Showing 41 - 50 of 64 annotations contributed by Davis, Cortney

One of Everything

Fisher, Diane Gilliam

Last Updated: May-27-2004
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

One of Everything is vol. 54 of the Cleveland Poets Series, and author Fisher's voice and subject matter are, for the most part, rich with the language and imagery of blue-collar, mid-Western, and Southern life experiences. A strong introductory poem, "The Way Home to West Virginia," introduces some of the collection's themes: how the truth of a family--abuse, rape, hard work--might be hidden behind a veneer of gentility and religion; how poems, with their sometimes harsh messages might also be made to appear orderly; and how, for this poet, the "way home" includes looking squarely at "History, signs, salvation: things that hurt."

The poems in each of the book's three sections are excellent, made unique by the writer's intimate and colloquial voice. But, for me, the most amazing poems are the last eleven in the book, as if the poet couldn't bring herself to speak of her daughter Sarah's cystic fibrosis. This illness becomes chief among those "things that hurt" and redefine a family.

The first of these poems is "Story Problem," which introduces the daughter who, at twelve, is already doing the math, figuring out that "going by what / she's been through" she should be at least fourteen. In "Overnight," the poet-narrator cleans up after her daughter and an overnight friend who've been cooking and made a floury mess. Anger and silence reign, and the white flour in the daughter's hair becomes a portent of age, illness, disappearance.

"In Her Hospital Room" is the first to name the illness discovered when Sarah was seven months old. This poem recalls the new diagnosis, the new grief, "how unformed it was," implying that, in poetry, the author might attempt a way to pin down and examine her child's disease.

The illness becomes, in some ways, a sacred connection between mother and daughter. In "Permanent at Ruth Ann's," the beauty operator says to another customer that Sarah "don't want to be coming here. . . for the next forty years." The mother notices the shine in Sarah's eyes--tears or humor?--when she replies "Oh, yes I do." Both daughter and mother know that forty years, for Sarah, might be a miracle.

In "The Sweat Chloride Test Is One Hundred Percent Accurate and Cystic Fibrosis Is One Hundred Percent Fatal," the poet recalls the stunning confirmation of the diagnosis, how it came from a doctor chosen because she was a mother, because "she was from Texas / so her voice sounded a little like home," recalling the poet's family home, one that also hid abuse and threat behind a country accent. A lovely short poem, "Sixty-Five Roses," is a play off the "misnaming, the alias" of cystic fibrosis.

"How I Decided Not to Write a Sestina About Cystic Fibrosis" is a masterful look at how words define and confine us, how something like the story of a daughter's illness might be too big for any received form to contain but must be, like a poem, allowed to unfold organically. The poem looks at misunderstood words, important words, and the significance of last words, which in this poem is "cry." "CF Clinic, Children's Hospital," is a luminous poem that captures both the beauty and horror of suffering in memorable images and language. "Unknown Caller" is a found poem, copied from the automated appointment reminder that appeared on the author's answering machine, ending "To make a change, please press 2."

The two last poems in the collection don't attempt to make a change but to accept and mourn what is. "Crescendo, Decrescendo" compares coughing fits, the "quivering breath" of Sarah's violin playing, and the mother's cry, like Sarah's newborn cry when "they went ahead and cut the cord." The final poem, "How It Is," focuses on the reality of the daughter's body and her prognosis, how the mother longs to rock the now-grown woman as she did the baby, a rocking "not so different from the keening of grief."

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Summary:

Tenderly Lift Me is the latest publication from Kent State University Press in the Literature and Medicine series edited by Martin Kohn and Carol Donley. Not all the 39 caregivers Bryner honors through poetry, biographical sketches and photos are nurses, but all have discharged their caregiving duties as the title indicates: tenderly. The book opens with a preface by Bryner who wants "people to care about nurses the way nurses care about people who are total strangers" (p.xii). A literate and insightful introduction by Suzanne Poirier and Rosemary Field follows.

The book, divided into eight parts, contains biographical sketches and interviews with nurses or tender caregivers, their photographs, and poems by Bryner in which she speaks in the voices of the individual nurses, celebrating but never sentimentalizing their stories.

