Showing 11 - 20 of 58 annotations contributed by Davis, Cortney

Summary:

Poets on Prozac contains sixteen essays written by poets about their individual struggles with a variety of psychiatric disorders. The editor, physician and poet Richard Berlin, has gathered these essays in order to examine, and shatter, the long-standing notion that madness, particularly madness in poets, enhances creativity---we need only think of the myths surrounding writers such as Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas to understand how the relationship between madness and creativity might foster both fear and longing in novice writers.

In his informative and comprehensive introduction, Berlin poses these, and other, questions: "Do poets need to be mentally ill to produce great work? What is the influence of substance use/abuse? Does a person have to be 'crazy' to write good poetry? What do poets themselves define as crucial elements in their creative process?" (p. 2). He goes on to site current evidence that madness actually impedes creativity, as well as evidence that "some forms of mental illness may enhance, or at least coexist, with creativity" (pp. 4-5); he reviews the findings of researchers who have looked at "The Myth of Inspiration" and "The Myth of Very Special Talent" in creative persons (pp 6-7).

But it is in the wonderful essays themselves that we take a privileged peek into the lives, the often tortured lives, of successful poets (Berlin only considered the essays of poets who had published at least one book). Reading the essays is somewhat like eavesdropping on the therapy sessions of highly articulate and self-aware patients. Clearly Berlin has created a safe place for these writers to look again at their creative lives and how those lives intertwine with, and sometimes have been overgrown by, mental illness. All the essays, happily, come to a place of resolution; the writers find, in various degrees, that understanding or relieving their emotional distress results in the possibility of increased creativity. Along the way, they give us writing alive with metaphors, images and intelligent musings on art, poetry, life and suffering.

In the first essay, "Dark Gifts," Gwyneth Lewis writes about her depression: "I became Woman in a Dressing Gown. At my worst, the duvet on my bed looked like a body bag and I was the corpse inside it" (p. 13). Finally she concludes, "I've learned that depression is one of the most reliable guardians of my life as a poet. It's like a fuse in a house with suspect wiring" (p. 22). In his essay, Andrew Hudgins describes cortisone psychosis this way: "I was a fire station in which the alarm bells seldom stopped clanging and the firemen were exhausted and indifferent" (p. 163). In "The Desire to Think Clearly," J. D. Smith says, "Being a poet in despair does not necessarily make one a poet of despair" (p. 23). As most of the poets do, Denise Duhamel uses examples of poems within her essay to demonstrate how her illness, in this case bulimia, variously inhibited or influenced her writing. The rawness of illness shows up, again and again, in her ability to be brave and resolute in her poems: "I'm still working it out, as they say, as therapists say, as my friends say, / as I guess I'm saying now in this poem" (p. 37).

Many of the poets approach their illness histories with wry humor or pointed irony. Caterina Eppolito states that "Poetic form is an anorexic form of writing. So instead of restricting calories, I was restricting words" (p. 118). Ren Powell asks, "Maybe when it's all over I can ask my children if they think the days of dancing in the kitchen were worth the days I spent shut away in the bedroom" (p. 52). Powell, like most of the authors in this anthology, honors hard work at the craft as the measure of success, and says, "If I have any success at all as a writer it is as much despite my disorder as because of it" (p. 57). Other writers admit wondering, sometimes, if their writing success might be due to their disorders. Jesse Millner writes, "After all, wasn't it the melancholy that led me to write?" (p. 67). Most writers agree that abusing substances did not enhance but sidetracked their poetic energies, while prescribed medications often, as Jack Coulehan says, helped: "The obsessive traits softened, so I felt free to approach life in a more flexible manner. Despite this new experience of freedom, my productivity did not suffer; in fact, it increased" (p. 101).

The chemical basis for some mental disorders is acknowledged in many of the essays. In her discussion of postpartum depression, Martha Silano notes, "I'd simply woken up in a foreign country without a map, without a dictionary, with no way to understand this strange place" (p. 142). Silano, like others in this collection, found that once the chemical imbalance was corrected, something good happened to the writing---she moved from writing about her own personal experience to writing that reached beyond her fears: "Now I was writing poems with a more universal, all-encompassing vision" (p. 146). Liza Porter says it this way: "Voice comes from safety. Silence becomes words. The truth can be told" (p. 153). But the downside of medication is admitted as well. Chase Twitchell laments the loss of "metaphor-making," and compares it---in quite a fine metaphor---to someone turning "off the spigot" (p. 176). "It takes longer and requires far more doggedness than it did before medications" (p. 176). But medications also give many of these poets what Vanessa Haley names "the emotional insight and stamina to write" (p. 76). If these excellent essays are any indication, they are, and will continue to be, writing extraordinarily well.

