Back in 1984, when I attended the Humanities in Medicine Conference sponsored by the William Carlos WIlliams Competition, I read this poem along with six others. After the reading, Richard Selzer walked up to me and in reference to the juxtaposition of  birth and death in this poem proclaimed, “From such callow youth!” while clasping both hands over his heart. I was so callow at the time that I had to look up the word “callow.”



It was a chance meeting

in the night that brought

me together, my two halves

became whole within you.

As I grew, suspended

in time, zygote to

blastomere, morula

to blastocyst, embryo

to fetus; I had no

awareness, no sense

of the journey

just begun. Floating

within your ontogenous

sea, your body

enveloped, your warmth

sustained; we were one.


But those waters have long since broken and we are oceans

apart, now. I search within

for those lost memories, a sense of

how it felt; for this is what death

must be like, a reversal

of the process, a sucking back

into the womb, quiet,

dark, effortless. A shrinking

back through time

as each cell of life decays

then recombines, dissolving

into fluid, flowing

into waves.

©1984 Kurt Biehl

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This is one of three poems that I submitted to the William Carlos Williams Poetry Competition back in 1983. Two of my poems were chosen for the final ten.  I ultimately placed third and was invited to attend a conference on The Humanities in Medicine where I was gave a 20 minute poetry reading. Poetry is meant to read aloud. To my eye and ear, a poem is a like a musical score that can only be fully realized by hearing it out loud – word choice is determined by the non-verbal sound of the syllables, with the progression of sound being crafted like a melody. The challenge is to try to achieve some sort of literal content and meaning. I also pay attention to rhythm, line breaks, and punctuation to help convey the musicality of language.





A wisp of smoke rises from the ashtray, arcing

in a glissando of pirouettes, fading upwards

into the brilliance of a single nude lightbulb, dangling

from a frayed cord. Record covers lay strewn among

discarded kleenex, empty reminders of the music

they once held. The records are stacked naked

next to the turntable, their mysterious grooves

exposed to dust as Subotnick mingles side

by side with Bach and Stravinsky.


Botticelli’s Venus is born over the crumpled sheets

of a stained mattress, a thumbtack

holding her against the wall. Bartok is spread open

across a music stand, his bare belly exposed

and scarred by the cut of a discerning pencil.

Nearby lies the violin, a 1738 Guadagnini

resting quietly in its rosin-scented case.


It is a scene that I view from within;

all boundaries are blurred between myself,

this room. Within this portamento of space,

the walls become my walls, my skin.

I can feel the night breeze brushing

across the shingles, I can sense

Venus and Saturn in conjunction

within the arc of a moon sliver

rising above the roof, way out there

where there are no walls, or windows

or doors. I often dream

of fading these walls, bending the flat planes into curves

that spread out, dissolving; until it is no longer

a matter of edges, until there is nothing

but space.


©1984 Kurt Biehl


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To Die To Sleep No More

This is a poem written as a challenge to write a poem based on one of several “thesis sentences” provided during the Yale Writers Workshop. I chose the sentence, “Nightmares aren’t as bad as insomnia.”



A tropical depression moves in

and falls upon the shore.

No eye can stand still or evade

the demons and succubi that haunt

my nights. A tsunami of blood,

zombies chase me after dark,

Naked I arrive to the Calculus exam,

every time, I have forgotten to study.

Again I fail, my sleep is uneasy;

My car won’t start, I get lost walking home.

The alley is empty and long and ominous,

they follow me again, this time dragons and bears.

Tonight my eyes burn after lights are turned off,

heartbeats thrum in my throat. The moon glares

into my window, the neighbor’s dog is barking again.

I cannot escape the exhaustion of unrequited slumber,

The creeping regret of loss and boredom.

I would dream of nightmares, if only I could sleep.


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During Stephanie Hart’s Poetry Workshop at Yale on Friday, we wrote “circle poems” (that’s what she said.) I wrote the first two lines of this poem, then it was passed around the room for each person to add another line. After it was edited by the class, I took it and made some final edits in an attempt to  breath some life into this Frankenstein creature. I cannot take credit for the beast-with-two-backs reference, nor the phrase “sweet taut rump.” Those were the creation of a couple of attractive blonde women in class, one of whom went to Cambridge and the other Oxford.  It’s always heartening when intellectuals peruse the gutter.


Fifty Shades of White

The bright light white of the next day’s sun,

glimmering pebbles along the river run.

Her skin trembles, our kneecaps bump;

My hand flows down her sweet taut rump.

She glances towards the meandering stream,

Her toe dips in, I begin to dream:

Our bodies are one, or so it seems —

A two-backed beast in four-legged jeans.

