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‘Hospital Food’
Psychiatric News
Volume 38 Number 17 page 15-15

"Hospital Food" is a poem by psychiatrist and poet Richard Berlin, M.D.

Berlin explains how he came to write this poem:

I began writing "Hospital Food" after serving on the hospital nutrition committee for many years. I had just learned the hospital cafeteria would not be following the healthful dietary guidelines recommended by the committee, because the administrators feared the changes might result in decreased cafeteria sales and decreased profits.

My usual writing process is to "free write" a long, handwritten draft of all the thoughts and feelings I can bring to a subject, something like an analysand trying to "say whatever comes to mind." The final poem emerges over the course of 10 to 30 revisions.

In looking over my first draft, I can follow the themes of anger about committees, long descriptions of the bland, overcooked, tasteless slop so many hospitals serve, families who had criticized me for what we were feeding their hospitalized loved one, and images of my father in a hospital bed, cachectic, uninterested in food, dying.

On the third page of my first draft I found the first line of the poem a memory of my family giving my father a tray of hospital food. The remainder of the first stanza flowed easily from that line. In subsequent drafts, I allowed the poem to lead me to images of how food sustains me. When I worked in the hospital I loved to take refuge in the meal I describe in the poem, though I can’t say why I believe "sweet white sesame balls" are the size of prayers. (Perhaps it is because they might fit perfectly in the cupped hands of a praying child.)

When I ate my lunch I would think about my patients eating hospital food and dying in their rooms. The comparison between dying men and tailpipes dissolving in the sea comes from a childhood memory at the New Jersey shore. Summer after summer I remember seeing a mountain of tailpipes dumped into the sea dissolving into rust as the waves washed over them, disappearing as slowly as the dying men I treated.

When I had taken the poem this far, at least three months had passed (I usually work on anywhere between five and 10 poems at a time), but I felt the poem needed an ending. The final four lines came to me in one short burst at the local Ben & Jerry’s. I had just finished a brutal day of nursing home consultations and sat down with a frozen, chocolate-covered banana in one hand, my pen in the other, surrounded by screaming children, rowdy teenagers, and blasts of rock music.

The lines I wrote startled me. Suddenly, the poem had made a leap from the details of hospital food, physical hunger, and dying to the kinds of hungers "that consume our hearts like another kind of dying."

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