Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Surgeons must be very careful

Maybe I'm particularly interested in it because I've been reading a lot of fiction lately that involves medical drama, or maybe I've just watched too many television episodes, but I can't help but find this Dickinson poem to be highly ironic:

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit-- Life!
(F 156)

This poem is an excellent example of Dickinson's earlier work and its signature paradox written with great irony. The first two lines seem rather ridiculous, for what surgeon would take up the knife without great care? Certainly the Hippocratic Oath has been around for thousands of years, and no good surgeon would take up the delicate and potential lethal tools of the trade without caution. It's a typical Dickinson ploy-- lull the reader into a sense of something common or make the reader feel superior, wondering why on earth a poet or her speaker would bother with such an obvious caution.

Dickinson's strike comes in the last two lines, though. Too quick of a reading could cause one to miss the vital word "culprit" in the fourth line, which would render the second half of the poem as seemingly pointless as the first line-- for of course life exists underneath the incisions. Dickinson's poetry demands careful readings, and skipping that single word in line four completely derails any paradox or irony.

What the poet is pointing out, in her own witty way, is the paradox of the relationship between injury and healing, between disease and restoration. There are at least two paradoxes in the final lines, possibly more: the incision the surgeon makes will cause minor injury but is necessary to enable a true restoration of life; and while the surgeon's attentions might help the body to eventually recover, the body has been restores only to face yet another injury or disease yet again. The life of a virus can cause the death of a person, and the life of one person can plot the downfall and death of another.

The poem seems so innocuous at first glance, but peeling back layers of meaning only compounds the list of paradoxes. All is never as it seems in Dickinson's poetry.

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