Some of the nurses are daughters of blue-collar workers: Carol Johnson (p. 77) went on to become a cardiothoracic nurse practitioner, harvesting veins for open heart surgeries. Helen Albert (p. 52), the granddaughter of a slave, became "the first black registered nurse hired in Warren, Ohio." The nurses celebrated are both living and dead; some are aged, this book the only vessel that might hold their histories. All the caregivers, like Father Damien, born in 1840, caretaker to a colony of lepers in Molokai, come alive in Bryner's prose and poems, speaking to us in image and metaphor as well as fact and biography.

There are journal entries from Kate Cumming, who cared for confederate soldiers during the Civil War (p. 151), and comments from contemporary nurses, like Sylvia Engelhardt, one of the first nurses to graduate from an associate degree program and feel the "sting of labels" (p. 69), or Theresa Marcotte Kokrak (p. 46) who remembers traveling though Canada's seventy-below wind-chill to report to duty. Bryner celebrates the nurses' accomplishments as well as the daily events, the doubts and frustrations, the dark moments that these nurses have overcome in order to care for others, nurses who are "human, and sometimes a little heroic, but not from heaven" (P. xii).

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Regarding the Pain of Others

Sontag, Susan

Last Updated: Mar-08-2004
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Summary:

When we view photographs of war-torn bodies, piled-up corpses, or starving children, are we changed? How about the photographer, whether a professional or an amateur, who takes such pictures? Do these photographs teach us about suffering--or do they numb us over time and simply cause us to turn away? In this slim book Sontag re-visits her ideas in "On Photography," published 25 years ago.

Her aim, it seems, is not so much to answer the above questions but to provoke us by her statements, urging us at least to THINK about what happens when suffering is viewed third hand; because after all, she reminds us, we see only what the photographer wanted us to see. When scenes of violence are as close as our morning papers or our TV screens, Sontag's is an important debate.

She also gives a brief history of photo-journalism, from the Crimean and Civil Wars to the almost instantaneous transmission of images from Operation Iraqi Freedom. In chapters that sometimes seem to disagree with one another, she plays the devil's advocate and views the IDEA of photographs of suffering from all directions. Can gruesome photos be artistic? Should they be? And if a war photo is posed--a corpse moved for a better shot or a battle scene restaged to make it more dramatic--is the effect enhanced or decreased? She considers the impact of candid photos versus those technologically manipulated; she discusses how photos, and their impact on us, change when the names of the victims are revealed.

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How JFK Killed My Father

Berlin, Richard

Last Updated: Jan-28-2004
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

How JFK Killed My Father is a collection of 52 poems by psychiatrist Richard Berlin. The book is divided into five sections--"Learning the Shapes," "Role Models," "Code Blue," "What a Psychiatrist Remembers," and "What I Love"--and these subtitles guide the reader through this physician's poignant journey from medical student to accomplished, and humbled, "healer, priest, turner of textbook pages, searcher, listener, arrogant crow consumed in white" ("If You Ask Me My Name").

Berlin's poems succeed because of strong imagery and the kind of internal "knowing" that only comes when one pays attention to the sights, sounds, and emotional nuances that occur in training, in practice, and in life. A musician as well as a doctor, Berlin sometimes uses jazz as a metaphor: in "Uncle Joe" he writes about "suffering's music" and in "Learning the Shapes" medical students practice examining patients until their fingers are as sensitive as a "blind bluesman" whose fingers can sense the right note "an instant before / touching a tight steel string."

Berlin "gets" the stress of med school and residency just right in "Sunday Parade" and "January Thaw"; as his poems retrace his path from student to practicing psychiatrist, he transmits the deepening of both experience and empathy in the same right-on way: "What I Revealed," "Places We Have Met," "What a Dying Woman Saw," "Transference," "What a Psychiatrist Remembers," "What Makes a Psychiatrist Cry," "Our Medical Marriage," and "What I Love" stand out as examples. The poems in this collection are personal, eloquent, straightforward and well crafted; they move effortlessly between body, mind, and spirit.

A reader could open this collection to any poem and be captivated, but for full impact this collection is best read from beginning to end. Medical students, especially, might welcome this volume as a guide along their way.

(Some of the poems here also appear in Berlin's chapbook, Code Blue, which is annotated in this database.)

