Perhaps the best way to describe what Gunmetal Blue is, is to describe for you what it is not. Poet, critic and family physician Shane Neilson has not written a pat memoir making pat connections between medicine and literature. Nor has he written a densely academic treatise about the role poetry plays in healing. He hasn’t written a sensationalized tell-all about his patients and how their suffering informs his poems. He hasn’t written a feel-good story about a depressed young man who overcomes adversity.
What he has written is a raw-boned, devastating, unflinching, uncomfortable and fiercely honest portrait of his life as a doctor and a poet. Neilson describes these duo careers (it’s unfair to call them hybrid careers, since he works so hard at them both) without a hint of sentimentality or pretension. Medicine is a matter of life and death, but for Neilson, so too is poetry. He weaves its importance into the very fabric of his life, treating it not as a pleasant adjunct to his existence but as a core component of it. Gunmetal Blue is about a man finding his voice both as a physician and as a scribe. It is cold-eyed and elliptical. This is a memoir as memoir should be.
It begins with Neilson’s suicide attempt not long after he has finished medical school. He has already started the unrelenting grind of working in a Halifax emergency room by day and writing poetry at night. He also has, if that were not enough, a wife and young daughter vying for his attention. Through his nascent writing, Neilson attempts to exorcise a past coloured by an abusive and alcoholic father. (You can find several of these poems in his very good 2009 collection Meniscus.) His description of this burgeoning and concomitant depression is rife with objective distance, and yet it is no less emotional for it. It culminates with Neilson writing a note to his family and then jumping off the third-storey roof of his house.
He survives, obviously, but awakens in the hospital severely injured and deemed a further threat to himself. During his long recovery in the psychiatric ward of Halifax’s QEII Health Sciences Centre, Neilson finds himself now on the receiving end of medical science – its care and its indignities – and once again turns to poetry for solace. He finds kinship in the work of fellow Maritimers Milton Acorn and Alden Nowlan, two poets who were not unfamiliar, respectively, with mental and physical illness. Indeed, Neilson begins to ask what role madness itself might play in the creation of art:
Life on the ward may be like life anywhere, but there is one special question here for poets. Does madness generate creativity? Is madness creativity’s sponsor? Or is the truth rather that madness ruins the expression, that it is author of the experience but has no authorship of the poem? Is Wordsworth’s emotion recollected in tranquility actually spiked lunatic punch? I stared at the ceiling for hours, sedated, and decided that I couldn’t tell.
Throughout Gunmetal Blue, Neilson questions these impulses, what he aptly describes as the “dog whistle of poetry.” He says that, as a doctor advising patients about their health, he often feels like a leader of horses to water. But he also knows that it’s the same for poetry, its abilities to re-sensitize us to being alive, to provide small moments of illumination, to give us some semblance of control over our existence. And yet poetry is not something that most people are naturally inclined towards.
Fast forward several years and Neilson is now a family doctor working in rural Ontario. He gives us a window into his relationships with patients, relationships that are at once very intimate and very clinical. Much of the narrative describes Neilson imparting advice onto his “flock” and then watching the consequences when it is dully ignored. One story is especially devastating. A man has had a minor stroke and yet will not take the medicine that Neilson has prescribed because he doesn’t like its unpleasant side effects. Neilson strenuously advises the man to reconsider, but he won’t. And so, the inevitable eventually happens:
Jimmy, silently singing that swan song of denial, had a much bigger stroke, and became hemiplegic and aphasic. I visited him in hospital, and he expressed surprise that I would want to see him, since he “didn’t listen to me.” I sat beside him as he stuttered and stopped, only partially coherent. But I got one message clearly: that now he was very, very sorry. And when he expressed this, it was with an awareness of how much he had lost, and how difficult the future would be.
So where does poetry fit into all this? For Neilson, the answer does not lie in the glib offerings that medical journals (some of which publish poetry) make to the craft; and I suspect he’d also have no truck with the endless parade of turgid, jargon-laden, crypto-political academic writing that gets produced on Medicine and Literature. For Neilson, the answer is more akin to poetry itself – what he labels a “benign optimism.” Using Nowlan’s brilliant piece “The Boil” (“now/ at last/ master/ rather than/ servant/ of the pain”) he makes this plea for poetry’s purpose within a medical context:
I want to show you the spirit of what I mean when I wax rhapsodic about what poetry can do. Instead of providing a happy-news message that cure is forthcoming, that despite the odds the patient will overcome, poetry can provide a more benign optimism: that the patient can understand her illness for what it is, and thereby steal from it its mastery. One can exchange servitude, if not for dominance (the boil, though pierced, may form again), then at least for a measure of control.
This failure of a “happy-news message” may sum up Gunmetal Blue itself, but what it offers instead is far richer, far deeper, far more honest.
Sadly (but not surprisingly), the book has thus far been excluded from this year’s major nonfiction prize lists. But somehow I doubt Shane Neilson cares. I suspect he’s content with what he has given us. Gunmetal Blue is a memoir that does what a good doctor does, what good poetry does. It offers us, through assuredness and understated honesty, a chance to make ourselves better. If only we’d listen.