To a woman who fainted recently at a poetry reading

A blood pressure of ninety millimetres of mercury is normally required to adequately perfuse the central nervous system. If the head is lowered, however, the pressure needed to maintain consciousness is considerably lower. Of course if one has severed a major artery or torn it lengthwise like a weak seam in the lining of a jacket then poetry should not be blamed and, in fact, may become entirely appropriate.

It is wise to consider hypoglycaemia as a contributing factor. I have heard that a barley sugar placed per rectum in obtunded patients with a precipitously low serum glucose may at times mean the difference between them dying and never eating barley sugar again.

Simple dehydration, overheating or a sudden shock can also be associated with fainting. For this last reason poetry should not be left lying around especially if it is graphic in nature, with swear words in it like ‘bugger’ or ‘bastard’ or ‘shit’. Lines such as ‘She used to love me but now I am a crumb in the biscuit tin of life’ can induce vomiting. ‘She used to love me / My heart is the sound of oysters opening at low tide’ can also be counted on to take the breath away.

Micturation syncope is a syndrome in which men who increase their intra-abdominal pressure at the moment of urination can impair their venous return, cardiac output and subsequently faint, however this cause will usually be obvious from the history and immediate setting. Individuals suffering in this manner can sometimes be confused with those who have drunk too much then pissed themselves before collapsing.

Despite a strong link between alcohol and poetry this scenario seems unlikely to be the case in your situation and so it only remains for me to write you the following prescription – four black wheels swallowed whole like pills; one siren, the blade of a sharp knife; three sheets, as crisp as biting apples, two flashing lights striking matches in the wind – and in this small ambulance send you, like flowers, straight to hospital.

Glenn Colquhoun was born and raised in South Auckland and has published three books of poetry. The Art of Walking Upright won the Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry Award at the 2000 Montana New Zealand Book Awards and ‘To a woman who fainted . . .’ was published as part of his latest collection of poems, Playing God, touching on his experiences in medicine. Colquhoun has also written a children’s picture book called Uncle Glenn and Me, which he considers to be more fun than the poetry. He says, ‘I would advise anyone interested in reading my work to begin there as it is my most considered work to date.’

About his poem, Colquhoun comments: ‘I would have to start by saying it is based on an experience at the Dans Palais last year during Writer’s and Readers week in Wellington. An elderly woman fainted at the back of the tent during a poetry reading I had taken part in which meant that because people knew I was a doctor I was beckoned from the front of the venue to assist. I found her pale and frail but she soon felt better lying flat and chatting while we waited for an ambulance. The trick, as most doctors will tell you, is to make people think everything is under control. This seems also true of poetry! The last I saw of her she was on her way to hospital and I was left with a heap of paperwork. It seems fainting needs the appropriate endorsements. I was teased considerably afterwards and have to say that it is the most direct example of the overlap between my careers in both poetry and medicine that I have yet experienced. It seemed too good an opportunity not to write about and some sort of quid pro quo for being put in the situation. I guess that is why I adopted the mock serious tone. It was a way of taking the teasing seriously and considering the possible links between poetry and fainting as a conceit for a poem. Maybe I just had nothing else better to do! I have to say I had great fun writing it because it is essentially a giant piss-take.’

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