Peter Gabriel’s Mercy Street – an elegy for Anne Sexton

45 Mercy Street

In my dream,
drilling into the marrow
of my entire bone,
my real dream,
I’m walking up and down Beacon Hill
searching for a street sign –
Not there.

I try the Back Bay.
Not there.
Not there.
And yet I know the number.
45 Mercy Street.
I know the stained-glass window
of the foyer,
the three flights of the house
with its parquet floors.
I know the furniture and
mother, grandmother, great-grandmother,
the servants.
I know the cupboard of Spode
the boat of ice, solid silver,
where the butter sits in neat squares
like strange giant’s teeth
on the big mahogany table.
I know it well.
Not there.

Where did you go?
45 Mercy Street,
with great-grandmother
kneeling in her whale-bone corset
and praying gently but fiercely
to the wash basin,
at five A.M.
at noon
dozing in her wiggy rocker,
grandfather taking a nap in the pantry,
grandmother pushing the bell for the downstairs maid,
and Nana rocking Mother with an oversized flower
on her forehead to cover the curl
of when she was good and when she was…
And where she was begat
and in a generation
the third she will beget,
with the stranger’s seed blooming
into the flower called Horrid.

I walk in a yellow dress
and a white pocketbook stuffed with cigarettes,
enough pills, my wallet, my keys,
and being twenty-eight, or is it forty-five?
I walk. I walk.
I hold matches at street signs
for it is dark,
as dark as the leathery dead
and I have lost my green Ford,
my house in the suburbs,
two little kids
sucked up like pollen by the bee in me
and a husband
who has wiped off his eyes
in order not to see my inside out
and I am walking and looking
and this is no dream
just my oily life
where the people are alibis
and the street is unfindable for an
entire lifetime.

Pull the shades down –
I don’t care!
Bolt the door, mercy,
erase the number,
rip down the street sign,
what can it matter,
what can it matter to this cheapskate
who wants to own the past
that went out on a dead ship
and left me only with paper?

Not there.

I open my pocketbook,
as women do,
and fish swim back and forth
between the dollars and the lipstick.
I pick them out,
one by one
and throw them at the street signs,
and shoot my pocketbook
into the Charles River.
Next I pull the dream off
and slam into the cement wall
of the clumsy calendar
I live in,
my life,
and its hauled up

Anne Sexton

Symphysiotomy survivors attend documentary screening

Following a difficult labour, Joan O’Connor gave birth to her first child, a girl, in April 1965. Unbeknown to her at the time, she was one of a relatively small number of women subjected to a high-risk procedure to open the pelvis during childbirth.

Yesterday Ms O’Connor was part of a large audience at the screening of Mothers against the Odds, a new documentary that focuses on the plight of Irish women forced to endure symphysiotomies during the mid to late 20th century.

The film compares the treatment of these women with that of women in Kenyan hospitals today and argues that Kenyan society forces women to submit to the prevailing demands of traditional culture, religion and the perceived superiority of their husbands. “We’ve always felt that you must link the history of the two sides of the world,” film-maker Anne Daly said.

(Times) >

Arts and Health Film Festival


Venue: RUA RED, South Dublin Arts Centre, Tallaght, Dublin 24 (5 minutes walk from hospital)
Tickets: €2.50 per screening or €5 for all 3 screenings
Book: Call – 01 451 5860
Email –
For more information visit

Through The Lens
The special season is aimed at medical professionals, students, service users, artists and filmmakers interested in discussing and challenging perceptions of mental ill health and how the issues are represented within film. Each evening will include refreshments and a screening followed by a panel discussion and Q&A with medical professionals and service users including Professor Desmond O’Neill (Dept of Medical Gerontology, Adelaide and Meath Hospital), Dr Ian Daly (Executive Clinical Director of St. Lomans Mental Health Services) and Paddy McGowan (Irish Advocacy Network)

A Beautiful Mind
Monday 21st November 7pm
A Beautiful Mind is based on the true life story of famed mathematician, John Nash (Russell Crowe) and his lifelong experiences with mental health issues. This Oscar-winning film is a rewarding and thoughtful look at the workings of one man’s mind.
USA, 2001, Ron Howard, 2hrs 15m, 12
Cast: Russell Crowe, Ed Harris, Jennifer Connelly

Lars And The Real Girl
Monday 28th November 7pm
Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is an awkwardly shy young man who finally brings home the girl of his dreams: the only problem is that she’s a custommade sex doll. But Lars’ relationship with her is deep and meaningful rather than physical, and soon his friends and family go along with this unconventional relationship in support of the sweet-natured boy that they have always loved.
USA, 2007, Craig Gillespie,1hr 36min, Cert 12A
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Kelli Garner, Patricia Clarkson

Away From Her
Monday 5th December 7pm
Based on a short story by Alice Munro, writer/director Sarah Polley’s film is a moving story dealing with Alzheimer’s. Grant Anderson (Gordon Pinsent) is emotionally tested when his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) loses nearly all her memories of him. Away From Her looks at how our memories are connected to our emotional understanding of relationships.
Canada, 2006, Sarah Polley,1hr 50m, 12A
Cast: Julie Christie, Michael Murphy and Gordon Pinsent

With kind support from the Meath Foundation and Rua Red Arts Centre.

