The Poetry of Nursing

by Natalie Safir





Ed. Judy Schaeffer, The Kent State University Press, 2006

Review by Natalie Safir


            The common thread that connects the varied, carefully crafted poems in this anthology of poems and commentaries by nurses, is the authors’ way of being in the world.    As caring, active witnesses of the human condition, they have been trained to be acute observers of detail and nuance who must remain alert, efficient, and present to all possibilities of illness and health. The poems have been inspired by tangible moments of experience, witnessed, integrated and recorded. It is in these processes that the healing nature of saving, reclaiming, and transforming can take place.

            Cortney Davis (p.22) tells us that she learned early that “writing holds on to things, and it also lets them go.  It allows you to change the outcome of events.  It gives you wings and, at the same time, binds you to reality. Writing encourages you to pay attention with all your senses… when you write, you stumble upon metaphors that allow you to describe even the most abstract emotions in concrete words.“ (p 22) When she writes,  she adds, poetry and nursing merge - “the poem becomes the place in which the act of caring becomes a way of keeping, and the mysteries of our world are revealed in the sensual reality of physical detail.” (p23)

            This is wonderfully expressed in a poem titled  “The Nurse’s Pockets.” (p 25)  A nurse, reentering the room of a patient who has just died

            …“finds nothing/but the bed with its depression,/its map of sheets she strips./ In the drawer, gumdrops.  A comb/woven with light hair, and a book/with certain pages marked./ She takes all these into her pockets./She has trunks in every room   of her home./full of such ordinary things.”


            In “The Good Nurse,” p. 29. she speaks of the emotional compensations nursing can provide:

            “the kiss has everything to do/with sons who look at us/and disappear,  daughters/who line their eyes with blue/and borrow our too-loud laughter./We want to bind them/in our arms.  Instead, we tend/the patient who longs for us”


            The  poems in this anthology exhibit a consistent courage - the power, perhaps the training, to look “with bare eyes.” (Davis, p. 26)  Nurses have to see what is happening on a literal and a metaphoric level.  However difficult to see and process, nurses have to be there at the front of human illness and vulnerability, must do what needs to be done, and be able to function in the face of extreme pressure and difficulty. And as Leanne Mercer expresses this (p 99) “to keep open the possibility of seeing with the heart what is invisible to the eye” as has been well stated in The Little Prince.

            The courage to see in these poems - is described in fitting metaphor in Jeanne Brynner’s essay  (p 18): “those who are called to speak must lift bandages to describe the wound’s terrible beauty.”   Writing poems enables her to “speak in a bold voice” she cannot wrestle forth in any other way. (p 8).  She reminds us that “much of nursing is observation and documentation” and that her work as a poet enables her to document the journeys of others. 

            The dual natures of nurses--methodical, accurate, disciplined, knowledgeable,   must coexist with their capacities for compassion, intuition, creativity, and caring. In addition,  the imagination to transcend borders allows these poems to come into being. It seems fitting that the poems offered are accompanied by commentary and explication by the authors which reveal the degree of awareness and intention in the work.

            The poets employ vivid, dramatic body imagery in their pieces. “Being around bodies in pain and in various stages of healing, I recognize how hard the body works to repair itself and stay well.“ (p 14) Jeanne Bryner comments. “In Praise of Hands” p14, she writes:

            “That they are slaves./That each tendon’s a rope/and the knuckles are pulleys./ That their white bones/line up like pieces of broken chalk.”          


            From her unique vantage point, Sandra Bishop Ebner in “Size and Surgical Gloves”
(p 58) chills us with:

            “Listen to the scream/of saw/ as it splits sternum”

            In the unflinching, awful details of “Dehiscence,” (p 71)  Amy Haddad writes:

            “You have come unstitched/Holes appear in your threadbare abdomen“ and later in the same poem:

            “Since I am helpless in the face of your tragedy,/I give you the certainty and calmness of my motion,/the competence and comfort of my touch”


In “Chemotherapy Lounge” (p 76)  Haddad gives a tough assessment of conditions to which patients are subject in pursuit of a cancer cure.

            “The faintly metallic odor of noxious drugs,/the sour-sweet overlay of     vomit/permeates everything, even the carpet./Trapped in our seats,/plugged to poles,/we sit for hours./Poisoning takes time.”


            Recording what he has seen and experienced, Theodore Deppe in “Admission Children’s Unit,” (p 43) takes a deeply upsetting look at a mother’s behavior.

            “Her red hair/was pulled back in a braid, she tugged at its flames/and what she’d done, it turns out, was hold her son/so her boyfriend could burn him with cigarettes.“         


            In a poem called “Sunrise” (p 103) Leanne Mercer, writing about her mother’s death, and in an effort to gain greater understanding, sets the poem in a place of nurturance:

            “Cottonwood and Russian olive trees/exhale silent green light./the sun begins its slow smile/down red canyon walls./Broken trees raise arthritic/limbs in supplication.”

Mercer tells us “I have learned to listen to incoming messages and to act upon what I believe to be true.“ (P 105)


Addressing a friend at home dying of cancer, Geri Rosenzweig in “Prism” (p 128) expresses her tenderness with a  quiet prayer:    

            “let the visitor, hurrying/ up the path, lift the latch/to find your hair grown back,/the wool cap you wore/flung useless in a closet”

Rosenzweig  confronts her own mortality in “This Bach Cantata” (p 125) as she muses:

            “before the children’s/voices grow rough/on the phone./O before I forget their   names/let me remember/where the pills are/the silk robe/the carafe of wine/Lead me to this Bach cantata/I put by with clear instructions.”


            In her commentary, Rosenzweig offers another parallel between the nurse’s and the poet’s mission:  “ as nurses tend to people, writers are tending to the poem - listening for what it needs, knowing when to nourish, add and when to leave it alone“…(p 130)

            The nurse poets, close as they are to the anomalies of life and death are always on some level dealing with the wonder and mystery of life.  In “Higher Learning,” (p 179 ) Constance Studer writes candidly:

            “And I have no answers/only two hands; rubbing lotion into my sister’s skin”

            The poems are engaged, serious, sometimes ironic, irreverent, but always claim the power of true emotion. We can recognize a poem’s tenderness, harshness or acceptance to the world around it in the subtleties of voice and form. Poetry “thinks’ by sound and image.  It can approximate the actual flavor of life in which objective and subjective become one,  in which the conceptual mind and the feeling/experiential senses combine.

            In poetry, through an intense compression of meaning -- mind, emotion, body and perception are entwined, each circling into the realm of the others. Such interweaving forges an imaginative understanding in which language is not so much an object of attention as an act of attention played out before us and within  us. These poems, in their strength, variety, careful attention to craft and thoughtfulness engage us, deepen intensity, and enhance the life experience of the reader.



NATALIE SAFIR has been publishing poems in literary journals such as Slant, Rhino, Madison Review, Mid-America Review, Pivot, the MacGuffin, etc. since the 1980s and anthologized in college texts: Reading Poetry, Random House Educational Division, Literature, and The McGraw Hill Book of Poetry, and Responding to Literature, 3rd 4th and 5th editions, through 2005. Her books published are Moving into Seasons, 1981, To Face the Inscription, 1987, and Made Visible in 1998. Poet and then Chairman of the Writing Program at Sarah Lawrence, Thomas Lux, wrote: "I admire very much these utterly lucid, distilled, and powerful poems." Her fourth collection, A Clear Burning, was published in 2004. Poet Michael Waters called this "a book of deep and wild sustenance."  She had edited poetry for "Gravida" and "Inprint" and taught poetry writing workshops for many years.

Click here to read poems from The Poetry of Nursing.