 

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Summary:

Kaplan Publishing has recently released several anthologies aimed at a nursing audience or perhaps at a reading audience that wants to know more about what nurses think and feel about their professions.  This anthology, a collection of poetry and essays, looks at the various reasons these authors went into nursing in the first place, how nursing changed them, and why they either stayed the course or went on to other pursuits.  As the editors say in the Introduction, "nursing abounds with experiences that can either reinforce our vocational commitment or cause us to reconsider it" (p. xi).

In the first section, "The Calling," poems and essays examine "the idealistic reflections of those aglow with nursing's promise of intimacy and connection" (xii).  Here we meet student nurses with a true calling who are "living, breathing and sleeping nursing" (p.5), and students who are sure they are going "to murder someone" (p. 6).  Like most professionals, nurses often have mentors, and those mentors--"brisk, frank, fast, sometimes sharp" (p. 30)---are honored in this section as well.  Readers, upon completing this section, will be moved and cheered by the poems and essays that reflect the romance of nursing and the intense drive that many nurses have to give of themselves to others. 

The editors, however, are no Polyannas.  They know that a student's illusions and dreams will run right smack into reality.  While the rewards will certainly be many, the discouragements will be present as well.  The fact that both experiences---the highs and the lows---can occur within a single day is reflected in the collection's second section, "The Reckoning."  Here the realities of death, exhaustion, burnout and doubt are faced full on.  Some of the works in this section are by nurses who have chosen to leave the profession:  "Brazil, the new hospital.  We have no water.  Doctors protest poor facilities by refusing to see patients and sitting in their cars outside in the parking lot" (p. 81), writes Veneta Masson as she traces her career from 1958 to 1998 when she decides to leave nursing and "use my hands to write and to bless" (p. 84).  While some have chosen to leave, other nurses have found ways to survive: "Nursing allowed me to help my mother die; my music has helped me live" (p. 88) writes Colleen O'Brien, and Fr. Robert J. Kus writes about his dual roles, priest and nurse, how they balance and enhance one another (pp. 102-110).  The works in this section remind readers of the sacrifices caregivers must make every day.  As Jo Ann Papich writes, "Please appreciate your nurse while you still have one" (p. 99).

Section Three, "Reincarnation," tells of the "informed commitment that arises after sustained trial" (p. 165).  Here nurse-writers talk about survival and the oddly comfortable balance between stress and transcendence that comes, at last, after many years in nursing.  In "Why I Like Dead People," Sallie Tisdale takes a wry look at death, nursing homes and their "cockeyed logic" (p. 175).  Anne Webster, in "Slow Night in the E.R." talks about doing what you must do to help others even when you "can't do it," when you "stand outside the curtain, shaking" until the patient asks, "Are you there?" (p. 186-7).  Kathryn Gahl, in "The Reason Nurses Write Mostly Poetry" says it's because nurses "convert heart sounds // and hard words into art before the next patient / arrives, hemorrhaging, counting on that nurse / to flow like a pen, bleed for both of them" (p. 195).  And in the book's final essay, "I'm Staying," Shirley Stephenson offers a series of lovely statements about why she, and others, might continue in the frustrating, tiring, challenging and miraculous profession of nursing.  "Because I have been in the bed, and beside the bed. Because I have waited. Because I believe any one of us could face the circumstances of those for whom we provide care, and we're much more similar than different. Because this is where the rhythm is loudest---yes this yes this yes this yes this" (p. 246).

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Author Jennifer Culkin has been involved, for all of her nursing career, in high stakes, heart stopping, instant-decision-making areas of critical care.  After years working in Neonatal Intensive Care, she became a flight nurse--and giving intensive care to trauma victims while trying to maintain balance and sterile technique in a wind-buffeted helicopter has to be one of the most difficult tasks a nurse might undertake.  Her memoir, A Final Arc of Sky, opens with such a scene.  The patient, Doug, is soon crashing, and the nursing team, Jennifer and her partner, have to make a series of tough decisions (pp. 8-12).  From this scene on, the action rarely wavers.  And although Culkin keeps the pace moving, she is not always, or even most often, telling us about similar traumas.  She deftly weaves her personal narrative--husband and sons and dying parents--in and out of scenes from her nursing career, braiding the plot lines of her life in chapters both moving and compelling. 

