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Tools of the Trade 

March 2018

What is a tool every new physician needs? In Scotland, they are thinking it is a book of poetry. Medical students there receive a book of poetry intended to help them recharge and be mindful of the human aspect of their vocation.

An article in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) alerted me to this program where the graduating medical students in Scotland receive a free copy of a poetry book titled Tools of the Trade: Poems for New Doctors. The pocket-size book is less than 00 pages and designed to be carried while on duty. Poems are grouped into five themes: looking after yourself, looking after others, beginnings, being with illness, and endings. The anthology was put together by the Scottish Poetry Library.

The gift is offered simply as a compassionate friend. As editors Dr Lesley Morrison and Dr John Gillies write in their introduction: "To care and be compassionate to others, we first need to be compassionate, to look after, to be kind to ourselves."

Some of the poets are or were doctors themselves, and all the poems speak in some way to the experience of being a junior doctor. Different poems will suit different situations, and readers.

"I remind students in their first week that neglect [of patients] is a real consequence of disregarding the human aspect of what we do," says David Crossman, dean of the medical school at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, and chief scientist for Scotland. "These poems just bring you back and help you understand who you are talking to."

The article started me thinking about the kinds of poems I might include in anthologies for other trades and professions. Every job has its tools. Poetry is usually not one of them. An artist has tools of the trade. The backyard gardener has tools. I wonder what poems we would give them to help in their work?

Poets also have their tools. In George Starbuck's poem, "Working Habits" (from The Works: Poems Selected from Five Decades.) he looks at writers using alcoholic beverages to encourage the muses.

But, for our writing prompt for March we are going to write a poem intended for someone in a particular job. That might your own profession or one that you once aspired to, or something you know very little about but find interesting. It should be a poem that would help them in their work. Maybe it helps them deal with the problems that come with the job, or helps inspire them, or reminds them why they chose to do what they do.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


Curiosity must be part of the job.
What does gold-flake feel like
in a pan of river silt and gravel, gold
finding its gravity in shiver-swirl
snowmelt water rushing gouging
its way down canyon.
And that ancient golden riverbed
exposed on a ridge above town –
don't you need to find it,
stumble over cobbles that have
traveled geologic ages, still moving
toward their angle of repose?
The absolute dark inside an adit,
pull of a void hacked into bedrock
following a precious vein
to the heart of mountain. What's
down there? How did those old-time
miners feel, cramped
in tunnels so far from daylight?
Can you survive curiosity
that's a most important part of the job?

Taylor Graham


He moved towards the tomb
as ambient light
filtered through
historic panes
touching the gravity of the stone,
recalling his muse ,
alone, alone.

He slowly stooped to place
the treasured chisel
beside the tomb
where the Master lay
and knelt to pray
for strength in the hands
that would shape the stone.
Return of the muse,
alone ,alone.

Jackie Darnbrough


High in a fir, a dead limb—
On the next breath of wind,

call it chance
this branch breaks . . .

If one of the logging crew gets clubbed,
it's only fifty-fifty they get up.

A hard hat can't ward off
heavy artillery.

If the top of a tree leans like a drunk,
I'm not too proud to circle around.

The hammer is cocked.
Fate pulls the trigger.

Mark Thalman


Sticks are better for some things than for others.
For simply poking things, like ashes, to see if they still glow,
They're fine.
But for pointing out a faint star in the night sky,
Not so good.

That's the nature of all tools, including words.
Especially the ones I own.
They are too blunt to express emotion.
I have only the sounds our ancestors used
To tell each other where the gazelle's carcass could be found,

The one the hyenas had abandoned,
That still had a few unbroken bones with marrow to be sucked;
Rudimentary grunts that signified where the waterhole was that the lions had just left.
Scats that warned how close to sit to feel the warmth of the fire
Without smelling the singe of burning hair.

