The Milkweed Monarchs – Commended NHS Entry – Hippocrates Poetry Prize 2014


The Milkweed Monarchs

I was riding my favourite bike. The Chopper
with the red flag and the silver streamers on the handlebars.
Minding my own business, cruising down Beach Road
to school at Kaikoura Flat. Happened right outside the
Whale Watch Office. “Idiot tourists,” Dad said,
“never bloody look where they’re going.”

Don’t remember much after that. Just the pain
in my tummy, the chunder and that funny shaped
bruise that crept like a shadow across my skin.
“Handlebars mashed his Pancreas,” the guy said to Mum
after they airlifted me to Christchurch. Wish I could
remember the ride. They’d given me the needle by then.

Couldn’t understand a word when I came to; most of
the docs were from England. Got my own room
on the kids ward though, was pretty stoked at first.
Turns out nine weeks in one room can really turn you off
a place. Kept telling me I couldn’t eat and put a stupid
tube in my chest, for the ‘food’ to drip in overnight.

Would’ve gone mad if it weren’t for the Monarchs.
Mum and Dad bought them in from the farm,
loads of tiny ones on bunches of Milkweed. Boy were
they hungry, just ate and ate whilst I couldn’t. Got fatter
and fatter, the black and yellow stripes growing
further apart. Docs were more interested in them than me.

Didn’t mind though, those ugly critters. Gave most of them
names. Watched how they crawled round my room before
they tucked their tails under like upside-down question marks.
Mum said I was daft, but I knew they would save me.
As soon as they slipped on those bright green overcoats
and changed for good, wearing precious crowns of gold.

“Coincidence,” the docs said. I don’t reckon. My pancreas
would’ve been stuffed if it weren’t for them. When the
cocoons turned black and then transparent, I could see
orange wings inside. First one came out all small and wet
with a loud POP. Just like the noise my brother makes
when people kiss on TV. I knew it was my time too.

Pressed the buzzer and the nurses came flying.
Pulled out the drips, blood spurting over the sheets
but I was free. Stretched my arms wide and stuffed a
Chocolate Fish in my mouth before they got near me.
You should’ve heard the shouting, but I didn’t care;
there weren’t no Pseudocyst in me no more.


I was inspired to write the poem ‘The Milkweed Monarchs’ after working as a junior doctor in Paediatrics in New Zealand. The parents of a patient brought in Milkweed plants with tiny caterpillars on to entertain her (and all the staff too.) The memory of those caterpillars turning into Monarch butterflies on the children’s ward whilst the patient recovered is something that will always stay with me.


The Hippocrates Prize has attracted interest from 61 countries in the 5 years since its launch.
The prize, at £5000 is among the largest of its kind in the world for a single poem.
It aims to bring together interest in the interface between health and poetry from health professionals, patients and their families, and poets from around the world.


Words Copyright Eliot North 2014.


Image from Brain Pickings – ‘Art, Science and Butterfly Metamorphosis: How a 17th-Century Woman Laid the Foundations of Modern Entomology.’

(I realise this isn’t a Monarch Image or Milkweed BUT it’s a lovely image and a great post from Brain Pickings. Check it to below……)


Ensemble : A Poem about the beginnings of Performing Research

Ensemble : A Poem about the beginnings of Performing Research


In darkness, we gather at St Luke’s
on Claremont. Light shines
from mullioned windows.

Strangers, we search for a way inside
(outside our normal spheres.)

Known only by symbols:
we do not speak, yet we say so much.

We move alone
before we group and clump,
divide and separate.

Making mirrors of each other’s bodies.

We Stop,
We Go,
Jump Up,
Crouch Down.

Go back then forwards.
Or is it just the reverse?

We make eye contact,
then break away.

Only to look back over our shoulders
(before doing it again with someone new.)

Nothing here is proper:
we are no longer comforted by fact.

Instructed we form a circle.
Move closer, closer,closer
until our bodies touch.

Shoulder to shoulder,
arm in arm,
holding ourselves and then each other.
Palm to palm,
flesh pressed into flesh.

We move,
always some part of our body in contact
with another’s.

Out of curiosity,
and then in anger.
Through mud and water
we make connections.

Breathing, sweating, limbs entwining,
clamouring to the compass points.

Repelled and attracted in equal measure.