In those chapters that deal with the often dangerous helicopter transports Culkin has flown, we learn (and we feel) just what it's like to be a flight nurse crammed in-between patient and helicopter door, juggling instruments that too often slip to the floor and trying to save patients that too often want to die.  In those pages that deal with family, we are privy to Culkin's internal debate about how to separate family from nursing (what she calls "the great neuronal divide between my work and my life" (p.136), and we see that she sometimes doesn't have much energy left at the end of the day to draw close to those she loves.  Part of what makes this memoir difficult to put down is the persona of the narrator herself: Culkin comes across as an honest, often irreverent risk taker, a woman who likes to ride her bike down dangerous hills at breakneck speed and allows her son to do the same (see chapter six, p. 57); a woman who loves the dangerous drama of flight nursing and doesn't worry about crashing (p. 80)--in fact she enjoys strapping herself "into the eye of a maelstrom" (p. 80). 

This memoir entertains, and it provides a glimpse into how some caregivers not only risk their lives to save the lives of others but also shoulder the responsibility of making split second decisions upon which a patient's life might depend.  And there is a surprise in this memoir, one that I can't too fully divulge because to do so would be to rob potential readers of their own discovery.  Suffice it to say that near the end, Culkin reveals something about her own health, an illness she has fought against in every chapter.  When we learn the details of her own illness narrative, we look again, with new understanding, at her fascinating career and her interactions with her loved ones.   

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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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Second Opinion

Kendrick, Leatha

Last Updated: Apr-19-2008
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

Poet Leatha Kendrick is the author of two chapbooks, Science in Your Own Back Yard (see annotation) and Heart Cake. In this full-length collection she continues to examine themes explored in her first titles: love and loss; the fleeting of time; and her personal experience of breast cancer. Second Opinion is divided into three sections: the first two sections have 14 poems each, the final section has 13, perhaps to indicate that for this passionate and articulate poet the the final poem is yet to be written. The first poem in the collection, "A lesson in Love Unleashed," sets the theme for the poems that follow: "yes, I think, even in their distorted flesh, / I still desire what's gone. What I'm leaving" (p. 3). In the first and third sections, the poet writes of marital and familial trials and triumphs, both past and present, and in the second section--for me the most vivid in the collection--she writes about breast cancer and how this experience weaves in and out of her other loves and losses. This weaving is given both visual and emotional expression in the poem "Tonight Weaving" (p. 28)

Throughout the book, Kendrick's poems take varying forms and tones, and yet there is always the assurance of a constant voice--personal, passionate and often humorous. In the second section, the poems become more visually complex and fractured, poetic representation of the "distortion" of the flesh as the narrator considers the diagnosis and treatment of her breast cancer. In this section's opening poem, "The Calculus of a Cracked Cup," the poet writes, "Our position is never certain, only our / velocity" (p. 27), adding the concern of the swift passing of time to the collection's overall theme. In "Second Opinion," the title poem, she notes, "I want to believe in sudden remission, / in some way to avert what we are certainly / headed for" (p. 34). But while time rushes on, the reality of cancer, the loss of a breast becomes a "stopped surface" under which a "lost life" wants "its old course, not subject to IVs or a knife" (p. 35).

It is life--difficult and sweet--that is ultimately celebrated in these poems and that overcomes the losses. The most wry poems are found in the breast cancer section: "Christmas, Adolescence, Yin and Yang" (p. 32) is a sort of ode to "Skeeter and Bite," so named by a first love; now "they'll lift / one out, the eye sewn shut by mastectomy." "Costume. Fakery. The Sell." is a tough, nervy poem that has the narrator claiming acceptance for who she is, post surgery: "Alive! Tender, I'm not hiding" (p. 39). Throughout the book there is a subtle triple play on the word "tender": woman as caregiver; woman as collateral in a society that values cleavage; and woman as injured, post op, and physically vulnerable.

