The heart attack

Verbal transcription 6am.

The wife:

About an hour ago. He woke up and it was as if a knife was sticking in his side. I tried the old reliable, I gave him a good drink of whisky but this time it did no good. I thought it might be his heart so I … Yes. In between his pains he was trying to get dressed. He could hardly stand up but through it all he was trying to get himself ready to go to work. Can you imagine that?

Rags! Leave the man alone. The minute you’re good to him he … Look at him sitting up and begging! Rags! Come here! Do you want to look out of the window? Oh, yes. That’s his favorite amusement – like the rest of the family. And we’re not willing just to look out. We have to lean out as if we were living on Third Avenue.

Two dogs killed our old cat last week. He was thirteen years old. That’s unusual for a cat, I think. We never let him come upstairs. You know he was stiff and funny looking. But we fed him and let him sleep in the cellar. He was deaf and I suppose he couldn’t fight for himself and so they killed him.

Yes. We have quite a menagerie. Have you seen our blue-jay? He had a broken wing. We’ve had him two years now. He whistles and answers us when we call him. He doesn’t look so good but he likes it here. We let him out of the cage sometimes with the window open. He goes to the sill and looks out. Then he turns and runs for his cage as if he was scared. Sometimes he sits on the little dog’s head and they are great friends. If he went out I’m afraid he wouldn’t understand and they would kill him too.

And a canary. Yes. You know I was afraid it was his heart. Shall I dress him now? This is the time he usually takes the train to be there at seven o’clock. Pajamas are so cold. Here put on this old shirt – this old horse blanket, I always call it. I’m sorry to be such a fool but those needles give me a funny feeling all over. I can’t watch you give them. Thank you so much for coming so quickly. I have a cup of coffee for you all ready in the kitchen.

From William Carlos Williams, The Doctor Stories (1932), with permission.

Commentary

This story, presented in full above, is unique amongst Williams’ Doctor Stories in having no commentary. It is about a heart attack when there was no treatment, and a high mortality. Hospital admission isn’t on the cards.

We learn nothing of what the doctor thinks or has said, other than from what we can glean from his choosing to play back this particular narrative. Taking the words superficially, you could assume that she doesn’t care so much about her husband. Or, she is almighty scared by this fearful event, and the talk is to cover her fear. If the latter, it is analagous to the way Williams recounts his own speech to his colleagues, which is very different from the way he is thinking. What do you think?

In the last paragraph, a bit of direct conversation. Humbling, in the context of such an event.

Thank you so much for coming so quickly. I have a cup of coffee for you all ready in the kitchen.

William Carlos Williams said he wanted to be a writer, but didn’t think he could make a living from it, so chose medicine to support it. Considering that, he took medicine incredibly seriously, practising all his life as a GP/paediatrician amongst the mostly indigent, immigrant population of the industrial city of Paterson, New Jersey, during and after the recession of the 1930s. He was born and lived most of his life (except during his education) in Rutherford, which is nearby. His extended poems about Paterson are his most famous works, but his doctor stories are striking, moving – and at times brutal to a degree that takes you aback.

He often speaks tough, harshly, and sometimes horribly, about his patients – as he implies his colleagues do. However his actions tell a different story: of concern, respect, and love for this patients. ‘I have never had a money practice, it would have been impossible for me’.  ‘The actual calling on people at all times and under all conditions, the coming to grips with the intimate conditions of their lives, when they were being born, when they were dying, watching them die, watching them get well when they were ill, has always absorbed me.’ ‘I don’t care a rap what people are or believe. They come to me. I care for them and either they become my friends or they don’t. That is their business.’ (Quotes from The Practice, from Williams’ autobiography).

The Faber edition of The Doctor Stories (1987) is a slim volume of 14 stories and half a dozen short poems, flanked by an introduction by Robert Coles, and an afterword by Williams’s son William Eric Williams. Coles made the journey to medicine from writing, after meeting Williams, having written his undergraduate thesis on his work. Disciple and son both give fascinating insights into an author who mixed with great American literary figures, but didn’t achieve wide recognition for his own work until late in life.

We learn from Williams’ son, and from Williams himself, that he could not separate his writing from his working life. In his red notebook, records of visits as a school doctor are interspersed with observations and quotations from patients.

If I did not have
verse
I would have died
or been
a thief

Further info

  • Extract from The Doctor Stories reprinted by permission of Pollinger Limited on behalf of the Estate of William Carlos Williams
  • William Carlos Williams (The Poetry Archive)
  • William Carlos Williams (Wikipedia)
  • The image is a still from the 2016 movie Paterson (Trailer (YouTube)). Williams is only briefly mentioned in it, but the bus driver central character is, like Williams, driven to write, carries his notebook everywhere, and observes Paterson. It’s atmospheric and poetic.
  • Williams most anthologised works are ultra-short, rather wonderful poems about plums in a fridge, and a red wheelbarrow (link includes Williams reading it). His ‘epic’, answer-to-Elliot’s-Wasteland, Paterson, came after this imagist phase.
  • Williams’ Doctor Stories are out of print, so find in a library, or secondhand online. His Collected Stories include these and more, and are easier to find, but lack the preface and afterwords.

Contributed by

Neil Turner

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