With these crude tools, I shape my heart
And display my dreams,
When their main purpose is to distinguish
The wolf pup that whimpers to be petted,
From the one that wants to bite.

Ron Yazinski


There are ever so many buzz words
Those we attribute to plastic people
As they go about their daily work
A technician giving electric shocks
To test conduction of nerve impulses
'It won't be long now'
As a nurse escorts her young patient
Into a cold cleaning shower,
'Prepare yourself for only a little prick'
As someone has a large gauge needle
Pointed at your arm's anti cubital fosse
The other side of an elbow
To insert a long time intra catheter,
To pour a pint of blood into a fading person,
Or one for drawing routine blood work
Maybe injecting yourself if you are an addict.
Pediatricians are big with stock phrases
To distract the child from a single stitch
Repeat quickly "cock a doddle do
Or coccurrie coo will also do,
But most of all the wide eyed expression
To keep all mother's happy,
"My, what a baby,"
And away from death and dying,
We all should have as lovers
A soap bubble coming from our lips
The iridescence of a rainbow
It won't be long now
About our future.

Edward Halperin


I rolled the little dog upon her back,
Her limp, sedated body spread to bare
Its vulnerable abdomen— nipples
Never to be suckled—while her head
Flopped over to one side, as though a truck
Had slammed her hard against a garbage can.
Upon the vet's behest, I shone the light
And put the shiny scalpel to her flesh,
And sliced her down the middle as he watched
His new assistant learn to cut the tubes
And then remove the ovaries. The scene
Was etched upon my mind against my will;
And my revulsion drew back from each stitch
That hid Man's treachery from Man's best friend—
Or so Man thought. The whole world screamed at me
That I should get a job and earn my keep;
For high school was behind me at long last.
My father's finger pointed at the door—
So here I was, among the working class.

The whole thing troubled me. It seemed that I
Was violated somehow, like that dog,
In being ripped untimely from the womb
Of literature and music, and cast out
Upon the streets of life where such as he,
This false friend of the animals, snipped tubes,
While boys like me were shipped to Vietnam—
Another place of gelding and betrayal.

I washed the kennels with a mop and hose,
And fed the cats and dogs, and picked up trash
About the parking lot. The whole thing stank.
I couldn't wait until I turned eighteen,
So I could move to some romantic town
And start to live a life of Poetry.
I hardly knew myself at all. Three days
Did not go by before I spoke my mind,
And told the doctor that this kind of work
Was not for me; I couldn't spay a dog—
It seemed against the nature of the world.
I half expected he would yell at me;
Instead he looked me sternly in the eye,
And not without an envious regard.

"You know," he said, "although you are too young
To realize what it means, not everyone
Can say what you have said; can stand and face
The world because of what he thinks is right.
Of course, I don't agree with you, and yet
There are not many people I have known
Whom I respect—and you are one of them."

He shook my hand; I stammered disavowals.
"Goodbye," he said sincerely, "and good luck."

Perplexed and grim, I stood awhile outside
And waited for my father to come by
And pick me up on his way home from work.
I dreaded telling him; and when I did,
He drove along in silent thought, and seemed
To know me better than I knew myself.

Lee Evans


When the phone rings and they say hello,
say their name.
People love to hear someone
say their name.

Say that name, sing that name,
over and over
during the pitch,
that's a rule,
and this is a rule:
Remember in your mind
you're always talking to Stockton,
and in Stockton you're a surprise.
Be a pleasant surprise.
Let them know in Stockton
you've got what they want.
And when they want it,
let them have it,
make it easy – cash, check, card,
any card. Free delivery
and handling, to be paid for
with any currency on earth.
It's no secret that
the secret of the cold call
is knowing how to talk to yourself.
There's no product they won't buy
if you tell the story right. No product.
There's no product.
But don't kid yourself.
It's hard breaking in.
It's going to be a while.
You're going to have days.
There'll be days.
Hang-ups, screamers,
days you get nothing
but a world of hurt.
But it turns around.
We all have days.
Now you know.
Here's the list.
All cold calls,
no comebacks, no repeats.
Here's your phone.
It's callouts only.
If by any chance it rings,
don't answer.

