Showing 1 - 10 of 59 annotations contributed by Davis, Cortney

Plaintive Music

Domen, Ron

Last Updated: Dec-05-2017
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

Physician Ron Domen's first full-length poetry collection, "Plaintive Music," deserves, and requires, close and attentive reading. In these 47 poems, Domen favors short lines and keen attention to both sound and image.   

The collection begins with the poet's observations of nature, primarily celebratory poems with lush descriptions and musical language, including poetic tributes to  artist Charles Burchfield (pp. 1-6) and to Domen's father (pp.8-9). 

Human life is often considered through the lens of woods and birds, gray slate and rain, naturally occurring elements that lead to memories of family and place ("Wooden Ties" p. 10 and "Cutting Wood with my Son" p. 14). Domen's images, which are rich and exact, often reflect his physician training and experiences.  Consider these lines from "Woodturner" (p. 12).  The poet is working a lathe, shaping a birch log into a bowl until "the white / grain streaked blue and brown / with minerals nursed from the earth / glows like the veined translucent / skin of a newborn child."

The middle section of "Plaintive Music" includes poems that examine the many facets of the poet's experiences as a physician, beginning with the wonderful "Studying Medicine in Guadalajara, Mexico: 1971-1975" (pp 17-22). 

To read this powerful poem is to be there, driving to "the Queen City" five thousand feet high / in the Valley of Altemajac south / of the Tropic of Cancer" (p. 18), witnessing the lack of sophisticated cures ("No oxygen or drugs or IVs / and no machines to shock the heart / back to life only bare hands / pushed on his chest . . . " p. 19), "going door to door / to find the sick" (p. 20), and dissecting corpses pulled from a formaldehyde tank ("and each day scraped / and peeled away more flesh until nothing / was left to dissect and only / the bones remained" p. 22).  

This poem is followed by a long poetic prose statement, "Belated Letter to a Mother," in which the narrator recalls a night thirty years ago when, as an internal medicine resident, he was called upon to care for a battered child and give witness to the complexities of human frailty. Embedded in the letter are a few lines that perfectly describe the role of the caregiver: "That sometimes all we can do is what the poet does-- "to see, to hear, to feel-- and more times than not, it is enough" (p. 25).  

Poems on pages 17-36 especially gain power from the poet-physician's point of view.  Final poems move again into the realm of nature, but here the themes are darker, reflecting the wages of learning to heal:

"I studied in medical school to learn / what actually lies under thick / layers of skin and how the heart / hides behind the breastplate" ("Armadillo" p. 33).  

This collection comes full circle, beginning in "a time when flowers / had thoughts and the hills heard / turtles speak of the brilliant colors / of things growing" ("Beaver Creek" p. 1) and ending in winter, the darkest season, but not without its own beauty: "Snow begins to fall once again / on this windswept knoll along / the Lehigh River where the black // bony trees and dark gravestones / dot the slope of Nisky Hill" ("On Buying Our Gravesite" p. 61).

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Mandatory Evacuation Zone

Aull, Felice

Last Updated: Oct-10-2017
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

In "Mandatory Evacuation Zone," Felice Aull has gathered 63 beautifully crafted poems in which she examines the intricacies of language and loss, of grief and healing.  Each of the book's five sections considers these themes in slightly different ways, always in language that is understated, vivid, and exact.  In Section I, we read poems that focus on the author's complicated family history and her early loss of homeland.  In "Tracings" (page 15), an unknown relative (thanks to online genealogy searches) reaches the narrator and wants to meet her.  She, however, only wishes to learn ". . . how my parents / and my infant self / made our tortuous way out . . . . " Brought in infancy from Germany to America, the author suffers the loss of both native homeland and native language ("Notes from an Alpine Vacation" page 16).  She searches photos of her mother and ponders museum note cards illustrated by Holocaust survivors ("Museum Notecards" page 18), imagining what she can't quite know and yet can't quite forget.  

Section II finds the narrator as a young woman in American, awakening to sexuality ("Gay Blades," "Camp Counselors Make Out,"  "On the Staircase" pages 29-31), becoming a wife and mother, and then a grandmother.  A grandchild's birth is both joyful and yet another "slipping toward / the edge of separation" ("Daughter in her Eighth Month" page 37). 

In Section III, the author turns her gaze to observations of the world around her, around us, aware of how many come to loss and death.  "Be prepare to mourn," she tells us in "Disaster in October" (page 49), and in the moving poem, "I Saw the Smoke," re-visions September 11th in words stripped of sentimentality and therefore made more powerful. 

