the sick
(as far as he was able)
and this is the man who begged for penicillin
to cure a child
(as far as he was able)
it’s about a man who burnt Fleming’s letter
when the answer came back, None to Spare
and it’s about a man who spoke at the funeral
(as far as he was able)
and this is the man who seven decades later
still remembers the date on the letter he wrote
it’s about a man who waits in his chair
for a nurse to bring him whisky and water
this is the man who drinks the New Year in
although it’s a man who can no longer hear
who peers out of his frame
(as far as he is able)
who thinks his own thoughts
it’s about a man who comforted others
death is inevitable, comes to us all
it’s about a man who is showered daily
and now understands
(as far as he is able)





The night you told me I dreamed an engine
and inside was something like those squid
stretched out on washing lines in Greek ports.

The mechanic in his blue boiler suit
reached down and pulled it away,  long tendrils
yielding clean through the radiator

in a series of soft popping noises,
all across the blackened boxes
that keep it running, keep it running.

He held it up for me to see –
its pale red speckled skin, suckers,
greyish underside, translucent patches.


Liberty Bodice

A few days after the operation
the nurses let you in the shower room
alone. The one with the mirror.

The dressing on your left side
is felted, fixed like the old-fashioned vests
you wore to boarding school –

from this angle, you’re twelve,
embarrassed, packed away.
From the other, you’re a woman.

You turn one way, and back again.
The nurses listen outside. But it’s later
you cry, in your sleep, secretly,

like homesick girls in the dormitory,
down both sides of your face
into your brand new, flatter pyjamas.



The diagonal line from under your arm
looks like a ballet wrap cardigan
with tiny hooks and eyes.

You knitted me one when I was five
and when you ran out of pale blue wool
you improvised half of the front

in purple leftover stripes –
I liked it that way. One side plain,
one side surprising.


The Corridor

The staff nurse pauses here
to run a finger down her list. The small man
on the mop machine sweeps by, humming,
in his wet-circling world. Large carts
jammed with bowls and overflowing boxes
of rubber gloves pile up next to the lifts.
The walls are cream, then mist grey,
then taper into a glass tunnel, beyond which
figures blur, converge and spin apart.
The shining floor folds back upon itself,
ramps down, a flume. It sucks in trolleys,
surgeons, scurrying juniors, nurses sauntering
off-duty, name-tags flapping. It ferries patients,
porters, parents, swirls them in and out
of waiting areas. Neon dulls and elongates
the flickering miles between stairwells
and wards, sound-chambers that reverberate
with every hushed conversation. Only the visitors
consult those signs, primary red, yellow
and blue, that point East, West, paediatrics,
toilets, urology, neurology. Nobody knows
the way. The corridor possesses them; subdued,
they drift on the dry air through double-doors
with their bunches of dahlias and paper cups,
anxiously checking crumpled leaflets.
What are the visiting hours? Where
does this end? Will they be delivered at last
to a bedside in a quiet corner where someone
will be sitting up, pale against the pillows,
tidying the oranges on a battered green
metal fold-down table?


Time to Get Ready

Take off that hair;
take off that self-assured air;
take out those teeth;
take that spring from your step and replace it
with a hesitant shuffle.
Take the fresh whites of your eyes
and smudge them yellow.
Take off that sexual appeal:
you won’t be needing that any more.

The respect of others: your self-respect too:
they’ll have to go.
Put on this extra weight,
these jowls, these liver-spots,
this tremor, these restless nights,
this peevish fretful manner,
this uncertainty, this fear,
this fear.

Come on.
You don’t think you’re ready yet,
but it’s time.  Your friends are all going.
You’re more tired than you know.

And it’s too late for another story.
You’ve been telling yourself a story all day,
acting it out too,
a big exciting fantasy, a real humdinger.
Now the story’s over.
Come and lie down.

It’s getting dark.



After the ammonia attack,
my left eye
was burned shut.
But I saw with the other
that even the heart is off-centre.

Once, the cherubim were all eyes.
Under carved angels
the priest brought animal membranes
for rebels dying
from their wounds.

Now my stem-cells are grown
on a tissue of amniotic sac,
like gold-beater’s skin
to my cornea.

I wait for two months
and think of this gift
from a Caesarean,
how we are both smitten
and hallowed.

As the cells multiply,
I see the flicker-shadow
of beech leaves
shaking out
their green samite

and the insight
of the swallow
passing one of his long tail feathers
under the Virgin’s eyelid
to remove grit.



Dear friend you enquire of Catullus and I answer
in my own voice, though the hand you see is another’s.
Since the day I woke to a world of big things small
and the small large, reading, so also writing
have been beyond me. Numbers too, and maps –
the streets of my own town, the rooms of my own villa
confused. At home in my own head I’ve been lost!

That morning after the headache when I looked out
the sea was a blue wall. I forced it down
to be as I’d known it, a horizontal plane.
“Dyslexic,” they said.  “Innumerate, and with minor
“disorientations. Articulate still, and mobile,
“and with memory unimpaired.” Your poems, my friend,
I still could quote, lightening my darkest hours.

Rufus I’m sure rejoices, and my Lesbia
will shed an idle tear as she feeds her sparrow.
Aurelius will see his chance, and perhaps take it
to slake his hunger. If that is how it must be
I won’t complain, only petition the gods
to let me read again, and in return
accept new tributes I will make to them.

Meanwhile I read the world – the wide white wings
that are sails not birds on the blue; the face of the fox,
his ears pointing, watching across a field;
the evening sky when swallows swoop their last
and the bats take over; the dark and silent glide
of a tawny owl and the howl of feral dogs;
carp in the millpond; a cat high-stepping through fern.

The wise white togas say I will soon be cured.
Today I walked from the Clivus Victoriae
up the Palatine, then home by the Via Nova.

The brain-fog clears and words reveal themselves
with their secret secrets. They tell me I have a future.
So Lesbia should look for me soon in her courtyard,
and for herself in poems as yet but shadows.