THE UNDERWATER HOSPITAL by JAN STECKELJULIE R. ENSZER reviews
The Underwater Hospital by Jan Steckel
(Zeitgeist Press, Berkeley, CA., 2006)
Poetic and Moral Clarity, Even Underwater
The twelve poems of The Underwater Hospital form a fascinating statement on the experiences of the body and health care in our contemporary society. Jan Steckel is a Harvard- and Yale-trained pediatrician. The Underwater Hospital exposes the limits of the contemporary health care system and the strengths of Jan Steckel as a poet.
Thematically, the poems about medicine and being a doctor hold The Underwater Hospital together. From the first poem, “Dios le bendiga,” which is a dramatic monologue from a patient thanking her doctor for curing her child of syphilis and asking for the cure herself, to the concluding title poem of the book, “The Underwater Hospital,” these poems share the experience of a doctor treating people who are often not only sick, but in a distressed time of life as well. Especially potent to the American imagination at this time is “Charity after the Hurricane,” where Steckel writes,
We paddled these people across the street in a canoe,
one by one.
We carried them up eight flights of stairs
to the parking garage roof.
We’re waiting for helicopters they told us would be here.
ARDS-man just croaked.
My hands are sore for squeezing that bag.
I kept him alive for four days
and now he’s kicked the bucket. . . .
Steckel shines when she is giving voice to her experiences as a physician. One other particularly notable poem in this vein is “Swallowing Flies” where she writes about a patient who dies with the counterpoint of the childhood rhyme, “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly/I don’t know why/she swallowed a fly.” Its horror as a poem is accomplished through the accumulation of medical knowledge with the familiar rhyme. It may be the best poem of the collection.
Steckel is not limited to her experience as a physician, however. She writes of current and former lovers, verse I’ll leave for you to read, and of “The Maiden Aunts” in Eastern Europe who dispense the good advice, “Don’t waste your life cooking, honey,/it’s all over in ten minutes” and “you’re one of the higher people.” She explains,
They own the lumber mills
that make the paper that makes books.
Though you live in poverty here,
you are part of a civilization.
Those aunts also told Steckel to write always. We can all be thankful for that.
This book is an example of what I find to be the best in the chapbook world. The Underwater Hospital begins with well-crafted poems from a poet early in her career. The poems have been selected to show some breadth of her talent, but they all work together tightly and thematically. Zeitgeist Press adds fine paper and printing and the design work that makes the book a unified whole. The outcome is a beautiful chapbook, to read repeatedly in one sitting and to return to in the future.
Julie R. Enszer is a writer and lesbian activist living in Maryland. She has previously been published in Iris: A Journal About Women, Room of One’s Own, Long Shot, the Web Del Sol Review, and the Jewish Women’s Literary Annual. You can learn more about her work at www.JulieREnszer.com.