Peter Meyer


A vise with snapping-turtle jaws sits
on the end, rip and cross-cut saws,
gleaming shark's teeth primed to bite
by a tri-cornered file, hang behind
while an adz, from his youth building
ships for The Great War, leans in a corner.

Hammers lie ready to pound, pound, pound
on nails, sixteen-penny to brads, in boxes
beneath a window's light; a drill, its
round head, swiveling maw, and point
with bits of various sizes on the end beside
a coping saw, Degas dancer with delicate blades.

Levels, winking their Cheshire-cat eyes,
a hole-punch, hack-saw, nail set, wood putty,
files, chisels, screw drivers, cans of stain,
a two-handed wood carving knife, and
quires of sand paper of different grits
lie on a second bench beside saw-horses.

And wood——pine, ash, oak, dark walnut
cut from trees on an Ozark mountain——the rich
smell of sawdust covering the dirt floor where
he built tables and cedar chests for sons and
daughters, but for me bookcases for paperbacks,
those Icarus wings on which I escaped.

Dad was a carpenter, building houses without
nail gun, skill saw, or electric sander,
earning a dollar-a-day after the depression,
retiring to his shop, hands alive only with tools,
demanding deference from the children who
tumbled from the house built with his own hands.

Robert Miller


Shovel, bucket, dustpan, hoe, trowel
The tools of a farmer, gardener, and landscaper
But also that of the archaeologist
Before Indiana Jones there was Charlie Brown
Who asked us to look differently upon Pig Pen's dust
- as the soil from a great past civilization
I think you had me then – or perhaps
It was that first school trip to a certain museum
Archaeology- a job that requires much and gives little
- If what one seeks is steady employment and a grand salary
A dirty labor of love with little swashbuckling and lots of study
To research, propose, fund, dig, retrieve, preserve, analyze, archive
To care deeply for who and what was once and why
We are as tied to the past as we are to the future
You provide time travel to that past
And such is my preference
After all the future (or most of it) really isn't ours is it?
I care not for the last frontier
But peel back the layers of time and earth and I am there
I'll trade you my ticket to the moon for some Mesozoic mud
Though you too are thinking outside our blue dot
Space- both planetary and orbit contain artifacts
Astronaut refuse and abandoned and crashed spacecraft
Engineers, chemists and biologists, make room
The future protectors of the lunar landscape versus
Souvenir seeking space tourists and their trampling feet
Praise for the archaeologist who free the soil and sea of her secrets
True archaeology is all around us
and sites can be as young as minutes old
It is your intimacy with the distant past I envy
You who bring forth both the minutiae and magnificent
Untouched for millennia until you arrive
With new technology and dusty old brushes and sieves
What does it feel like to touch something so old?
To first lay eyes upon it and wonder who or what was there last
Oh, that fingertips could pull forth history
Like a medium tapping into the spirit world
Or future would-be couples downloading personal data
Brain chip to brain chip before moving past the appetizer course
If stories could be told through simple touch
Flooding through us like a rush of memories
Pouring forth across time unknown and years uncountable
You give voice where there is silence
Through shards, seeds, sediment
Objects, drawings, cloth, bone
Paper, pollen, plants, and peat
That which remains is what you seek
So that you may tell their stories- our story
And we may learn who we once were
Where, and when, and how we lived
A prehistoric and historic chronicler
Preservationist, behavior theorist
Knowledge seeker and finder-keeper of human culture
I sit at my desk and read your findings
And think how cool is this - this the culmination of painstaking work
Knowing- It's not all dinosaurs, mummies and treasure- but what job is?
I so I thank you and ask that you grant me a little romanticizing
And forgive me for saying- I just really dig what you do

Terri J. Guttilla