Poetry Shelf review: Oscar Upperton’s The Surgeon’s Brain

The Surgeon’s Brain, Oscar Upperton, Te Herenga Waka University Press, 202B

A life needs rinsing out, once in awhile.

from ‘Code name’

Oscar Upperton has followed New Transgender Blockbusters, his terrific debut poetry collection, with a book that is equally sublime.

The Surgeon’s Brain is the story of Dr James Barry, a biography say, that is in debt to research, imagining, poetry, more imagining. According to the collection’s blurb, Dr Barry was “a pistol toting dueller, an irascible grudge holder, a vegetarian, an obsessive cleaner – and a brilliant military surgeon who served throughout the British empire, travelled the world with a small menagerie of animals, and advocated for public health reform. Barry was also a transgender man living in the Victorian era when ‘transgender’ was unknown in Western thought.”

Oscar’s new book is essential reading. Marvellous, startling, heart-jolting reading. Poetry, in my view, is a perfect process in which to take risks, to step into the shoes of another, to challenge historical misconceptions and regulations, to enable words to sing. The Surgeon’s Brain does all this and more. It strikes a mark, and then another, and lights up on so many levels. The story is divided into three sections: ‘Dura Mater | Tough Mother’, ‘Arachnoid Mother | Spider Mother’, ‘Pia Mater | Tender Mother’. A baby born, a life lived, a life goes missing. At one point, the doctor admits:

I am not a writer. I am a soldier. I am a surgeon.

Sometimes I write reports. I write in straight lines and use straight
language. I would never dream of writing a poem.

from ‘Well’

And here is the doctor speaking from the straight lines of a poem. He is infused in the ink of the excavating poet. And the straight lines of poetry are judder bars, potholes, side roads, scenic views, the unforeseen, the exhilarating downhill cycle ride. And if the doctor only ever wrote reports, would never dream of writing poems, the young girl dreamed of busting apart the straight lines of a girl’s future. She sews herself into another gender. She makes the physical garment and codpiece that renders her man, and he steps into a different set of expectations and outcomes. He studies, passes exams and practices as a surgeon. Dr Barry, for example, is the first surgeon to perform a caesarean where both mother and baby survive.

The rules are different now. I travel unchaperoned;
I enter public houses; I attend a university.
Once I hid my hair and people would talk to me differently,
but now they listen differently too. Before they didn’t listen
but now their ears are opened. I am worth teaching now.
I can be of use beyond myself. There is no question
of my right to board a ship, or take a room.
It is as though I were a ghost and I have now been give form.

from ‘The rules’

It is joy reading this as story, moving through beginnings middles and endings, but it is not pure delight. It is discomfort, corrugated musings, because the world has not yet dismantled the structures and behaviours that denigrate and deny women. That perpetrate blind ignorance of all genders as opposed to equity and openness. I carry a degree of mourning as I read, thinking of heart-numbing dichotomies: men women slave master rich poor literate illiterate hungry full. Yes Victorian times, yes 21st century.

It is joy reading The Surgeon’s Brain as poetry, moving through the lilt and economy of voice. And yes, it is voice, think speaking voice: confessing, exploring, refining. It is the musicality of conversation that is poetry. It is images and it is wisdoms. Fluidity and fluencies. Tenderness. It is the arrival along the plainness of line that forms another stitching of self. The poem as self-dress. Precious buttons and warm threads. Lines stand out and it is like you are gut-winded. Here I am falling in to a hole in the world, like we might fall into a hole in the poem, into a life. And I am imagining the floor of the poem. And it is this:

Mamma fell ill; an ill wind blasted; a will drawn up; the trapdoor
    swung down:
a rope ladder descending into darkness;
a hole in the floor of the world—

from ‘The idea’

So much to say about The Surgeon’s Brain. I wish we were in a cafe, having invented a poetry bookclub so we could share espresso and our favourite lines. Quoting this bit, and warm musing on that bit. I want to share how the doctor builds a room in his head with a bookshelf and chair, dust in the air and London light. We could talk hesitantly about the rooms we build in our own heads, for whatever reasons, that help keep us safe and on track, strengthened.

I want to tell you as you sip your coffee about a particular poem (‘Journey to the university’) that has a shadow version in the footnotes, little refinements, because we cannot take a face or an action or a statement for granted. Because behind this poem is another shadow poem, and behind that another.

Or the forest. I am thinking of the power of metaphor to get us along the straight line. Through the living of the life, the reading of the poem. How this life and this book is effervescent with metaphor.

Some things I keep secret even from myself.
I’ve never seen a forest but sometimes I walk in one
in my dreams, great black trees with twisted branches
and underfoot wet earth and spiders’ nests.
This is a forest that covers the world,

and in it live three things: the red foxes that dislike rain,
the innumerable silver spiders, and me, numerable
I think, but when I turn to regard the path behind me
I am there. Each step of me is frozen in place,
curls of earth sticking to the soles of my feet.

Some things I keep secret even from myself.
I didn’t want done to me the things that were done to me.
But the sun rises and you say, well.
Only you don’t say it. You never say it

from ‘Into the forest’

But most of all I want to share the well. The well that ends ‘Well’, the straight line poem I have already mentioned (aside from the appearance/echo in ‘Into the forest’ above). I will leave you with the well, leave this metaphor for you to become entangled in, and say as an opener, how Oscar’s quiet and extraordinary poetry collection taps into another life, and how in doing so, it also taps into your life, my life. You and me and poetry are in this upheavalled world together. And know that as you read thorough marvel and wonder, mourning and wound, poetry is the lamp we can hold high and share.

I am a well. Or there is a well in my mind, clean stones, broad
wooden bucket, rope. The water at the bottom of this well is so
clear and cold it makes men drunk. It is black, because it takes the
darkness with it when it is pulled from the well.

I would like to intoxicate. I would like to be a well-frequented well.

from ‘Well’

Oscar Upperton’s first poetry collection was New Transgender Blockbusters (VUP, 2020). In 2019 he was awarded the Creative New Zealand Louis Johnson New Writer’s Bursary. His work has been featured in Sport, The Spinoff, Metro and Best New Zealand Poems.

Te Herenga Waka University Press page

Conversation with Lynn Freeman, Standing Room Only, RNZ National

David Kert review Kete Books

‘Code name’ The Friday Poem at The Spin Off

‘The surgeon’s brain’ Poetry Shelf

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