The Street Medic by Joe Amaral
Review by Lennart Lundh
Consider this a trigger warning, in case the straight-forward title of Joe Amaral’s The Street Medic and the austere cover image of an open-doored ambulance facing a dark landscape do not, together, provide one.
As a gathering of poems written as unfettered free and prose verse, whose language is consistently clear and free of artifice or conceits, this is a delightfully easy book to read. But, at the same time, this is anything but an easy book to read. Rather, it is terribly difficult, as it must be for any reader with even a small shred of sympathy, empathy, or compassion. The subject is daily personal and professional trauma as seen through the eyes of an Emergency Medical Technician.
Still here? Before selecting parts of several poems to highlight, a rough catalog of subjects touched on from Amaral’s experience: The death of a seventeen-year old girl. A heroin overdose and an accidental opioid addiction. Reminders of a wife lost in a horrific crash, and of scattering her ashes. School shooting drills. The homeless elderly, mentally ill, and domestically abused. Saving lives. Not being able to save every life. In language direct and unflinching. Still here? Then let’s take a closer look.
The Street Medic begins with “Job Descriptions,” in which the narrator tells his daughters (and the reader) about his 48-hour day while never telling everything:
They ask about death, and I say yes,
they went someplace else.
My four-year-old says, They become owls.
My six-year-old asks if anyone got shot with a gun.
That does happen and I stop the bleeding.
Some die from weapon, old age, accident.
Cries for help. Suicide. Pills. I don’t say all this.
Their world is still rose-colored.
I will remove the thorns for as long as I can.
“Presence” helps to explain Amaral’s parental caution as it explores the accidental death of a young child:
The dead kid’s eyes
remind me of sea glass
I collect with my daughters
when the tide is low —
They won’t leave me alone.
If it’s continually clear that First Responders are no strangers to tragedy, “Her Nametag Said ‘Red’” serves to remind us that not all victims are strangers:
We met again the next week. See,
I’m a paramedic in a small town
where the scream of sirens ricochets.
I stood near her pale, lifeless body, doused
in cold water by well-meaning friends who
tried to avoid dialing 9-1-1.
Along with protecting his own children while saving those of others, the EMT has to watch out for himself, as when awaiting the results of a biopsy in “Kokopelli”:
This mole has been flowering for a year, borderless
as the world should be, erecting its own odd shape
and direction. I study the scan and decide it looks
like a person running with frazzled hair on fire.
Through it all run the risk of being jaded and the redemptive power of success described in “Paramedicine”:
Angels of 9-1-1 dials we swoop in, black-winged,
echoing lights and sirens. Overburdened
by what we’ve seen.
When we do succeed, it thaws us a moment.
“Sirens” completes the point, and adds that, for all the loneliness imposed by the profession’s pain, every call is a shared act of devotion to others in their time of need:
This is for the emergency worker who either aids a patient or
escorts their soul to an otherwise reality, the ventricular tachycardia, the asystole, the loss and bad memories, for the paramedic, the firefighter, the nurse and police, the doctor, the dispatcher and the EMT, always fighting for a stranger in need, a person who walks out the hospital ten days later under their own power and says:
You saved me.
The Street Medic, with its twenty-eight direct and almost flawlessly simple free-verse poems,clearly earned its 2018 Palooka Press Chapbook Award. It most certainly deserves a spot on your shelf reserved for books to return to over the years.
Joe Amaral’s poetry collection “The Street Medic” won the 2018 Palooka Press Chapbook Contest. Joe works 48-hour shifts as a paramedic on the California central coast, spending days off adventuring outdoors with his young family: camping, hiking, world traveling, and hosting foreign exchange students. Joe was born and raised on a chicken farm in the East Bay Area. He has a Forestry and Natural Resources degree from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo with a concentration in watershed, chaparral and fire management. Joe’s writing has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies across the universe such as 3Elements Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, Arcadia Magazine, New Verse News, Panoply, Poets Reading the News, Postcard Poems and Prose, Rise Up Review, The Good Men Project, WORDPEACE and Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora. Joe won the 2014 Ingrid Reti Literary Award and the 2018 Golden Quill Award for poetry. His poem, Epochal, was also a Finalist for the River Heron Poetry Prize.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.