Showing 11 - 20 of 64 annotations contributed by Davis, Cortney

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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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

In 1997, the author’s 14-year-old son, Ike, began a puzzling, progressive degenerative illness. Slowly, this undiagnosed disease claimed Ike’s ability to walk, to study, to participate in normal adolescent activities and, finally, to reason. Going from physician to physician, seeking if not a cure than at least a working diagnosis, the author became a self-taught expert in all things neurological.

As her son’s condition worsened, she also became an expert in grief and despair. In Blue Peninsula, her first book, McKeithen relates how she became, as well, a poetry addict--reading, devouring, tearing poems out of journals, buying volumes that she could carry to office or hospital, hiding poems in her purse or pocket. Using poems or pieces of poems--sometimes she could not bear to read a final stanza, one that perhaps ended in death or unrelenting despair--she cobbled together a survival plan.

Indeed, in this small book of short, to-the-point chapters (with titles such as "Crying in the Car," Open to It," Acquiring Losses," Sifting Questions," "Naming," "Shipwreck," and "Shelving Selves"), she reveals how she used poems to grieve, to question, to celebrate, to maintain, to curse, and to endure. The story of Ike’s illness, treatment and slow decline are interwoven with these poems and the author’s often surprising commentary on how she mined the poet’s metaphors. If a poem could put suffering into words, the author suggests, she needed that poem to survive.

The author’s choice of poems and poets is far-reaching, and her interpretations of what they mean and how they helped her along the path of her son’s illness are intimate, gritty and insightful. A brief listing of poets includes Emily Dickinson (whose poem "Blue Peninsula" supplied the book’s title), Billy Collins, Elizabeth Bishop, Diane Ackerman, Zbiginew Herbert, The Rolling Stones, Paul Celan, Molly Peacock, David Whyte and many others, known and lesser known.

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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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