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Poet hands out prescriptions in prose

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Ronna Bloom KIM SMILEY, THE EMPATHY EFECT PHOTO

While visiting Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, or as a patient or student or staff member there, you may have noticed Ronna Bloom making her rounds, clad in a clinical white lab coat, clutching an official-looking prescription pad.

You’d be forgiven for thinking she was on the medical staff. But, in her own way, she has been helping make people feel at least a bit better.

Poetry has that power. Like surgery, it may hurt, but ultimately heals. Or at least it confers some peace or joy or wonder or fun.

As poet-in-residence at Mount Sinai, now part of Sinai Health System, Bloom peels pre-written poems from her pad, some composed by her, and dispenses them to whomever wants one.

Rx for Poetry, it’s called. But Bloom shies away from attributing any therapeutic value to the verses.

The More by Ronna Bloom

“I don’t call them therapeutic poems,” she told The CJN. The word “therapy,” according to Bloom, “sets up an expectation that may or may not happen. I don’t say this is going to be therapeutic. I say this is an offering. ‘Here’s a poem. It might speak to what you’re experiencing now that hasn’t been articulated yet.’ ”

The playfulness of the lab coat and prescription pad is helpful, she said. “But it’s also a very serious thing if I engage with someone.” Sometimes, Bloom adds with a hearty laugh, her “patients” simply ask for directions.

Before the Rx program, you may have seen Bloom in the hospital cafeteria or lobby, dispensing poems at the Spontaneous Poetry Booth, à la Peanuts character Lucy van Pelt. (“The poet is in,” declared a makeshift sign. “$1 a poem.”)

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The poems were bespoke, written for individuals on the spot. The process was simple, Bloom, 56, explains on her website. “After asking you two or three questions, I will offer or write you a poem – in five minutes or less.”

Some people laughed when they read their poems, others teared up. Either way, Bloom’s mission was to hand over a poem “that captures that particular moment for that person.”

Now, Bloom, who’s also a trained psychotherapist, has captured 50 particular moments in her sixth collection of verse and prose poems. In taut, crystalline language, The More, launched this month, has the word “hospital” sprinkled liberally throughout and conveys a distinct medical whiff (“Poetry is a hospital for the sane,” Bloom quotes Canadian poet Robert Kroetsch).

Bloom said she didn’t know the book would be about “health, mortality, meditation, vulnerability, compassion, loss, subversion and spontaneity” until it began to coalesce.

The volume’s centrepiece is the 1,200-word prose poem Walking the Hospital, a loosely autobiographical rumination on, as the author put it, “trying to see what’s needed and what can be offered in moments of need, when nothing seems enough.”

Bloom explained poetry’s place in the hospital is “a little bit like a movie, a cinematic journey with this strange woman walking around with poems.”

In her work, the author has not forgotten her Montreal Jewish roots, evident in the offering Aliyah:

Called up to sing the blessing for a boy’s Torah debut.

I thought it was just the gifts until I saw him

Pick up the heavy book and carry it alone.

Not my book to carry, but I would announce him.

In true poetic fashion, Bloom said she came to poetry through her religious and spiritual upbringing, “because of the music in the synagogue, not because of religiosity, but because of the songs and prayers and the way they landed in my body cellularly and planted themselves as music, as poetry, even if I didn’t understand the words.”

There will be a special launch of The More on Nov. 2 at noon at the Wellness Gallery at Mount Sinai Hospital. The date also marks five years since the poet-in-residence program was established. n