Neither death nor gravity can part us:

We Move Together
As One.

Words Copyright Eliot North 2014


I read this poem after the Performing Research show at Northern Stage on 27th March 2014. We then had a panel discussion about using performance and theatre to engage the public and explore our different cross-disciplinary research and teaching interests throughout Newcastle University.  It was a fabulous night and has been a hugely successful and enriching experience being part of the Performing Research ensemble guided by Cap-a-Pie.

A Curious Art: The Evelyn Tables

A Curious Art: The Evelyn Tables

A Curious Art:
The Evelyn Tables

Four wooden boards,
bodies splayed out.
Engrained into knots;
Italian pine.

Spinal cord draped,
melted branches.
Soft varnished hard;
invisible ink.

Arteries glow red,
injected pigment.
Thickly voluptuous;
pulses bound.

Sympathetic starburst,
nervous system.
Innervate our organs;
liver and lung.

Veins hang limply,
cut the strings.
Movement arrested;
no return.

Evelyn’s tables,
Hunterian Museum.
Seeing wooden eyes;
ancient dead.

Words Copyright Eliot North 2014

With thanks for the inspiration to The Hunterian Museum, Royal College of surgeons.  Check out their twitter feed: @HunterianLondon

Check out this fab video made by The Royal College of Physicians with information about anatomical tables.

The Story Behind ‘Curious Anatomys’

I love the Hunterian Museum (at The Royal College of Surgeons: Holborn, London) and the good news is it’s open to the public. On both of my visits I haven’t been able to move past the Evelyn Tables at the entrance to the museum. Something about their solid but other-wordly presence arrests me every time I walk through the door of the museum. I think this might be because they are one of the very few displays made of wood. Glowing,  eerie wood with human remains artfully displayed, almost melting into the grains and knots.

So that’s where this poem came from. I find the Evelyn Tables arresting in a way that is difficult to put my finger on, so the poem is an exploration of that as well as an attempt to put into words what they look and feel like to view them. The above poem is part of my collaboration with artist Rachael Allen. We secured a collaboration bursary from a-n: ‘Lessons in Anatomy: Dissecting medicine and health through visual and literary arts collaboration.’ For more information please click on this link:





Doctors as Writers

The title of my blog ‘Chekhov was a doctor’ was taken from something the writer William Fiennes said to me on an Arvon writing course. I had just started to write really and this week was the first creative writing course I’d been on. William Fiennes and Mark Haddon were the tutors and I totally lucked out getting a place. There is nothing like reading aloud your own writing to get the nerves flying but it was one of the most inspiring weeks I’ve ever experienced. After a tutorial with William Fiennes I said, “So I shouldn’t give up the day job just yet”  (I work as a GP) and he said to me “Well Chekhov was a doctor.”

I’ll never forget that moment of encouragement and here is the blog that sparked off from that comment. I was amazed when I realised how many famous authors were also doctors and I wish I could have made this lecture in Edinburgh last year, but I’m sure there will be many more.

Centre for Medical Humanities Blog

Edinburgh University Medical Humanities Research Network presents:
Doctors as Writers
Panel discussion
Wednesday 14th November 6 – 7.45 pm
Followed by a wine reception
Teviot Lecture Theatre, Old Medical School, Doorway 5

There is a long tradition of doctor-writers throughout history, most  notably from the eighteenth century onwards, but going as far back as antiquity. From Keats to Smollett, from Chekhov to Conan Doyle, physicians have written about the great dramas of human life and existence. From their unique insight into life and death situations, doctors have created some of the most fascinating stories and characters in literature.
Dr Iain McClure, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist for the NHS and playwright for the BBC; Dr Gavin Francis, local Edinburgh GP and travel writer; Dr Peter Dorward, local Edinburgh GP, university lecturer and award-winning short fiction writer will form a panel discussing the ways in which being a doctor helps them…

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Son of Icarus

Son of Icarus

Earl knew he had one on Icarus; his batwings were coated with Asbestos.

“When I jump from that plane I’ll damn well fly,” he wheezed.

Image from The Retronaut website:

Twitter Fiction: Copyright 2013 Eliot North


Anyone wanting inspiration should definitely check out The Retronaut website and connect on twitter. I feel many more Twitter Fiction stories brewing from some of the amazing photographic archives they have (time capsules in retronaut speak)