Constance Studer


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Body Language

Studer, Constance

Last Updated: Mar-10-2009
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Body Language, a beautifully crafted and expansive memoir by retired nurse Constance Studer, spans a range of issues within the narrative of the author's life: a childhood marred by a medical procedure--a hasty frontal lobotomy that left her father incarcerated in a mental institute-- and, in later years, by her own illness, one caused by the Hepatitis B vaccine.  These two events are the bookends that frame Body Language, a memoir that examines family life, nursing, medicine, medical ethics, personal survival and illness in language that is poetic and compelling.  Studer, a writer as well as a nurse, intersperses her own story--which is novel-like in its intensity--with literary allusions, research material and knowledge culled from her years as a nurse in Intensive Care.  In her memoir, she writes not only with the authority of one who has been on both sides of the bed, as professional caregiver and as suffering patient, but also as a family member who has witnessed how unwise and unchallenged medical decisions might affect generations. 

What I especially admire about this memoir is that it is not simply a "telling about."  Instead Studer brings us into the action of the narrative, for example giving us imagery and dialogue as her father prepares for the surgery that he doesn't know will deprive him of memory and sense ("Holy Socks" p. 21).  She also intertwines many narrative strands, giving us the fullness of her family history and her professional adventures, so that when we reach the narrative of her own illness we have a sense of a life, a full life, that has been forever altered.

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Prayer to a Purple God

Studer, Constance

Last Updated: Jan-31-2005
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

The author of this bold collection is a registered nurse who relates, through her poems, patient and caregiver experiences culled from her own years of working in Intensive Care-Coronary Care. There are 24 poems here, most running two to three pages and most written in short lines, a point of craft that adds to their power. There is not one moment of easy sentimentality in these poems. Instead, the author plunges into the grittier side of nursing and illness--and yet, in aggregate, these poems celebrate the embodied and holy work of healing.

In the opening poem, "The-Trickle-Down-Theory-Of-Health," Adam, in the Garden of Eden, is surprised by "The knife" that "separates his ribs." By poem's end, we see health slip "like a ring / from earth's finger" (2), and with this simile we are introduced to the book's underlying metaphor and also to the poet's technique: dense and sometimes near-extreme imagery that ranges, in this poem alone, from encyclopedias to acid rain to barefoot children to librarians to a patient in the dark, "her arteries and shelves / of bone in a ruby gloom" (2). This accumulation of unrelenting, unusual images recreates the world of a patient's pain and suffering and the fierce determination and occasional despair of a caregiver.

"Coma" is written from a comatose woman's point of view, and yet we also see her from the nurse's vantage. In a lovely and surprising twist, the coma becomes, for the patient, a sort of liberation as "Slowly she sloughs, / cell by cell, / the old thorn" (15). This patient is not Sleeping Beauty, who in some fairy tale might be wakened by a kiss. "On the Fireline" becomes a wonderful metaphor for the daily confrontation of illness, for the way the nurse, returning daily to tend her patients, also "coalesces into fire" (16).

The 5-page poem "Intensive Care" perfectly renders the physical sense of being alternately caregiver, patient, and family member within the rarified atmosphere of the ICU (24-28). A patient's blood "pulls against/ the moon, his breath / this tide going out" (26) and, as she comforts a waiting family member, a nurse's eyes "beyond clarity, / unfold a silken language / all their own" (28).

Other not-to-be-missed poems are "The Holy O" (36), "Prayer to a Purple God" (38), "Pieta" (44), "A Riot of Flowers" (52), "What the Body Remembers" (57), and one of my very favorites, "Anesthesia" (59). In "Anesthesia" the caregiver lets an anesthetized patient float like "an embryo / tethered on the end of IV tubing, / floated like an astronaut / in cold stratosphere, / a naked thing / alone / in the universe" (60). But since these poems are finally loving, involved, experienced and hopeful, the patient is told to hush; he is watched over; he is protected. When danger is past, he is reclaimed: "She will hold you / within white-curved wings. / She will reel you back in / when you are healed" (60).

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