Sections IV and V confront bodily loss through aging and illness, noting how, in so many ways, we try both to capture and to let go: "You snap photo upon photo / hoping to grasp and preserve / what cannot be grasped" (Capturing Alaska" page 66).  We learn of the most personal losses in poems of biopsies, surgeries, and chemotherapy.  When facing the unknown, every event might seem to hold a prediction.  In "Stunning Blows," a doorman stuns a mouse, claims that it's dead.  But the narrator, aware of the wages of time, writes, "But I still see it, like death, / moving toward me" (page 81).  At the book's end, we return to language, how it too can leave us ("Forget That" page 90).  Yet in the collection's final, gentle poems, the poet is "able, finally / to walk past the park's redbud tree / without weeping" ("Immunity" page 96).

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How to Visit a Healer

Brown, Jeanette

Last Updated: Sep-08-2017
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

In this wonderful short story, author Jeanette Brown describes a woman’s first visit to an alternative medicine healer. The woman has a persistent cough. Unhappy with the "five seconds per visit your doctor lavishes on you after your two-hour wait in his sterile lobby," she has taken her yoga instructor’s advice and made an appointment with a tall, olive-skinned man whose voice is "low and soothing" and whose manner is slow, relaxed, and personal.The woman, whom the healer diagnoses as "the roadrunner, a busy fidgety type," alternates between interest, skepticism and dismay. She cracks jokes; he doesn’t laugh. He recommends diet, exercise, no caffeine, and colon cleansing. She mentally rolls her eyes until, his hands massaging her foot, she feels her stomach lurch, a twinge in her armpit and begins to think of her body as "a human pinball machine." Whenever her self-defensive, rational, traditional beliefs almost propel her off the exam table and into her clothes, the healer "nails" her, reading her personality and her lifestyle exactly.Well into the visit, she realizes she hasn’t coughed once. Then, when she’s the most relaxed, incense wafting, his hands kneading all tensions from her back, her mind registering "this is bliss," her esophagus becomes blocked. Sitting up, she coughs, and the healer confronts her. "You have something to say," he insists, and she counters with "You expect me to believe all this mumbo-jumbo?" He tells her she swallows her feelings, and when she coughs again a "feather? A butterfly?" escapes from her mouth and disappears.When the healer pats her back and asks her to cough once more, she can’t. Taking her hands, he declares her "cured." At the story’s end, still not quite able to admit that this strange physician has helped her, yet knowing that he has, the woman struggles to count out his fifty dollar fee, finally dropping a handful of bills onto his bench, "hoping he won’t be offended by a tip."

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Anthology (Mixed Genres)

Summary:

In 2008, editor and physician Paul Gross launched a new online publication, "Pulse--voices from the heart of medicine" (published by the Department of Family and Social Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center). This anthology contains every poem and first-person narrative published during Pulse's first year, arranged in five sections corresponding to publication date and not to theme: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and Spring.  Paul Gross, in his introduction, states "After more than a decade of practice as a family doctor, I came to appreciate that the science I'd learned in medical school, though powerful and useful, was also incomplete . . . . it contained much truth about illness and healing, but not the whole truth" (xvii).  Like many other caregivers, Gross discovered "that writing and sharing my healthcare stories with others was therapeutic" (xviii).  He looked to "Sun Magazine" as an example of how first person narratives, both prose and poems, could turn "hurts and triumphs into something potentially beautiful, funny or moving" (xviii). 

The poems and prose that arrive every Friday online to Pulse's thousands of subscribers (and the selections in this anthology) are carefully screened by the editors according to these guidelines: the stories have to be first-person, and they have to be true, recounting the writer's own experience.  Submissions are accepted from any person involved in healthcare.  The language used must be "clear, simple language.  No medical jargon. No arcane literary devices" (xx).  Gross and his editors decided that Pulse would not be a medical journal nor a literary magazine--its purpose fell outside the perimeters of both genres--and so Pulse, and this anthology, offers work that is, in a refreshing and honest way, different from the slick or more polished poetry and prose that might be found elsewhere.

In reading this anthology from cover to cover, and so from season to season, I found that the poems and prose seemed to fall into several categories: Personal musings, in which authors relate healthcare experiences that engender intimate and revealing narratives about their own lives--among the best of these are "Well Baby Check," p.3; "Finding Innisfree," p. 31; "First Patient," p. 39; "Losing Tyrek," p. 45; "Carmen's Story," p. 62; and "Chemo? No Thanks," p. 106.  Other pieces are commentaries on the other side of healthcare, the one that cries out for reform and affects both patients and caregivers.  Among the best of these are "Redesigning the Practice of Medicine," p. 9; "A Brush with the Beast," p. 22; "Rx," p. 60; "Halloween Horrors," p. 69; and "Brain Cutting," p. 136.

