From the “Iliad” to “The Rabbit With the Droopy Ear”

Question: What was the first thing you read that made you want to become a poet?

Rita Dove: This sounds really weird, but when I was about 10 or 11 I stumbled across the Iliad at home. My father had bought the great books of the western world and one of the first books there was the Iliad. I had no idea what it was, but it was a very long thing and I thought this is the beginning of literature, so I’m going to read this and I understood probably about half of it, but it was fascinating. It was an incredibly tense and interesting story and once I got into the whole way that the poems worked it read like a swashbuckling mystery in a way, so that made me feel like gosh, this is exciting. I’d like to do that too.

Question: What was the first poem you wrote?

Rita Dove: I do. I wrote poems before this, but the one that I consider the first real poem was about that time too. It was an Easter poem. In school we were supposed to write or paint or do something artistic for Easter, so I wrote this poem called “The Rabbit With the Droopy Ear” and I remember it because when I began writing the poem I had no idea how it was going to end. I just had this idea of a rabbit, the Easter Bunny who had one ear that you know drooped down and he was distressed, so I kept writing and it rhymed and all that and it was actually the rhyme itself that helped me solve the problem of the rabbit with the droopy ear, so the end of the poem it goes: “Hip-hip hooray. Let’s toast him a cup. For now both ears are hanging up.” He hangs himself from a tree and his ears hang straight and everybody is cheering and I was just… I don’t know. It was very exciting to find that ending.

I actually had to read it aloud in class. That was another thing. Gosh, those were the days when you did these things in class, but you know people showed their paintings if they had something for Easter and I had to read my poem aloud and people like it. The kids liked it, my friends, so that was an instant success story.

Question: Has your method of writing poetry changed throughout your life?

Rita Dove: It hasn’t totally changed. It’s changed in the sense that to some extent I know… Let’s say that the goal is not to come to some kind of neat solution as that did, but it hasn’t changed in the sense that at some level I’m never quite sure how the poem is going to resolve itself and that I’m always in some way surprised. I make a discovery in a poem as I write it. By now that means more accessing the subconscious and the fact that if I begin writing a poem that means I’m intrigued in some way by whatever it’s about and that if I’m not trying to find something new and pushing the envelope in the poem I can’t expect my reader to be particularly excited about it either.

Recorded on November 19, 2009

Rita Dove recalls her first poetic experience.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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