Some notes from Finuala Dowling on her poem “To the doctor who treated the raped baby and who felt such despair”
In response to those of you who have written to ask about this poem, I thought I would provide a little bit of context explaining how the poem came about.
Like most people, I felt distraught as I read about the incident. I had trouble focussing on exactly what had happened (the assault on the baby, her violation) because it was too brutal. When you read a story like this, it is almost as if your mind refuses to ‘go there’; you can’t or won’t imagine the scene where a man could commit such a hideous crime against an innocent, defenceless child.
As a writer, if I can’t imagine, then I am helpless. Nevertheless, I sat down at my desk. How could I even begin to speak about this atrocity? Then I remembered that at the end of the newspaper report there was just a brief comment from one of the doctors who treated the raped baby. He said he felt despair. He said that he stood at the end of her cot and thought, “Where is God?” The doctor gave me a focus, someone to write to, someone in the story who felt like me (outraged) and yet who, unlike me, had the professional capacity to help the child. Once I had the title, I could begin to write. I had nothing to say to the rapist, but I had something to say to the doctor.
I wanted to offer some consolation to him, and of course to thank him “on behalf of us all” as the poem says. I think this is the fundamental source and purpose of poetry: to offer comfort. Because I felt unsure of my ability to console the doctor, the poem begins hesitantly: ‘I just wanted to say’.
I wanted the poem to be soothing, reassuring, so I gave a series of vignettes of babies and children being treated with love and care. In particular, I tried to conjure from my own memory and imagination, images of adult men caring for babies with tenderness and proper concern, not just in urban and suburban centres where there is electricity (‘a light on in the hall’) but also in remote areas such as the Karoo veld. Sometimes it’s important to state the obvious: you don’t have to be rich to love and care for a child.
I was worried about how South African men who had not committed the rape, who would not dream of committing such an abhorrent act, were feeling right then. I wanted to show that although this evil act was committed by an adult South African male, there are far, far more men in South Africa who are good fathers, grandfathers and uncles. It’s just that we don’t normally read about them in the newspaper.
The list of nurturing acts in the poem is only partly comforting. It is also a reminder of the nurturing that baby Tshepang did not receive that night. The list or catalogue is a record of the love she deserved but did not get: breastfeeding or a bottle, a lullaby, mother’s warmth, loving attention.
In the poem, the loving acts of child carers are interspersed with the doctor’s various acts of healing (sedating, stitching, transfusing blood, cleaning). I imagined how angry he must have been to see so close up in a clinical setting what a fellow adult had done to a child. I wanted to balance the rapist’s violence and the doctor’s rightful anger with tenderness, love and gratitude.
Nights are for sleeping, but anyone who has had a baby knows that there are always people awake at night, comforting and feeding babies. Doctors, too, have to work at night, especially emergency doctors like the one who was on call on the night of baby Tshepang’s rape. The poem is about one particular night, and the different people who were awake that night, most of them innocent of what was happening in Upington.
When the doctor saw what had been done to baby Tshepang, the trauma that she had suffered, he doubted his faith (‘Where is God?’). The poem is to a large extent a response to that cry from the heart. I was grateful that the line ‘a father sat watch’ came to me immediately after the doctor’s crisis of faith. A father who keeps a midnight vigil at the bedside of a sick child is doing what all people of faith believe that God should do. To oversimplify a bit: God exists in people who do good things.
The last lines of the poem switch to ‘the rest of us’ who were not awake that night caring for a sick or crying child. As I brought the poem to its conclusion, I wanted to emphasise how much we rely on people like this emergency or trauma ward doctor.
The two words ‘would’ and ‘could’ at the end of the poem differ subtly in meaning. ‘Would’ refers to the doctor’s willingness to save the baby’s life. ‘Could’ refers to the doctor’s ability (the long hours and years he spent training in his vocation) to save the baby’s life. Those are two things that we take for granted, when in fact they should inspire wonder in us. And there is a third source of wonder: ‘We slept in trust that you lived’.
I hope that all this detail hasn’t spoilt your reading or understanding of the poem!