Other pieces are humorous ("Aunt Helen Sees a Ghost," p. 6) or political ("My War Story," p. 11), and many poems and prose pieces speak of patient encounters or about being a patient, some more anecdotal, relating a specific incident that affected the author ("Once," p. 41) and others multi-layered, some relating medical student or intern experiences ("Jeannie," p. 48; "A View from Nepal," p. 87; "Ripped from the Headlights," p. 90; "Snowscape," p. 97; "First Night Call," p. 100; and "Wounded Messenger," p. 114.)  The "category" I found most interesting and most unique are the selections I will call "confessions."  These writings--demonstrating openess and bravery on the part of the authors--tell of regrets, mistakes, sorrows, wrong calls and other mishaps that occur, daily, in the practice of healthcare.  In these, the most human face of caregiving is revealed.  Although most of the pieces in this anthology contain elements of "confession," the most specifically revealing include "Mothers and Meaning," p. 14; "Physician's Exasperation," p. 44; "Confidential," p. 53; "My Patient, My Friend," p. 73; and "Apologies," p. 104.

Editor's note: Coincidentally, a recent relevant paper on confessional writing by physicians expounds further on this topic:"Bless Me Reader for I Have Sinned: physicians and confessional writing" by Delese Wear and Therese Jones (Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Vo. 53, No.2, Spring 2010, pp. 215-30).

 

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The Blackout Sonnets

Larkin, Joan

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poems (Sequence)

Summary:

This sonnet sequence, found in part III of the poetry collection, A Long Sound, opens with the narrator preparing to date her music teacher's son, a man she has had a crush on since age twelve. Now she is eighteen, "damaged goods" according to her mother, and about to embark on a date.

In the second sonnet, the narrator's date begins to ply her with alcohol, and by the third sonnet, she numbly acquiesces to his advances. Drunk and in a blackout by the fourth sonnet, she re-lives the emotional and physical pain of her recent abortion, an event her whole family "was in on."

In the fifth sonnet, she wakes in her date's immaculate Buick as he drives her home and asks imperiously if she "does this sort of thing often." The sixth sonnet is both touching and horrifying-she recalls that, in spite of the man's disdain, she was so hungry for love that she wished he would kiss her good night.

Returned to the house she "hated," she mourns the "sore night" of the abortion, a memory she cannot erase with alcohol and sex. In the final sonnet, the narrator--chided, belittled, and abused by both her mother and her date--experiences a moment of awful clarity. This is the beginning of her recovery, a revelation recognized in retrospect.

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Words Like Fate and Pain

Fiser, Karen

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

This volume is divided into four parts, each containing powerful and fairly short poems--rarely longer than one page and often less than 30 lines--that share the author's experience of disability. The four sections unfold the struggle of coming-to-terms with disability organically, beginning with the body and concluding with the will to survive and transcend the physical.

Section One considers the role of fate or luck (The Short Song of What Befalls--see this database, "Words Like Fate and Pain"), the burden of chronic pain ("Night Shift," Pointing to the Place of the Pain--see this database, "Slow Freight"), the desire to escape physical limitations ("Not Down Here," "What Comes Next"), and the difficulty of adjusting to an altered self image ("What Happened to You?" "Protect Yourself From This").

The sections that follow offer poems that attempt to understand disability intellectually and viscerally ("Levels of Being," "Loving the Clay,"), to look beyond the suffering self to the suffering of others ("Beginning to Write," "The Word 'Class' Should Not Appear in the Poem"), and finally to love and accept what's given ("What Keeps Me Here," "Dreaming the Tree of Life").

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Notes on Emphysema

Carruth, Hayden

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

This long poem is divided into 48 segments, each a meditation on the narrator's struggle to live with emphysema. Some sections consist of only one line (10: "How alone can you get?"), others are more lengthy; for example, section 37 is a primer on inhalers, "puffers, " how to use them and what happens if you don't.

Every observation in this poem is from a literate poet's point of view, one here focused on emphysema, and so the breath, the body, and the daily rituals of living become primary. The whole world breathes--even the computer, which "sighs" when it is turned off (section 34)--but the poet cannot catch his breath. Reading the poem, even silently, the reader becomes short of breath too, physically aware of the patient's limitations.

