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Medical Humanities

Editor's Comments on "From Oceans Away"

In “From Oceans Away” author Stephanie Zuo paints a picture of her patients braving public transportation in icy weather to come to clinic. The shifting imagery of snowstorms and oceans creates a sense of lilting movement for the reader, apropos to a poem about travel. But it isn’t only the patients who travel to clinic – in the penultimate stanza the speaker herself says, “I get closer.”


In medicine we often talk about meeting patients where they are, but we don’t talk about the psychic work this requires of us. I’m not referring to empathy – this isn’t imagining someone else’s journey so much as it is about walking a part of the journey with them. Indeed, the Latin root of the word “compassion” is “com passare,” which means “to walk with.” Through this poem Zuo’s speaker arrives to the same station as her “heavily pregnant patients.” It is here that she can do the work of seeing and caring for them.


This poem’s strength is both its message and the imagery used to convey it. Zuo deftly paints the scene for us literally (“The chatter of the radio declares / 8 to 10 inches of wet snow to shiver against”) and metaphorically (“I am battered, squinting through a telescope lens”). Her poetic voice recreates that snowy afternoon at clinic, and then invites the reader into it. The poem’s final line – “A light and weighty heaviness settles into me, / like that of a living being” – summarizes the way in which being fully present can make us feel the most alive. Perhaps, then, not only patients stand to be transformed by their experience at clinic, but also the health care providers, if we are willing.

Irène Mathieu

Read "From Oceans Away"