Here are some reviews of my first book of poetry, How JFK Killed My Father.
Richard Berlin’s How JFK Killed My Father is an event to celebrate. These are passionate poems, poems in which something human happens: patients, living and dead, teach physicians the fine art of caring; a psychiatrist who has taken ‘medicine as a lifelong lover’ honors the ‘men and women on fire’ who ‘devoured’ his words. Richly crafted, replete with tenderness, Berlin’s poems show us that although words can sometimes wound, more often, particularly in his capable hands, they can heal. In this book, Berlin walks beside William Carlos Williams; among the poetry collections in the growing medical humanities canon, this one stands out…
–Cortney Davis, author of Details of Flesh and I Knew a Woman
The rest of the above review can be found at the NYC School of Medicine’s site.
Richard Berlin takes us beyond Marcus Welby, MD and Chicago Hope to the pulse of a doctor’s conscience. Berlin’s knowledge of the human body informs the precision and beauty of his chilling and tender poems. Scalpel transforms pen, suture shapes stanza in How JFK Killed My Father, an honest and profound account of a lifelong obsession with medicine and healing.
–Denise Duhamel, author of Queen for a Day
Clear, honest, direct, and – what doctors usually can’t afford to be – vulnerable, Richard Berlin’s poems make me feel good about the health of American medicine and poetry.”
–Charles Harper Webb, author of Tulip Farms and Leper Colonies and Stand Up Poetry: An Expanded Anthology
The following review was published in The Berkshire Eagle’s Berkshire Week, and can be found online.
The Berkshire Eagle, Berkshire’s Week, October 9, 2003, p.14
by Sonia Pilcer
Doctors. Those with MD on their license plates. Dr. So and So affixed to their name gets a choice restaurant table. We resent them. We revere them. We share confidences with them. We fear them. We fantasize about them.
Richard Berlin is a medical doctor who writes poetry. Or is he a poet who practices medicine? He has been a psychiatrist, practicing in the Berkshires, most of his adult life. When he joined a writing workshop several years ago, the writing of poetry came suddenly, fast and furiously.
That was before I thought to write
more than a patient’s history in a chart,
before I knew what lets us breathe easier,
before their stories engraved me like stone.
He has been writing since. Many of his poems have appeared in medical journals like Psychiatric Times and Medicine & Behavior, in addition to being regularly featured in the Berkshire Medical Journal.
In 2002, his manuscript “How JFK Killed My Father” won the prestigious Pearl Poetry Prize. Berlin donated the $1,000 he received to establish a creative writing award for medical students at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he is an associate professor of psychiatry. Now Pearl Editions has published “How JFK Killed My Father” as a handsome paperback.
The book begins with an epigraph from fellow poet/doctor William Carlos Williams. “As a writer I have never felt that medicine interfered with me but rather it was my very food and drink, the very thing which made it possible for me to write. Was I not interested in man? There the thing was, right in front of me. I could touch it, smell it.”
Doctors are modern seers, the ones who have seen the interior of the body, who know “the shapes inside: smooth chestnut, soft orange, stone in a muddy field,” writes Richard Berlin. They are our augurs, acquainted with the physiology of disease and death, diviners of the past and future. They often play a role as our Cassandras, carriers of the bad news, the evil message. Oh, if we knew what they know! But could we live with that dark knowledge of our mortality?
This is what strikes me as I read with deep, thoughtful pleasure this intriguing collection of poetry. It’s like being initiated into a landscape where I’ve just been a gawking bystander, even when it’s been my own body. Berlin has been there and he has much to tell the reader. His poetry is vivid, yet the style is highly accessible. He describes what he has seen of life and death.
How we die without appetite
and the way we live with hungers
that consume our hearts
like another kind of dying.
He views his work not unlike his father’s in a leather shop, where the cutters “trace a rim of brass, grinding blade through calfskin, steady as a scalpel.” The metaphor fits his work as a doctor and as a poet. Often he wields that double-edged sword. The language of his poetry is like that scalpel, cutting excess, the polite and politic, the obligatory, to offer us an honest, unsentimental, but compassionate vision of the human condition.
Berlin’s father manufactured sweatbands for hats. Who even knew hats had sweatbands? But this fact explains the title poem of the collection, “How JFK Killed My Father.” It begins, “It was a time when men wore fedoras.” He writes of Truman’s Homburg, Ike’s “bald head steamed in fur felt,” and Stevenson’s Stetson. “But when thick-haired Kennedy rode top down and bare-headed, men all over America took off their hats”.
Hat factories closed quiet as prayer books,
and loss lingered in my father’s guts
like unswept garbage after a big parade.
The poem concludes with his father’s death. “The old men murmur in the graveyard, Kennedy did it to him, fedoras held close to their leathered hearts.”
Berlin’s knowledge extends beyond the merely physical as he’s primarily a doctor of the psyche. A psychiatrist. Shrink in the lingo. In the poem “Tools,” he shares with us secrets of the trade. It feels almost sinful to be allowed into his confidence.
My psychiatrist tools are simple too:
a room with a closed door, a few chairs, pills,
and packets of words I cultivate like, ‘That hurts’ or ‘Yes, I see’
words that smooth a surface or dig up something dormant
like last year’s seeds stirred from below
whispering green shoots before the first hope of warmth.
In “What a Psychiatrist Remembers,” he confides, “I remember empty men who devoured my words and those too full of themselves. I remember women and men on fire and the frozen who needed me for kindling”
Yet Berlin’s work with his patients often humbles him. “Oh, for a stronger magic,” he writes, “that I could wave my arms and reach deep inside my white coat pocket, the mass vanished, my hand a heaven of diamonds.”
Stephen Dunn’s poetry has exerted a strong influence on Berlin. His final poem is a kind of homage, which takes its title from Dunn’s well-known poem, “What I Love.” Berlin’s poem begins:
I love my long white coat, belted in the back,
deep pockets filled with tourniquet, tuning fork,
reflex hammer and pens.
The poem goes on, “I love a stethoscope draped around my neck casual as a towel at poolside. Yet the tools I love most are my eyes that measure in an instant, how sick, how well.”
In these days of HMOs, when insurance companies make decisions in treatment and our medical records are an open book to government agencies, many people feel alienated from the medical profession. Berlin’s poems are an act of trust, a poignant reminder of the basic relationship from womb to tomb of patient and doctor.
Sonia Pilcer is a poet and novelist. Her latest book is ‘The Holocaust Kid.’