Saturday, May 1, 2010

Interpreting Chest X-rays

So, I received notice about a new book just out on the subject of interpreting chest X-rays. This ad was academic publisher spam. I'm in the humanities, for crying out loud! And yet, the cover of the book intrigued me aesthetically. It isn't often that you see orange and mauve backlighting the rib cage.:

It turns out there is a whole cottage industry of X-ray art. I love when science and art collide. This is why I'm so interested by information aesthetics and data art. But this book interested me for another reason. As an English professor I've been in the interpretation business for a long time. I wondered, what are the hermeneutical hurdles of other fields? And with something as inherently, literally fuzzy as X-rays, could I find in radiology a kinship with the anxieties of analysis that fuel so many discussions of art and literature? So I glanced at the table of contents.

And there it was, listed under Chapter 7 (on lung tumours), shining like a pearl swept up onto the sand by a friendly tide: "The solitary pulmonary nodule." Now, that might mean nothing to you (and semantically, it certainly meant nothing to me); but for someone who has a keen eye out for found pentameters (examples of iambic pentameter occurring unconsciously in the wild), this was pay dirt. Can you just hear that rhythm? Who cares what it means? That rhythm just sings: "the SOL i TAR y PUL mon AR y NOD ule." Now, purists will note that there is an extra, 11th syllable, unaccented at the end of the line. But that only paves the way for a feminine rhyme (...I'm thinking, "module"?) and has been perfectly acceptable in sonnets (Shakespeare's sonnet #20 is silly with them)

Well, when one is writing a sonnet a day, a found pentameter is pretty much akin to a sign from the heavens. That's when I knew that I must explore the dark art of X-ray interpretation for my sonnet today.  (The image that follows is a chest X-ray that I overlapped with a Rorschach ink blot image to try to suggest the mystery of this sort of interpretation.)

Interpreting Chest X-rays
by Gideon Burton

Ignore the ribs, the diaphragm, the spine--
they orient our looking but distract.
Assess the lung expansion, any line
across the lobes? One part may have collapsed.
Now look for masses, lesions, cavities
for pleural thickening or asthma's signs.
Has emphysema left no travesties?
That does not set aside pneumonia's kind.
No diagonistic radiographer,
I hesitate with certainty to say,
but technically one is the soul's biographer
who tells the tales unveiled in chest X-rays.
     A solitary pulmonary nodule?
     Perhaps, but science darkly blurs its modules.
Feel free to copy, imitate, remix, or redistribute this poem as long as you give proper acknowledgment of authorship.


  1. Wow. You're a little strange. You know that, right?

  2. "I am the very model of a modern solitary pulmonary nodule."