In section 24, Carruth laments that he cannot even negotiate the 500 yards up hill to his son's house; in section 29, he writes that even the dog seems "reproachful" when his owner is unable "to play" and throw the blue ball. The accumulated limitations of these taken-for-granted actions makes the author both "pissed and sorry" for the dog, for the man, for the world.

In spite of the physical rebellion of the lungs, the narrator continues to smoke, as many patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) do, adding another dimension to this poem. Even facing death, the patient's addiction to tobacco is overwhelming; in section 11, the narrator says, "Now I am dying. Now I am afraid. Please give me a cigarette." In section 45, Carruth laments this "nonsense of misery."

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Hurricane Zone

Anonymous

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

This slim chapbook contains eleven poems that tell the story of a mother and her alcoholic son--how she suspects and then discovers his addiction, how she vacillates between fear and denial, despair and hope. The place in between these extremes of emotion is the Hurricane Zone, and these poems--written by "Anonymous" to protect the son's identity--are hard-edged, starkly moving, and ultimately redeeming.

In "Birthday," the narrator looks back thirty-eight years to her son's arrival, "his mashed, chinless face / dented forehead /breaking its way out of me." The next several poems ("Foreshadowing," "Denial," "Shikker," "Postcard") address denial, how a parent can suspect their child is slipping into the abyss of alcohol or drugs and still wish to create a different story from the available details.

Finding help in Alanon, the narrator begins to work her program. In "Late Lilies" and "Detachment," she finds where a mother and son's boundaries begin and end: "he isn't me, / he isn't mine." In "Give Us This Day" (referring to the group's recitation of The Lord's Prayer at meeting's end) the mother, "lone Jew, lone atheist," learns detachment, that "cloud shadows of startling darkness / moving over the water are not the water."

"Ferryboat" and "Hope" reveal the narrator's painful longing to protect her son as well as her own obsession: a series of affairs early in her marriage when this son was a teenager. That memory, one both cherished and regretted, offers a thin moment of hope: "Anyone who wants to can change." But even when the son is good--able to work on a second novel--there is uncertainty and near-miss communication.

In "Hurricane Zone," the final poem, there is no easy resolution. The victory comes in addressing the topic of alcoholism straight on and making these poems available for others who may be struggling along the same journey.

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Sea of Glass

Farrington, Carolyn

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

This short novel tells the story of Renee and Michael Talbott and their son Evan, a young man "admitted to the hospital as a voluntary patient when he was no longer able to survive in the outside world." Evan's schizophrenia and recurrent institutionalizations, described from his mother's point of view, devastate his family and drive a wedge of guilt and resentment between his mother and step father.

The novel, although written in simple, straight-forward prose, suggests a Dickens-like expose' of social ills, human entanglement, and (perceived) medical mistakes. At the book's conclusion, Renee, sensitized to the fate of all who suffer from mental illness, finds no resolution even when Evan is, for a time, stable and independent.

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

This chapbook of 26 poems traces the author's interactions with her mother, a woman lost in the morass of Alzheimer's disease. In the first poem, "The Loss" (1), the author takes us into her mother's home--a disorganized mess of stained thrift shop clothes folded and refolded into piles. The daughter tricks her mother into moving in with her "for a trial" which becomes permanent.

In the last poem, "At Least This" (26), the poet stoops "to pull the diaper / up around my mother's / waist, my temple / near her breasts." As the daughter leans into this task, the mother caresses her hair, embraces her. This hug, beautifully and simply portrayed, is the poet's fragile reward for all the struggles, mercies and difficult moments examined in the poems between.

These poems are both beautiful and unfailingly honest, addressing with humor and charity the difficulties of caring for a parent with this disease. In one poem, "The Battle" (5), the mother slathers herself with Vaseline. In another poem, "The Bath" (7), the mother lies in the bathtub, her flaccid skin smoothed by water's illusion, her body suddenly as lovely as Bonnard's painting of a woman bathing. "This is the mother I battled / when young: the mother / who beat my defiance; / the one I hit back," the poet writes in "A Late Blessing" (6), and in another poem, "Intellectual Opiate" (10), she speaks of her mother's love for words she no longer understands.

But these poems are more than poignant narratives about a daughter's relationship with a once-difficult, now dependent mother. They address the "seeds of her disease" (11), exposing the flaws of this relationship without dishonor or blame. In these poems, Slatkin's mother appears vibrant and whole, not ravaged by disease. Rarely have the difficulties and possibilities of Alzheimer's disease been presented in poetry with such insight and respect.

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