In the collection's final poem, "What You Leave Me," the theme of love and loss balanced against time comes to some resolution as the narrator and her partner join in a "sweet tangle": "the blossoming / hide, this bounded / time against brevity" (p. 64).

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

A woman is pregnant. She is a nurse married to a physician, Jeff, and they have a young son, Willie. The couple is pregnant with their second child. Long before her due date, the woman--author Susan LaScala--begins experiencing signs of premature labor. Because she is a nurse, because she is married to a doctor who takes call, she doesn't want to over-react or bother her obstetrician unnecessarily. But when vague aches turn into cramps, the author enters, as a patient, the world she had known, until then, only as a caregiver.

It is impossible, in a brief annotation, to describe fully the richness of this memoir. Because the author is a nurse, she brings to the story of the premature birth and survival of her daughter, Sarah, a wonderful double vision: LaScala tells this tale not only as a mother and a patient but also as a clinician able to explain, in simple language, the complex technologies used to sustain the life of her one pound nine ounce baby. The author's rendering of the bells and whistles of neonatal medicine, whether describing the process of intubating a preemie (p. 23) or ultrasounding a baby determined to survive (p. 182-3) are precise and haunting.

Equally compelling (and instructive for caregivers) are the author's candid revelations of how it feels to be a patient. She takes to "grading" the doctors and nurses--an "A" for the staff that lets her see her newborn girl (p. 3), and a "C" for a nurse with "No kind words. No warmth" (p.11). She describes her own bodily sensations in language both lovely and informing: the pushing and tugging she feels during her C-Section is a "quiet violence" (p.21); standing beside her daughter during the ventilator weaning process she feels "a witch's brew of fear and panic mixing and growing inside" (p. 225).

In an introduction, physician Barbara Wolk Stechenberg, describes the "gift" that the author has given by writing this memoir. The author has allowed Dr. Stechenberg, who was part of the team that saved Sarah, "a rare glimpse into two worlds" (p. xii). One was the world of intensive care nurses and how "they truly are the primary caregivers" (p. xii). The other world was that of physicians, who "may feel we are empathic and caring, but we really have no idea of the emotional roller coaster many of our parents are riding" (p. xii).

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Bringing Vincent Home

Mysko, Madeleine

Last Updated: Jan-27-2008
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Within the first few pages of this novel, the reader is thrust into the midst of a family--their past history, their present tragedy, and their future healing.  Kitty Duvall, a middle-aged woman living in Baltimore, Maryland, receives a phone call informing her that her son, soldier Vincent Duvall, has been injured in Viet Nam and now lies, severely burned, in the Intensive Care Unit of Brooke Army Medical Center.  Kitty packs her bags and rushes to his bedside.  Thus begins this straight forward and yet complex story, one that weaves between past and present, one that examines the lives of caregivers, especially nurses; the lives of patients, particularly those young men and women sacrificed to war; and the lives of the parents who must, as Kitty does, find their places alongside their dying or healing children, always wondering how best to help them. 

Although this book is a novel, it reads like a memoir.  Indeed, the events of the novel seem so right and so accurate because the author served as a lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps at Brooke Army Medical Center during the Vietnam War.  Her own experience as a nurse, her own memories of the burned and wounded men, inform this novel and bring to it an accuracy and an urgency that takes the reader behind the scenes into unforgettable images of war and recovery.  Although set in the Vietnam era, this story is especially relevant today, when once again soldiers and their families must deal with the physical and emotional wages of battle.

 

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Clinician's Guide to the Soul

Masson, Veneta

Last Updated: Nov-06-2007
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry and Art

Summary:

Veneta Masson's latest poetry collection is a clinician's guide not to illness and disease but to the souls touched by illness, both the patient's and the caregiver's. In 45 poems, she reviews her life in caregiving, from her early days in nursing to her work as a nurse practitioner in a community clinic and finally to her decision to use her hands "to write and to bless" (p. 93). Her poems are enhanced by the artwork of Rachel Dickerson, whose woodcuts and etchings are paired with poems to provide another voice, another way of looking into the soul of caregiving. For an example of this wonderful pairing, see the print that accompanies "The Screamer in Room 4" (p. 24). The print allows us to see the frustration of the screaming child, the child's mother, and the caregiver.

