Analysis of Tolu Oloruntoba’s Poem “Medical Séances,” by Mike Wabo

Analysis of Tolu Oloruntoba’s Poem “Medical Séances,” by Mike Wabo

Since the earliest organizations of civilization, one of the most prestigious and respectable roles an individual could assume in society was the healer or in modern terms, the doctor. Worldwide, the usual
pathway to assume that notable position involves something like medical school, residency, etc. Tolu Oloruntoba’s poem “Medical Séances” directly opposes the standard prerequisites needed to become
a physician and apologizes to his father for dropping out of medical training. Metaphorically, he widens the definition of what it means to become a doctor and rectifies it to a version that serves his purpose.
The goal of the poem is to communicate to his father that he built his own path and became a surgeon of words through poetry. Oloruntoba first achieves that with elaborate metaphors, painting medical school
in an unflattering light in the first and second stanzas. After, he plays with medical language and presents some of the poetic nature of the names of clinical conditions to show the relatability between poets and doctors. Altogether, “Medical Séances” rejects the standard journey of the physician to redefine the requirements needed to become a doctor, to ultimately serve the function of the apology, as Oloruntoba establishes that his vocation as a poet makes him a physician through his own definition since he masters the poetic nature of medical language.

Oloruntoba first symbolically rejects the standard path that someone must take to become a doctor with several conceits, presenting medical school as a cult and a macabre place, to support his apology and the
path he chose. The first persuasive conceit available is that medical school is a cult. That idea is presented at the beginning of the first stanza through the ominous word choice where a parallel between religious and medical landscapes is established.

Acolytes, we filed into a darkened temple,
Luminous film of arcana below the false priest
at the lectern, casting visions overhead.
In the projection we learned to listen (1-4)

The “Acolytes” are compared to residents and the “darkened temple” is meant to resemble a lecture hall. The “arcana” is understood as the secrets of medicine and the “false priest” is the doctor who teaches the
class. There is a dismal atmosphere connotating sectarian behavior. It can be noted that indoctrination and human programming are what are typically associated with those religious groups. A visual setting comparing the lecture to a spiritual séance is illustrated with “the lectern, casting visions overhead,” probably referring to class material presented above the teacher, where the students “learned to listen.” In the second stanza, the conceit connotes that medical school is macabre. A good example would be the layering metaphor of Pa James’ skin. Indeed, the poem mentions the “windbreaker of his skin” and “his fleece of fat” (9). In outdoor sports, it is necessary to layer clothing for appropriate insulation. Here, the outer layer is the skin, and the mid layer is the fat. This metaphor communicates a very cold approach to the body by comparing it to the mundane superposition of layers. Then, the poem presents the concept of “morbid anatomy” (11) before introducing the “gleeful residents brandishing sternal saws like breadknives.” (11) The fundamentally opposite nature of the morbidity and the gleefulness is evocative of the desensitization of the medical students. It has gone to the point that “sternal saws,”(11) typically used to cut open a person’s chest, are viewed as “breadknives”(11). The human body is compared to bread. Oloruntoba shows to his father that medical school promotes a loss of empathy in which he did not want to partake. In the poem, there are a few more elaborate metaphors serving the purpose of discrediting
medical school, but the previous two are the most vibrant. They serve as the apology, as they show his father of how horrible the experience was. Here, the alternative road to finally becoming his own kind of doctor is not explicit, but it serves the purpose of shattering the formal path in a persuasive and eloquent manner necessary for an apology.

Afterward, a deep emphasis on the food language of medicine is conspicuous as Oloruntoba presents the idea that if medical language is poetic then by mastering poetry, he becomes a type of doctor in which
his dad can be proud of. His mastery of the medical dialect is best shown with the use of the food language in the fourth stanza: “bread-andbutter pericardiums, café au lait skin, poma facies / with nutmeg liver on a cribriform plate-” (22-23). The “pericardiums” are tissues around the heart which when unhealthy are called “bread-and-butter.” “Café au lait skin” is a condition where spots of darker complexion can be found on an individual’s body. “Nutmeg liver” refers to the mottled appearance of the liver as a result of venous congestion. Here, a clear link between the savant physician and the skillful poet is shown. The experts who chose all the food-like language to name clinical conditions used wordplay, meaning that there is an underlying mastery of words needed to become a surgeon. Poetry is characterized as language charged to the utmost possible degree, and that definition can be applied to the choice of the names of the diseases. “Café au lait skin” is evocative and graphic. Explaining it to a patient or to a peer becomes trouble-free. It promotes how language is used and compacted in an effective manner in the medical field. Now that the poetic nature of the language spoken in a hospital is apparent, how does it relate to the apology? In the fourth stanza, the poem finishes with the line “you might have liked the meal I made you” (24). Oloruntoba is so knowledgeable that he serves and highlights the poetic language of medicine to his father, therefore explaining that medical school and poetry are inextricable. He is not saying that a poet can be a surgeon, he is simply stating that he adapted
his medical knowledge in a way he wishes his father would be proud of. He lays his medical background to show that he tried to become the typical doctor but that was not for him. Instead, he used his experience to become a surgeon of words. It highlights the fact that the alternate path he chose is not so different and is as valuable as undergoing medical school.

Through the several elaborate metaphors painting a dark light on the traditional path of a doctor accompanied by Oloruntoba’s proof of mastery of medical language, he demonstrates that he has created his own kind of doctor and presents that idea to his father. He shows that the common path of medical school and residency is not for him by comparing the formation with a cult and by highlighting its macabre components. That is needed to later explain how the path that he carved for himself is more suitable to his wishes. Indeed, he shows the underlying poetic nature of disease names with adept food metaphors used in the medical field. By demonstrating the poetic component of medicine, he shows that by mastering poetry he creates his own category of doctor, the surgeon of words. The apology proves to his father that he made use of the teachings he received at school but had to use them in a manner that suited him.

Work Cited

Dickinson, Adam and Oloruntoba, Tolu. “Medical Séances.” Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2022, Anansi, Canada, 2022.

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