Seminar on Collaborative Arts and Health in practice by Mark Storor

Director: Mark Storor | Unicorn Theatre | London 2009
Babis Alexiadis & Mark Storor's animation of Opi's story

I am just home from a superb event organised by at which UK artist Mark Storor presented a few examples his work (in partnership with Anna Ledgar, who couldn’t make it) with patients in various healthcare settings.

Check out for more information on their work, particularly For the Best: which tells the stories of children attending the hospital school on the Dialysis Unit of the Evelina Children’s Hospital. See Guardian article here >>>

It was great to see Eilís Hardiman (CEO) and Emma Curtis (medical director) of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board there – boding well for the future of that hospital; and also Mary O’Connor CEO of Children in Hospital Ireland. Dr Curtis was on the panel with Tony Fegan, Director at Rua Red the South Dublin Arts Centre where there will be a workshop with Mark (fluffy, mavarick) tomorrow facilitated by Helium (which I’m hoping to attend).

Mark’s talk (video linked to Waterford Healing Arts Trust) was very insightful – the detail of his projects to date with patients; some of the patients’ stories and experiences of the creative process and their reactions, thoughts, observations etc; the collaborative element of the work, both creatively and administratively. He spoke about how much he has learned himself, including the sense of “never stepping back from what the children are saying”, of being emboldened to carry their stories forward into the world without compromise because of their validity and importance.

Tony Fegan of Tallaght Community Arts, Mark Storor, and Dr Emma Curtis of National Paediatric Hospital (Photo: Martin McGhee)

What stood out particularly was the animated short by babis alexiadis, based on a story by a six year old boy, Opi, who suffers from chronic kidney disease, and directed by Mark. “He loved the feel of tissue paper … the softness … the crackling sound.” It is a beautifully powerful fable of human frailty and love, and a superb animation – the visuals, the sound effects, the music & the voice overs. I hope it becomes available more widely – I for one  think it has more than enough stand-alone potential.

The Human Condition

The ‘Medicine and the Arts’ element of the Human Development & Behavioural Science course (as run by the Department of Public Health & Primary Care) is about helping the medical students develop their understanding of and empathy with patients further. The arts are seen as a way of gaining insights into the human condition (through reading and discussion) and awareness of the needs of others and how you might help in pastoral, social or educational terms.

So, what is the human condition? Well, one thing I know about it is that it is most often “hidden”, kept away from public scrutiny. The truth about “how someone is feeling” is rarely revealed in full. It is difficult to get a good look at. You need to read between the lines and look out for clues. Environments like hospitals, surgeries or clinics often make health care workers slightly more blind to it than “natural” environments like home or the street. Not only will some people try to hide away their condition even more in public buildings, but the senses of the people looking out for their condition will often be dulled by years and layers of routine going on in the same institutionalised environment.

The arts can help explore the human condition & reveal something of what we might be missing when we glance routinely at the next patient while anticipating the next one or the lunch break and the gossip with colleagues who have unnoticeably become our only friends. The arts can make us more alert to what is actually going on around us; can bring us to our senses, as it were.

Check out “Live Diagram” by The League of Imaginary Scientists to see an example of what can go on within, in spite of what without might be telling us:

Extreme medicine

[Published in current issue of the IHCA magazine, Scope]

As if medical students don’t have enough to be getting on with, I inveigled a few of them to join me and a couple of doctor friends to go to a Russian-made film entitled Morphia, screened in the Light House cinema as part of the Dublin Film Festival. We had used the book upon which the film is based as a text in class a few weeks earlier, so the chance to see a screen adaptation was a happy coincidence.

The students are participating in a programme developed by the School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin to give first-year medical students the chance to do a six-week long arts & humanities module alongside all their traditional medical science subjects. For the module, they get to choose from a range of options including creative writing, perception, philosophy, ethics, advocacy and history.

In the literature module, we read two texts or extracts every week with some medical angle or other, hear a brief presentation on each from one of the students and then discuss the portrayals of illness, doctors or patients in the texts. It seems to be going very well and I’m getting the sense that the students are going to benefit from this earlier-than-normal exposure through literature to some key issues in the practice of medicine. There’s quite a bit of reading involved, though, so fair play to the ones from the group who on top of all that chose to come along to the cinema as well.

