WA state poet laureate and Gonzaga professor Tod Marshall pens a poem for WSU White Coat Ceremony

Saturday, August 19, 2017

My name is Tod Marshall and from 2016-18, I’m serving as the Washington State Poet Laureate, a position sponsored by Arts WA and Humanities WA to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry throughout the state.  It is my honor to be here to share a few words as part of today’s ELSON S. FLOYD COLLEGE OF MEDICINE WHITE COAT CEREMONY; I give my congratulations to the inaugural class and offer this poem for the occasion. 


My poem has two epigraphs—


“It’s important to be a scientist, but it is also important to be a scientist who knows how to listen, how to think, and how to express himself or herself as clearly as possible—to get complicated ideas across to a person who has not studied medicine but who is suffering.”  Robert Coles, “A Manner of Being” in Becoming a Doctor


“Nothing is of any avail among the soldiers except conscientious personal investigation of cases, each for itself; with sharp, critical facilities … and boundless love.”  Walt Whitman, in a letter from an Army Hospital during the Civil War, 1863-4


Toward Wholeness


The beautiful sounds, of course, are not to blame: metastasize, lymphoma,

tragic sibilance of sarcoidosis, the magical ease with which a word

as brutal as Tumor can be shaped with lips, teeth, and tongue.  Consider,

though, the fear of hearing those words, of cutaneous melanoma,


or a pharmaceutical, Zithromax, Cisplatin, or even the phrase, “We’ll start

immediate aggressive treatment.”  We know that knowledge and music can bond

in a lucid union against fear, a first singing toward making things whole, sound,

or at least better.  Yes, white cloth may have been a way to reveal the sprout


of bacteria, and yes, the word heal, to make whole, is the reason for which we gather:

to see, to hear, to know something so well that the doing becomes what we call love. 

Each day, as we rise to broken bodies—physical, communal, political—we can try to move

toward a first singing of wholeness that causes no fear, no harm.  Remember,


as the whitecap on a wave reveals nothing of the water’s purity or depth,

and the white feathers of an osprey tell us little about the grace of its flight.

Today is beautiful plumage, an honor.  Tomorrow, your gentle

actions, the music of your listening, will bear out the virtue of a coat’s threads.