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The Art of Restraint

 , February 09, 2016

Phoebe Prioleau from Icahn School of Medicine offers two fascinating pieces, one poem, one short prose which both exercise an element of craft I see rarely among our submissions, and that is the touch of artistic restraint. In her poem, “New York Summer,” the reader is given sparse detail—a few grains of sand—that paint a sleepy scene of a father carrying his daughter up the subway stairs after a baseball game. And yet, his humble ascent suggests the celestial; heaven yawns open from the child’s sherbet-stained point of view.  

In the prose piece, “The Poet,” Prioleau’s narrator is an enigma, quite like the psychiatric inpatient featured as the main character. Prioleau generates a tone and a mood both quite obscure—I cannot tell if the narrator has a diagnostic aim toward the patient or an empathic one. Possibly she aims at neither and instead this piece means to get at the futility of trying to know another human being, patient or otherwise.

The scene is set with observations of an empty inpatient’s room. The very setting evokes question after question. What do our rooms tell us about ourselves and others, and when we enter the room of a stranger, where we may or may not be welcome, how dare we infer the significance the place may have for those who inhabit it? Whether it be prison, paradise or home, the title belongs to he or she who dwells within. The narrator pries at this question indirectly as though looking sidelong through a door cracked open. In the end, the reader cannot help but crave to see the answer that must be waiting in that spare room in which we sense we are intruders.

“The Poet” is about a poet and a patient and yet there is no poetry read or shared between the narrator and her subject. Poetry, here, is object, not dialogue. It rests dormant like an art book on a bed stand, a closed book of sonnets in one’s sweaty palm. Which is, perhaps, an excellent commentary all its own on bearing witness to psychiatric illness in the current climate of medical training. Patients as objects, rarely elevated to dialogue.

Rachel Hammer