I had warned them that the Film Festival programme suggested bringing along a sick-back for Morphia. This is an adaption of a rather bleak collection of autobiographical stories by the Russian doctor and writer, Mikhail Bulgakov. Set during World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, the movie tells a story of a just-qualified doctor, Mikhail Alexeivitch Polyakov, who is sent out back-of-beyond to run a small, rural medical facility. While the centre itself is well run and well stocked, the life the young doctor is thrown into is very challenging: adjusting to rural ways of doing things and the people, living up to patients’ and colleagues’ expectations, awkward cases and difficult patients, long hours and no social life.

Polyakov quickly adopts morphine as a way of coping and isn’t long becoming an addict. The movie traces his Train Spotting-like decline from promising young doctor open to the social changes that the revolution promises (“Don’t call me Sir. Call me Doctor, or Alexeivitch Polyakov.”) to a down-and-out criminal casually dismissing all humanity about him in the service of his addiction. This personal story parallels the social disintegration of the times, and the film explores how private weakness can have profound and public impact on those around us. The film’s shocking final scene, set with obvious intent in a crowded cinema, is given additional impact by having the credits roll without the usual soundtrack to help relieve the tension.

To say the style of the film is gritty realism is to understate the case. The graphic nature of the medical scenes, of the doctor’s physical symptoms as he abuses, and of the lives of the people, make US medical dramas seem positively Fisher Price by comparison. “Beyond gratuitous at times,” was how Kerri, one of the medical students I was with, put it.

The Bulgakov original text is a “standard” in reading lists for medical humanities courses. Case after case described so honestly by the Bulgakov character make for great discussion and debate among medical students of many of the issues that will confront them in the future, albeit in a very different country and time. The film blends those cases with the story of morphine addiction to create something very different but still useful in the context of medical education.

Psychiatrist, Aoibhinn Lynch, afterwards told us she felt the early stages of the film in particular were still relevant to today, dealing with issues – both personal and professional – that many newly-qualified doctors still confront when starting out: “moving to a place where you are without the usual social supports; being thrown in at the deep end, as it were; the panic of encountering things that you have only read about in books; the fear that people will think that you are a bad doctor if you don’t know what to do; the difficulties of building new relationships in a small community where the doctor is seen as something of an authority figure.”

Jennifer, a first-year medical student, empathised with the doctor up to a point: “The weight of expectation bearing down on him, and the obvious stress, marginalisation and heartache he was trying to deal with would negatively impact on the best of us, and in any situation like this we must all find a coping mechanism to deal with it.”

“I myself sometimes find the world of medicine to be a daunting one,” Jennifer admits, “with a frightening amount of responsibility, and even at this early stage in my journey towards becoming a doctor I find myself somewhat fearful. Polyakov’s struggle with substance abuse was a slippery slope down which theoretically any of us could fall … but hopefully won’t. Sometimes our own mental health needs to come first.”

Cillian pointed out that “As the film showed, despite common misconceptions, a doctor is like any other person, and can succumb to their demons if the right supports are not in place to help them.” Kerri point to the fact that in a lot of television and film doctors are presented as very moral, clean-living characters, “yet we had a lecture at the start of the year with some fairly shocking statistics on the number of doctors with addiction problems.”

Rather than having particular resonance for a medical student, Daire felt there was more of a universal relevance for any one who can identify their own struggles with those of the young doctor as he progressively turns away from the usual crutches of career, sex, compassion, humanity.

Overall, it was great to be able to see such a superbly made “foreign” film in Dublin and to make practical use of it as food for thought. In the literature module, we’re moving on now to pick up on one of the minor themes of the film: psychiatric treatment. We’re going to use extracts from Sebastian Barry’s novel The Secret Scripture, which in beautiful prose deals with one of the issues that caught Dr Lynch’s attention in particular: “I thought it was interesting and unfortunately typical that the psychiatric hospital where Polyakov was treated was portrayed as the most miserable place – dirty, no privacy, patients subjugated and cowed, literally stripped of their clothes and dignity. This is not an uncommon portrayal of psychiatric treatment in film and the arts – and sadly not one which would encourage anyone to seek treatment”.

Perhaps this next generation of doctors will be better equipped to analyse and do something about such negative portrayals.

Screening of a film based on Bulgakov’s Notes

On Tuesday 23rd of this month at 8.15pm, as part of the Dublin Film Festival there’s a screening at the Light House cinema of Aleskey Balabanov’s take on Bulgakov’s Notes of a Young Doctor. It sounds very gruesome (“Sick-bags at the ready” is how the blurb opens), but if any of you are interested in going, let me know and I’ll book a bunch of tickets so we can go as a group.

See this article for more information >>>