The Fourth River

Lit World Spotlight: Abaton

By on March 26, 2015

Right-Brained, Left-Brained

-by Faith Cotter, The Foruth River staff

“And one day I will be a doctor, and a patient will learn that I’ve been using pubescent mnemonics to memorize the adrenal cortex.”

—from “Syndrome of an Imposter,” by Aryan Sarparast, fall 2014 edition

It’s an oft-told rumor that people’s brains can be divided into two categories of thinking: that left-brained people are generally more logical and analytical, and that folks who are right-brained have more creative tendencies. Studies show that this idea is nothing more than a medical myth, but it is one that persists.

Abaton, a literary journal published by Des Moines University, fuses analysis and creativity together through fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual artwork in a way that also employs a clinical yet emotional approach to the care of the human body. Though Abaton seeks to “create an expressive space for [people] in the healing field to share the humanity in their experiences,” according to the Editor’s Note in the eighth edition of the journal, that humanity is precisely what makes the journal worth reading for anyone.

The journal is published annually, and the inaugural issue was released in 2007. Abaton is named for the temple where ancient Greeks prayed to the god of medicine for healing. It is also of note that the professionals who submit their work must adhere to regulations regarding the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Faculty adviser Gary Hoff, D.O., said that the writing down of their experiences was not always a regular occurrence among healthcare workers until the last half-century, when writer and surgeon Dr. Richard Selzer helped to inspire and popularize literary writing about medicine. “His tales about the practice of medicine and the deep, personal implications of illness to both the sufferer and the healer are human experiences transmuted into art,” Hoff wrote in the fall 2014 edition of Abaton. “He provides a window into the hidden heart of medicine.”

And what a window it is. Take into account how the modern Western world deals with various health conditions, illnesses, and death. Until recently, I did not know that death has a sound. I did not know that pregnancy is the only time when it is acceptable for your organs to deviate from their intended spaces, and no one can tell me what this will feel like. We hide everything behind a drape, costumed in tiled floors and bright lights, in caskets left behind in chapels where the undertakers alone deal with the eternal task of returning our loved ones to the earth. We don’t talk about what progressive illness looks like or how broken bones sound, as Aryan Sarparast and Christy Duan detail in their writing, titled “Dead on Arrival” and “Slowly, Slowly.” We don’t talk about what we want to do should our bodies fail us, as Pritha Subramanyam does in her poem, “Decisions”:

“I’ve told me sons I want to live

give me cpr, give me a breathing tube

thirty chest compressions, two breaths

repeat, repeat, repeat

but no one seems to agree”

When you think about it, the natural deterioration of the body is such an odd thing to not talk about, because there is such a commonality and practicality to the way our bodies operate that is almost, to a certain extent, comforting in its exactness. Perhaps that is what Abaton does best: whether the writing is poignant or funny, lyrical or declarative like notes in a patient’s file, it brings the mystery of our bodies and the masked people who care for them out from behind the curtain.