Orlando Mondragón: Poetry and medicine converge in magic

Orlando Mondragon she has her poetry tattooed on her body: a black butterfly, a belladonna plant, the Minotaur, a snake, a symbol of renewal when she sheds her skin; the androgynous; one of the earliest engravings De Humani Corporis Fabrica of Vesalius and the “flower and song” —poetry for the Nahuas. Life, death, medicine and homosexuality in his arms.

The doctor, currently a resident at the Fray Bernardino Álvarez Psychiatry Hospital, is at 29 years of age the youngest poet to win the prestigious Loewe award in its XXXIV issue with Human Pathology Notebooks (Visor de Poesía, 2022) where he finely sutures the genres of poetry, chronicle and autobiography. Two sides of the same coin are for him medicine and poetry in terms of “the search for beauty”, he maintains. He appeals both to the healing power of the word — “it is inquiry, anamnesis, to remember” — and destructive: “A single word can collapse someone’s internal world,” he warns. Orlando Mondragón, is also the author of Epidemic to the father (IV Alejandro Aura Young Poetry Prize; Editorial Elefanta, 2017) where he alludes to his homosexuality, a book that “was born with a lot of anger, wanting a certain revenge against the society that I had had to live in,” he says.

-With epicedio tried to build a bridge with your father?

I am from a small town in the state of Guerrero. I wanted to stand up in front of my family about my condition as a homosexual, which I realized from a very young age. The fiction of the dying father in epicedio… it is no stranger to my biography, I had a sick grandfather whom I had to take care of in my adolescence. However, my father is still alive. Putting myself in front of him dying in this book was a way of finding a way in which coexistence was unavoidable to dialogue between the two of us. It was not the first intention that it would serve to heal that relationship, but it did work as an incentive to talk about things differently with my family. The relationship with her is more fluid, it no longer occurs with those condemning silences about my sexual preferences. It was a painful bridge, a very narrative collection of poems, one of the first that I considered as a cohesive book-project for the same theme, which would make it much easier for me to write Human Pathology Notebooks.

—Is the shadow of Apollo present in your work and in your work as a psychiatrist?

It has a lot to do with it because right in the temples of Apollo there was this very restless dance that was catharsis itself and through the word it was sought to heal; I think it is the convergence between poetry and medicine, that first germ that was magic. The healing word through prayer sought to restore the disharmony of the body. Hippocrates said that illness was a disharmony that disfigured the body and that the doctor’s task was to restore the beauty of the body’s forms. In that search for beauty there is hope, perhaps represented by the image of a suture of a body that goes through a painful moment with the hope that it will be restored.

Notebooks… is divided into “Sutures” and chapters.

The initial idea for the book was born from the Guerrero Artistic Support Program (2018), which consisted of taking a tour of a night on duty and then came this kind of poetic prose. I gave them the title of “Sutures” because I think it is the common thread that gives cohesion to all the experiences and reflections.

—“The whole world is our hospital”, why the epigraph?

T. S. Eliot He was a big influence in writing this book. In its Quartet he writes that the world is an entity of pain, but also of healing and I love it because it has surgeons right there and this microcosm that is a hospital can be moved beyond its walls to the outside. It was the triggering stone for Notebooks… just like british hospital from Hector Viel Temperley, a more expansive book, very experimental. There is a certain tradition of the clinical story. I think that medicine lends itself to this type of story because the doctor is always in front of a vulnerable body in that thread where he faces death and life.

Cover of 'Notebooks of human pathology', by Orlando Mondragón.  (Loewe Foundation)
Cover of ‘Notebooks of human pathology’, by Orlando Mondragón. (Loewe Foundation)

—And the colors blue and red in Notebooks…?

In hospitals, white prevails associated with the pure, the aseptic, and the contrast is red. Whenever there is a hint of red, it is an emergency: blood linked to death, but also life at the time of birth or suturing. Blue is more associated with the recently dead body.

“Sutures the stories of your patients?”

I think I can’t separate the doctor from the poet. It’s not as if by night I’m Mr. Hyde and write and by day Dr. Jekyll and heal! There are words that have a deep humanity and that is what drives me to write a poem. The metric? In Notebooks… I opted for free verse, it is a rhythm that emerged and was marking the book itself at the time of writing.

—Does it also introduce the secondary characters of a hospital?

I think we have the idea that the doctor is the main protagonist of this microcosm that is a hospital, but it is a kind of swarm, a very structured society where each element is irreplaceable: the stretcher bearers, the mayors, the ambulance drivers, the nurses, everyone has a very specific purpose without which everything else falls apart.

—What was your experience as a workshop facilitator with the students of the UNAM health sector, in 2021, who did their medical internships in hospitals during the most critical moment of the pandemic? It was very moving for me to have listened to his creation process in that workshop that I coordinated.

Very good. The creative will is there. It was a very delimited topic, being in front of patients in the pandemic. They advanced at first with a lot of timidity and anguish, but through these resources of poetry I think very beautiful texts were made. They are gathered in First line. Chronicles and poems written by health personnel.


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