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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Student Voices

Listen to Celeste Lipkes read her prize-winning poem “Moon Face”

Photo: Will Kirk/HIPS

 

For Celeste Lipkes, medicine and creative writing are inextricably fused. The 19-year-old sophomore is a Writing Seminars major and is pre-med, and she has long been a fan of (and subscriber to) the Bellevue Literary Review (BLR), published by the Department of Medicine at New York University and named for Bellevue Hospital, the oldest public hospital in the United States. The journal publishes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that explore topics related to the human body, illness, health, and healing. “I think there’s a real need for publications like this that bridge the gap between humanities and medicine,” says Lipkes.

So Lipkes, whose mentor is Writing Seminars professor Mary Jo Salter, submitted three poems for consideration in the journal’s annual literary prizes (winners get $1,000 and have their works published in the journal). News that Lipkes’ poem, “Moon-face,” won the BLR Prize for Poetry, came to her via e-mail last semester. “I was so shocked I literally fell on the floor,” says Lipkes, who becomes at once a published poet and a prize-winning one with the BLR ’s spring issue.

Lipkes, of Tampa, Fla., wrote the poem on her first night at a “Writing the Medical Experience” summer workshop at Sarah Lawrence College, which she attended with funding from her Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship. She had arrived late in the evening at Sarah Lawrence, and was told she’d need a poem for the first morning. So she stayed up all night writing “Moon-face,” a poem she had been “thinking about for a long time.”

The poem is about Lipkes’ yearlong experience on the drug prednisone, which she took to treat Crohn’s disease (she is on another medication now and no longer suffers from the effects of the prednisone). She says the emotions in the poem are real, but not all of the events are factual.

So what’s next for this poetry writing pre-med? A career in medicine or the creative arts? Both. “If I had to give up one or the other, I’d be a really unhappy person,” Lipkes says.

 

Moon Face

The side effects of prednisone include mood swings, rounding of the face, sensation of spinning, thin, shiny skin, and poor wound healing. -About.com

The doctor clicks his pen and says it's just a phase.
My fat moon-face comes second to the x-rays

he pulls from a folder labeled with my room number.
I'm taking 75mgs of Prednisone a day. It's summer,

and I'm paler than I've ever been. Lookin' good,
the doctor says, by which I think he means: you could

look worse. Here in room 208, I've come to love
men who tell the truth, who touch me without gloves,

and let me skimp on barium. My x-ray tech this afternoon
wasn't one. He looked at me as if peering through

a telescope and, I, the cold and distant satellite,
moved quietly into his crosshairs. Hold tight!

he said. I waited for him to let me breathe again.
Released and back at home, I drift into the kitchen.

I'm scarred and white and wide, but never full. I try to sleep.
I think: my life is one big compromise while counting sacrificial sheep.

One night I cup two dozen pills inside my palms,
close my eyes, and think of swallowing them all.

Instead, I eat two sandwiches. Outside, on the night's thin skin,
A white bruise grows, then shrinks, then blooms again.

—Celeste Lipkes
(From the Spring 2009 Bellevue Literary Review)