Campo knows firsthand the way modern medicine’s focus on efficiency and testing can categorize and dehumanize patients, and has witnessed the consequences of relying on lab results and generalities without the context of personal story. Like many of his poems, “The Chart” embodies the empathy he wants patients to find not only in their physicians, but also in their neighbors, teachers, co-workers, and classmates.
The patient in “The Chart” is a “fifty-four-year-old obese Hispanic / female”: categories the speaker individualizes as he predicts who is waiting on the other side of the exam door. He expands Hispanic to Peruvian, Dominican, Cuban, Mexican, and Columbian; he hears their voices – the tamale vendor telling him he’s “too thin” and the drug addict’s perfect Spanish.
In quick sketches, the fifty-four-year-old female becomes someone who is a lady and grandmother, who braids her hair, applies rouge, has a vocation, has lost her youthful beauty,
"hoards the littered papers she collects / and says they are her ‘documents’"
"drunk / on grief. "
The layered meaning of “documents” in this context and the enjambment of “drunk / on grief” illustrate how Campo’s careful choices about craft amplify the poem’s emotional and psychological power.
The sixth woman the speaker imagines doesn't volunteer information about herself, so he studies her gestures for clues about her story, noticing the
"lace handkerchief balled up in her plump hand,"
a habit that reminds the speaker of his grandmother
"who died too young from a condition that
some doctor, nose in her chart, overlooked."
As the poem reaches its turn in these final lines, the speaker has left the predictive value of the chart’s categories in shambles, revealing in each sketch a detail—nutrition, work conditions, depression, homelessness—that could inform a diagnosis. He has also replaced the clinical term “obese” with “plump.”
In terms of literary craft, there is much to study beyond enjambment and diction, including the poem’s musicality and its masterful structure as a single sentence.
For young people frustrated by assumptions made about them based on their age or race or neighborhood, this poem offers a side door into those experiences, and since obesity remains an aspect of outward appearance that passersby seem free to disdain, its inclusion further widens the poem's embrace.
"The Chart" has many potential audiences: literature and writing students, medical students, healthcare professionals, policymakers, advocates for health services, and everyone who’s felt overlooked by institutions, including schools, that view them as a collection of data points.
To read Rafael Campo's biography and several of his poems, including "The Chart" which was published in the January 2015 issue of Poetry magazine, go to his page on the Poetry Foundation's web site.