Guest Post, Cortney Davis: Who’s Your Daddy?

father and daughter
“Best days of my life” by Mattias Brännlund is licensed under CC by 2.0

Regardless of our life circumstances, we each have a biological mother and father. 50% of our genetic make-up comes from Mom, and 50% comes from Dad. But as writers, we also have another set of “parents.” They may be living, or they may have died decades, even centuries ago. They may come from another country or write in a foreign language. We may not agree with their politics or life choices, nevertheless these other parents influence our lives. They are the poets and writers who have shaped if not our genetic futures, then certainly our creative destinies. These special parents are not simply the writers we admire―they are the writers whose work has turned us inside out, touched our souls, and changed the way we put pen to paper. Often, we recognize our creative parents immediately and instinctively. Sometimes, our connection to them becomes evident only over time.

My poetry “Mom” is Anne Sexton. Although I’d written as a child, I returned to writing seriously as a wife and mother during the decade when feminist and confessional writing flourished. Involved in both undergraduate studies and an ongoing women’s writing workshop, I was taught that nothing in a woman’s life was out of bounds. Suddenly, it was okay to write about our most intimate bodily details, about our psychological struggles, our families’ flaws and our innermost yearnings. Of course, reading Anne Sexton was required. I admired her poetry for its boldness and its craft, but I didn’t recognize her as my poetry mother until a few years later, when I was about to graduate, finally, with a BA in English and a minor in Creative Writing.

It was late, maybe midnight or 1 a.m. My husband and my two children were sleeping, and I was in the family room, curled in a chair, laboring over a poem that wasn’t quite working. I was deep into that space we writers can sometimes enter, that place in which time is meaningless and there seems to be an open conduit between our unconscious mind and our hand. Pausing in my writing, I felt a presence enter the room. It was clearly feminine, and generously approving. It seemed to surround me and―perhaps because in that mysterious space we have access to understandings that elude us otherwise―I knew, in my very marrow, that this presence was Anne Sexton. Then and there, she claimed me.

She’d died by her own hand in 1974, years before this visitation occurred. I was already moving away from purely confessional writing, sensing that some events were better left to memory or exploration in a private journal. And, at that point, Sexton wasn’t even my “favorite” poet. Maybe I’d been half-asleep or dreaming. Regardless, in that encounter, I was infused with a deep recognition. There was, and is, something about her ability to blend the formal with the personal, the way she risks the edge in her poetry, and how her poetic voice is both vulnerable and determined, that captured me. Her presence faded, and I returned to my poem; new, just-right words easily led to a perfect closure. Since then, when my poetic bravery wanes or my poetry becomes too staid, too bland, I return to be nourished by Anne Sexton’s poetic strengths.

Wallace Stevens is my poetry “Dad.” (Imagine that marriage, Anne and Wallace debating the purposes of poetry over dinner!) Again, although I’d read volumes of Steven’s work as an undergraduate, it wasn’t until I was doing graduate work at New York University that I recognized Stevens as my creative father. One of my teachers, Galway Kinnell, required regular memorization of poems. We had to absorb every word, every line break, every punctuation mark, and so be prepared not only to speak our chosen poems, but also to transcribe them perfectly. One week, I chose Stevens’ “Peter Quince at the Clavier.” If you don’t know this poem, find it. Read it. Get lost in it. That’s what I did, and in the process some of Stevens’ poetry DNA became mine. After I recited the poem, Galway Kinnell said, “His rhythms seem to suit you perfectly,” and I could feel it too. It was as if Stevens’ poetic constructions―the placement of his line breaks, the mysterious underbelly of his stanzas―fit into my own creative sensibilities like a final puzzle piece locking into place.

There were other factors too. Stevens had a day job, as I did. His co-workers didn’t know he was a poet, and neither did mine. He embraced a certain privacy and orderliness, evident in his poetry, and yet that order worked to amplify, in a paradoxical way, the secrets and tensions that lived beneath the surface. In “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” Stevens suggests that it’s the misery of not having poetry, of not having something beautiful in your heart, that might be fatal to the human spirit. When my poetic music threatens to fade, or my poems seem too superficial, lacking that lovely “touch of strange,” I return to Stevens, especially to that poem I memorized so long ago.

Maybe you have also discovered your creative parents along the way. Artists too have creative parents, and it’s not unheard of for a writer to have an artist or a sculptor as his or her creative parent. Happily, we can even assemble entire families. Although in reality I’m an only child, my poetry sisters are Sharon Olds and Dorianne Laux. My poetry brother is, without a doubt, Henri Cole. My poetry aunt, on my mother’s side, is Louise Glück. My poetry uncle, on my father’s side, is Yehuda Amichai. My favorite poetry cousin is nurse-poet Jeanne Bryner. An eclectic family indeed, but wholly mine. And while I honor them differently than I honor my actual relatives, I return to my creative parents and siblings again and again, for guidance, for reassurance, and simply for the pure pleasure of being in their company.

Guest Post, Cortney Davis: Last Summer, I Became My Poems

cortneydavisAs a nurse practitioner who has worked in Intensive Care, on the Oncology Ward, and in Women’s Health, I’ve never had to search for “ideas” for poems—observed moments of grief, the joys of healing, the mysteries of birth and death.  As a proponent of the genre variously titled Literature and Medicine, or Medical Humanities, or Narrative Medicine, I’ve written about what it’s like to be a caregiver and I’ve written about my patients.