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Back in the 1980’s, my medical school  adopted  a Pass-Fail system of grading. The administration boasted of how they had reduced the pressure and competition of medical training by eliminating grades. But they added an additional grade of Honors for the top 10% of each course, thus negating the original intent. For many students, the presence of the rare and lofty “Honors” actually heightened the intensity and ruthlessness of competition to which doctors in training are prone.


MD or not MD, that is the quandary.
Whether ’tis easier on the butt to suffer
The hours and minutes of outrageous lecture.
Or to take a stand against a sea of schedules
And by leaving end them: to sit, to study
No more; and by no study, to say we end
The head-ache, and the thousand unnatural exams
This flesh is heir to – ’tis a vacation
Much to be admired. To sit, to study,
To study, perchance to learn; Aye there’s the rub.
For in this study of life, what learning may come,
When we have bubbled in this meager sheet,
Must give us Pass. There’s the respect
That makes Doctors out of B.A.’s,  B.S.’s.

For who would bear the classes of so long a time
The lecturer’s wrong, the proud Profs disdain,
The pangs of borrowed money, the sleep’s delay,
The insolence of course directors, and the stench
Of formaldehyde and rotten flesh,

While he himself his dissection make
On a bare cadaver? Who would gladly bear

To bleed and sweat under a weary light,
But for the hope of something here after;
The Doctorate of Medicine, with whose bestowal
All good things come. Piques the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than to cast off eighteen years of education.

But compulsion makes cowards of a few,
And thus the nature of these students
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of concern,
And enterprises of little consequence,
With this regard, their meanings twist awry,
And lose all moderation.
I want you now, the fair Honors!
Nymph, in thy transcriptions
Be all my virtues remembered.

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The opening sentence of this poem is a direct quote from an anatomy lecture during first year medical school. The entire class of 160 was hunched over their papers scribbling maniacally the entire lecture.  As usual,  I wasn’t taking notes but was instead  listening intently when I  was struck by the beauty of this description of a rib. I looked around the room to see if anyone else had noticed the that high art had entered into an anatomy lecture. As I scanned the room, he lecturer locked eyes with me. He shrugged his shoulders as we stared at each other. He then slowly bent his knees until he  disappeared behind the lectern. No one else in the room noticed.


“Ribs are long, and thin,

and curved, and slightly twisted.”

Attached at the spine and arching out

to each side, these bones reach

the mid-axillary line; then bending

inward to grasp the sternum, a cage is formed,

enclosing the thorax and holding within,

by a solid hug of ribs, the vital organs:

The Heart and Lungs,

The Phrenic, and the Vagus.

To Autopsy is to self inspect; to self reflect.

Dissected free from fascia, picked clean

from flesh, the rib mirrors the eye.

It has a simple beauty, an archaic truth,

revealed by the careful touch and the proper gaze

of Galen or Vesalius, who while holding this lone

bone torn from chest and bringing it to light

cries out, “Why this bone is long and thin

and curved, and somewhat twisted.”

A single rib, alone, separated

from the body, has a history; it connects

to other times, other spines;

evoking the carcass of each man

now dead and recalling the birth

of Eve. This is the bone into woman

transformed: long and thin,

and curved, and lithely twisted.

After midnight when I cannot sleep

and my thoughts dissolve and blur

along the uncertain edge

of my darkened room, I murmur

to myself, ribs are long, and

thin, and curved, and

sightly twisted.


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Back in 1975, before the days of mass hybridization, watermelons had seeds. When I worked for a summer at a grocery store in Estes Park Colorado, one of my many tasks involved cutting melons so that the seeds were not visible. Near the end of the summer while I was passing on my expertise at watermelon slicing to a new employee, the lost-looking 20 year old darted his hand under the melon just as I shoved the knife down. He went to the ER. I never saw him again. I wonder to this day why he did it.



There is an art

to watermelon slicing.

Reading the skin just right

and directing the slice between

the seeds, revealing

a cut surface of solid red meat.

Covered in Saran and placed on a bed

of ice, such a melon entices:

the illusion of a melon

without seeds, the hope

this may be the one seeds forgot.


The ripest melon is chosen,

I place it place it on the slab.

Guided by the line drawn

by my fingers, the knife hovers

over the landmarks, the ridges

of alternating stripes, green

by darker green. The knife lingers

as I wait for the sweet crunch

of split rind. Raising my shoulder

and leaning down, I hear the delicate

crack of flesh parting by my touch


I can see, this is another

perfect cut. The slice is deep,

to the quick. An artery

is now open, my blood

wells up and flows by this pulse.

Such bleeding, it seems,

should never stop.



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