The Poetry Of An X-Ray

Rafael Campo, a doctor and a poet, turns his experiences in the operating room into poetry.

The following is an excerpt from Comfort Measures Only by Rafael Campo.

The Mental Status Exam

by Rafael Campo

What is the color of the mind? Beneath
The cranium it’s pinkish grey, with flecks
Of white mixed in. What is the mind’s motif?
Depends on what you mean: it’s either sex
Or it’s a box, release or pessimism.
Remember these three things: ball, sorrow, red.
Count backwards, from one-hundred down by sevens.
What is the color of the mind? It’s said
That love can conquer all—interpret, please.
And who’s the President? What year is it?
The mind is timeless, dizzy, unscrupulous;
The mind is sometimes only dimly lit.
Just two more silly questions: Can you sing
For us? Do you remember those three things?

Related Segment

Metaphors, Medicine, And The Poetry Of Science

Incidental Finding

by Rafael Campo

The sun through green leaf’s flesh recalls
the X-ray: inner structures seen
but imprecisely, branching veins
and something like planned avenues
all leading to the source of what
we never cease to seek. Too few,
too momentarily alight,
these chance encounters with the truth.
The X-ray that permitted me
to see both into you and through
(the glowing silhouette of your
soft tissues like the swaddling soul)
still diagnoses it: “a mass,”
the radiologist in me
could not help noting first—and then,
your failing heart, terribly large.


by Rafael Campo

The body quantified: at autopsy,
it’s always on its back, looks up at me

lips puckered tight, as if it would refuse
one last kiss. How much the liver weighs,

how heavy is the heart, how large the brain.
The body, hungerless, all that remains,

reminds us we are objects absent souls.
I try to animate them, nights alone,

when human company seems necessary,
the lab surrounding us imaginary

as Frankenstein’s—any thing’s possible.
I talk to this one like she’s only ill

and might pull through, remembering my friend
who died of stomach cancer, face so drawn

and bloodless she was almost only breath.
I was among those thankful for my health

who’d visit, but not have to stay. We’d tell
her stories while she winced in pain; meanwhile,

the clock kept warning us no time was left.
How mute the opened thorax, how bereft

the empty bowl of pelvis, how I wish
our fables, in the end, were more than this.

Copyright © 2018 by Rafael Campo. “The Mental Status Exam” and “Incidental Finding,” excerpted from Comfort Measures Only. Copyright © 2018 by Rafael Campo. Published by Duke University Press Books.

Meet the Writer

About Rafael Campo

Rafael Campo is an associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and a physician in the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He’s also editor of the Poetry and Medicine section of the Journal of the American Medical Association. He’s based in Boston, Massachusetts.

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