For me, nursing and literature long ago merged: The mysteries of existence are revealed in writing that is grounded in the sensual reality of the human body.

I’ve believed that my poems about what I do as a nurse are authentic; they are written from my experience, from inside the moment. I’ve also hoped that my poems about patients are authentic—I share incredibly intimate moments with them. But lately I’ve been wondering:  How successful can I be—can we be—when we write as if we know what someone else is experiencing?  I’m not talking about persona poems, fictional characters, composite characters, or bits and pieces taken from our imaginations.  I mean what happens when we write about someone else, a real someone else, as if we, for the space of the poem, are qualified to speak for them?

This “dual vision”—writing about our lives yet also claiming to know another’s—may be a problem particularly for nurses and doctors who write about their work; yet it’s something we all might consider. I’ll begin by sharing two poems, examples of my particular dual vision. In this first poem I write about my experience of being a caregiver; in the second, I speak as if I am the patient.

                         Examining the Abused Woman

Her face, when she turns, is like a peach
left in the refrigerator drawer too long,

nose and cheek caved in, as if underneath
the fleshy matrix has been chewed away.

When I ask past medical history, she lists
the broken bones:

Humerus, ulna, sternum, nose, jaw, twice,
eye socket, she points, here.

I palpate her face, dip my fingers
into the little valley of her clavicle, scared

to press too hard. I see her bare.
She breathes, I listen with a stethoscope,

her breath like wind drawn down a New York alleyway.
All the time we talk.

I memorize her puffy feet, her pubic hair,
the scars that rise like topographic maps

across her abdomen. Hand slicked
with lubricant, I probe to touch her ovaries,

hold her uterus between my open palms.
She says she lives in Westchester, a home of sorts.

I finish the exam. She dresses and, not looking up,
thanks me for being kind. How could I say

It’s no use to hate or I bless you with my fingertips?
It’s me who is afraid.

—from Leopold’s Maneuvers (University of Nebraska Press)

In “Examining the Abused Woman,” the reader sees through my eyes and shares my thoughts.  Certainly we often write this way: first person, I was there, you can believe that this is accurate information about what happened!  And I’ve found that readers often want to believe that when we write “I,” unless otherwise indicated, we are telling the truth, at least the metaphoric truth.

In the following poem, I am a patient, content in her illness, easing into a gentle death, even a welcomed one.

            The Patient Speaks

I am in love
with my bed, my radio
and the gilly-flowers
wilting on the cold sill.

I love this room.
It is mine
my whole life.
The nurse knows
my name; my name
is on the door.
She knows I am ticklish
and like my feet soaked.
I am riding
the big wave.
I wait for my doctor;
he is not afraid
of my bony hand.

The flowers
are so quiet.
Like them
I will sleep,
my body deepening
into this
most beautiful bed
I’ve ever known—
my sheets, my love,
my pillow.

Although this patient is un-named, I assumed, observing her, that these were her correct emotions; I wrote of her calm in the face of impending death.  But what if I was wrong?

Just as I was considering how and when a poet might be justified in taking liberties with interpreting another’s experience, and how and when the resulting poem might take on its own life, rendering a correct or incorrect interpretation meaningless, various tragedies began to devastate both the world and my own neighborhood.  I have good friends in Newtown whose kids go to school in Sandy Hook, friends whose lives were forever changed.  I watched as they struggled to heal. I witnessed how Newtown quickly developed a culture of its own, in a way similar to the unique culture that develops within an ICU or a cancer ward, where patients, like a town’s residents, suffer not only individually but also collectively.  While many writers rushed to publish their interpretations of this tragedy, I realized that I, on the outside, couldn’t truly enter or understand the culture—the narrative—of Sandy Hook.  Such understanding, I thought, might be possible only when one’s own town was suddenly struck with disaster.

And perhaps a nurse could not truly understand another’s illness narrative, could not authentically plumb another’s suffering for poems or essays, unless the nurse’s body suddenly fell prey to its own disaster.

In the summer of 2013, I was admitted for a routine, one-day surgery.  Everything went wrong, and I was hospitalized for 26 days.  No longer interpreting another’s illness, I stepped right into my own tragedy;  the nurse became a patient, and I became my poems.  Although I write about the world of illness and healing, who among us has not stepped into his or her own poems—into the narrative of divorce, war, depression, poverty, abuse, disability, the suffering of loved ones, disappointment, loss, indecision and fear?

At home, recovering, I could not write about my illness, which had been both life altering and life threatening.  So this is what it’s like to be inside a patient’s narrative! So this is what it’s like to have those around you think that they correctly hear you and understand your words and actions! How clearly I saw that if the doctors and nurses who cared for me tried to write my story, they would get it wrong. 

Although I couldn’t respond to my hospitalization in poems, I found comfort and release in painting.  In a rush, I painted twelve “poems” on canvas, individual moments that called out for contemplation. Maybe someday I will write about those 26 days; maybe I will write about the other patients I met there.  When I do, I will write with new caution, new respect for how, while I may know my own narrative, I can only intuit another’s.  I might just show my poem to that patient and ask, did I get it right?  Can you help me be a better poet?


 The Second Painting: The Experience of Pain: “On a Scale of One to Ten”