As always, Masson's poems center on the patient-caregiver experience; in this volume, as we follow her through her various adventures in nursing we also travel with her through the changes she has witnessed in healthcare and the politics that continue to affect its delivery. "Rx" (p. 22) examines Medicare and Medicaid and the political decisions that often deny medications to the elderly who need them most. "Gold Standard" (p.34) looks again at medicine and money, juxtaposing the medical pill against the placebo of the caring healer. One of my favorite poems, "The Doctor's Laptop" (p. 40) laments how technology might deprive patients of the doctor's time, attention and touch.

Other themes that are central to this collection are the unexpected presence of humor in caregiving (see "Conga! at the Rio," page 50), of spirituality (see especially "Rescue," page 36, "Refuge," page 45, and "Prevention," page 82), and of the personal. In several moving poems Masson looks at her own sister's death and her reaction to it, writing about her conflicting roles as sister and nurse (see, among others, "Matinee," "Hilda and Snow White," and "The Nurse's Job," pages 70, 72 and 74). In an excellent final poem, "Winter Count," Masson takes us through her own nursing history, a chronicle of work, joy, disappointment and survival that any caregiver will recognize.

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Just Breathe Normally

Shumaker, Peggy

Last Updated: Sep-18-2007
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Author and teacher Peggy Shumaker was involved in an unexpected and terrible biking accident.  Out of that accident and her following slow recovery she has crafted a remarkable memoir---one that both examines her interactions with the medical community and her family and charts her return from disability---in short essay-like chapters, individual memories that comprise and inform her life before and after illness.  Reading these gem-like pieces, I could imagine her, in the process of recovery, having time and patience to look back at family, friends, custom and community in order to recreate who she was before and who she would be after her accident.  The longest of these "chapters" is several pages; the shortest, only a few sentences.  There is no table of contents guiding readers through the six sections of this book---and how could there be, as the book itself reflects the healing mind as it searches for continuity in the midst of disruption. 

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The Enemy

Campo, Rafael

Last Updated: Aug-26-2007
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

The poems in physician Rafael Campo's latest collection examine familiar themes: lost homelands, the agonies of patients and providers, local and global abuses, love and betrayal, of both the heart and the body.  In this book, Campo expands these themes, writing of child abuse, war, and the certainties and uncertainties of maturing love.  As in his earlier collections, Campo investigates these themes in poems that are expertly crafted and often in form, as if form might contain this poet's empathic and deeply felt connection to the world.  While Campo has always been a reliable witness, especially to the world of healthcare, in this volume his vision becomes even more incantatory, paradoxical and mature.  The narrator's personal losses and responsibilities expand into the universal, into a world that cries out to us to care, to act, to heal, to notice, to tell, to "realize the human" (92).

Divided into four sections, the first section begins with a poem, "Dialogue with Sun and Poet," dedicated to June Jordan, a deceased activist and poet whose poems once made Campo uncomfortable but now mobilize him to "arise."  Following poems tell of local abuses--an abused woman ("Addressed to Her"), the displacement of memory ("Elsa, Varadero, 1934" and "Night Has Fallen"), the crushing of the spirit ("Personal Mythology") and the reality of evil, evil that calls poets to "refuse nostalgia's reassurance that the way was clear" ("Brief Treatise on the New Millennial Poetics").  This section ends with a translation from Neruda's "Book of Questions," a poem that asks if we are in control and if we are indeed capable of change (22).

In the second section, Campo takes us, in sonnets, through "Eighteen Days in France," another country and yet one in which he is still haunted by melancholy, by both sadness and joy--when one sees clearly one cannot leave behind suffering or the potential for suffering.  These sonnets speak of loss, fear, doubt and death grounded in moments of pure happiness.  

The book's third section, "Toward a Theory of Memory," opens with another masterful Neruda translation, one that speaks of love's convolutions, "just as life is of two minds" (47).  Following are exceptionally beautiful poems that speak of the misuse of love and power ("Granymede, to Zeus") and of the deep joy and deep complications of long-married love (see especially "The Story of Us").

Section Four, "Dawn, New Age," is a collection of laments for human selfishness, for war, for the inevitable passage of time, for the emotional depressions we might lose ourselves in, for the patients we cannot cure.  In "Tuesday Morning," the poet says, "No poet cares / for such deceptions anymore, and words / don't cure" (93).  Perhaps words alone cannot cure, but these poems, intelligent and very often incredibly beautiful, can sustain us and remind us that only human connection, human love might help us survive.

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