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Editor's Commentary on Fearn Sanatorium

 , February 24, 2019

A sanatorium is a space of convalescence from disease, often chronic in nature. Christopher Magoon’s poem “Fearn Sanatorium, Shanghai, 1932” begs the question of whether the titular sanatorium is operated by Dr. Anne Walter Fearn, who is quoted in the poem’s epigraph, or whether she is a patient in it.


The poem’s restless nature is its most significant feature. The speaker shifts from “China” to “Mississippi,” searching for herself in “The Good Earth,” “palaces and brothels,” and “a castle.” This restlessness is perhaps pathological, as evidenced by its pervasiveness. Only in the final line – “Here, I treat” – does the speaker seem to find solid ground, but the reader is left with the sensation that this solidity is fleeting.


The speaker herself explores the feeling of pathologization, or feeling like an “other” due to her gender: “The heart they gave me / Didn’t fit. / So I gave it to a man and a land.” This mirrors the orientalist language she uses to describe China (“Now I live with dragons on doors / And plum silk robes” and later, “Traveling forward / Dynastically”), which helps to contextualize the poem in time – this is, after all, 1932 – as well to evoke the sense of distance or foreignness that otherizing can provoke.


Fearn Sanatorium, Shanghai, 1932” is a strong poem by many artistic measures, but it is also the story of a healer. As providers, our effectiveness is determined not only by our clinical acumen, but also, maybe more importantly, by the empathy we bring to each encounter. For Dr. Fearn, perhaps a lifetime of searching for belonging, for a space to practice her vocation freely, for a place to feel comfortable in the company others, helped to make her an extraordinary physician. Magoon’s poem is a brilliant reminder that our personal struggles inevitably become part of our professional identities, sometimes in beautiful ways.

Irène Mathieu