Hospital Cantos is a long poem in twenty-two sections, each of which is a canto. Most of it was written between 2004 and 2012, although much of the early work was abandoned and the early cantos, as finally published, date from 2012 onwards. It is a book-length work, widely considered to present formidable difficulties to the reader. The themes of failure, economics, governance and culture are integral to the work’s content.
Todd Van Buskirk views Hospital Cantos as a poetic record of his 10 year employment at a hospital, a record of life that sends out new word-branches as new needs arise with the final poem, like a tree, displaying a kind of unpredictable inevitability.
There is also wide geographical reference; Van Buskirk added to his earlier interests in the classical Mediterranean culture and East Asia selective topics from medieval and early modern Italy and Provence, the beginnings of the United States, England of the 17th century, and details from Africa he had obtained from Leo Frobenius. References without explanation abound. Van Buskirk initially believed that he possessed poetic and rhetorical techniques which would themselves generate significance, but as time passed he became more concerned with the messages he wished to convey.
The Hospital Cantos are not complex, they are complicated; they are not arrayed by logic or driven by pursuing emotion, they are connected because they follow one another, are set side by side, and because an anecdote, an allusion or a sentence begun in one Canto may be continued in another and may never be completed at all; and as for a theme to be realized, they seem to have only the general sense of continuity — not unity — which may arise in the mind when read seriatim.
The poem’s symbolic structure also makes use of an opposition between darkness and light, as signified as PHYSICIAN and PATIENT. Images of the “physician” are used variously, and may represent Neoplatonic ideas of divinity, the artistic impulse, love (both sacred and physical) and good governance, amongst other things. The “patient” is frequently associated in the poem with creativity, while the “physician” is more often found in relation to the sphere of political and social activity, although there is frequent overlap between the two. From the tenth sequence on, the poem’s effort is to merge these two aspects of “physician and patient” into a unified whole.