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Summary:

This treatise is part of the Madeleva Lecture Series in Spirituality, an annual presentation sponsored by the Center for Spirituality, Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, Indiana. Margaret Farley's lecture begins with a brief introduction to the successes and failures of the global response to AIDS and HIV both worldwide and in Africa. Her aim is to demonstrate that "compassion needs to be normatively shaped, both as an attitude and as the generator of actions," and that the form compassion and help take must be directed in part by the "real needs" of the individuals involved.

What follows in this brief book is an excellent review of traditional and feminist ethics, from the moral concepts of "individual autonomy," "nonmaleficence," "beneficence," and "distributive justice" to Carol Gilligan's "ethic of care." Farley looks at these and other ethical precepts with a keen eye, and then proposes a blended moral response she calls compassionate respect. Her intelligent, focused discussion of what compassionate respect might encompass includes a look at the role of compassion within various religions and how caregivers might modulate giving, mercy, and love into compassion and care.

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Turning Fifty

Dunn, Stephen

Last Updated: Nov-20-2003
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

In the first of this poem's three stanzas, the narrator is looking out the window, presumably on or near his fiftieth birthday. He watches as a baby possum is snatched up by a fox while the possum's mother stands dumbly by. Seeing this, the narrator notes that it is one more thing he "couldn't do anything about." In fact, he sees the drama dispassionately. He says that instead of "feeling very much" he had the sense of "something dull / like a small door being shut, / a door to someone else's house."

In the next stanza, later that night, the narrator is flipping through the TV channels but stops when he is captivated by a nurse who "had a beautiful smile / while she spoke about triage and death." Again he observes death from afar as the nurse talks about her experiences in Viet Nam and how a dying soldier asked her to bend closer so he could smell her hair.

In the final stanza, the narrator's wife comes home, tired. The narrator, however, is somehow energized; he wants to talk about the possum, the fox, and the young man who "wanted one last chaste sense / of a woman." The wife wants a drink, some music, everything "normal." But the narrator, transformed by the nurse's smile, its "pretty hint of pain / the other expressions it concealed," is no longer just an observer.

He now has "something to say," something almost inexpressible about life and death, the death that he is moving closer to but was, at the poem's beginning, unable to face. The nurse's experience--her proximity to death, her ability not only to observe but to acknowledge and honor it--has somehow transformed him.

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Eclipse

Bryner, Jeanne

Last Updated: Nov-20-2003
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Collection (Short Stories)

Summary:

Poet and writer Jeanne Bryner has assembled 24 short stories to give us Eclipse, a wise and tender collection that reflects her blue-collar roots in Appalachia and industrial Ohio, and also her work as a registered nurse. These stories are about real human beings, flawed and graced, who, for the most part, care for one another, whether family or stranger, with compassion and the kind of acceptance that comes from living a hard life. Bryner's writing skills move these characters beyond easy stereotype and turn their actions--their anger over the death of a loved one or the cooking of a Sunday supper--into transformative metaphors that illuminate the sorrows and joys of everyday life.

The following stories might be of particular interest to those teaching or studying literature and medicine: "Sara's Daughters," in which a woman undergoes artificial insemination and, through her thoughts and her conversations with the nurse, perfectly reveals an infertile woman's humiliation, longing, and hope; "The Jaws of Life," in which a young woman takes her Aunt Mavis to visit Uncle Webster in a nursing home and there observes the poignant interactions of the well and the dying, the young and the old, moments infused with both charity and dread.

In addition: "Turn the Radio to a Gospel Station," in which two cleaning ladies in a hospital ER observe and philosophize about what goes on around them, the deaths and near-deaths, the kindness or mutinies of nurses, the doctors' mechanical repetition of questions, the lovers hiding in the linen closet; "The Gemini Sisters," in which a group of weight-watching women meet to shed pounds and talk about life; "Foxglove Canyon," in which a registered nurse with forty year's experience relates memories of her work, her family, and how things change when a writer comes to teach the staff and the patients about poetry, "the flower you stumble across growing near the barn, a purple bloom that nobody planted."

"Red Corvette" examines the intimacy that develops between family members, particularly when one is caregiver to the other. In this story a woman comes to visit her post-op sister and remembers, while watching her sister suffer in pain, their childhood, those moments of freedom and health she yearns for her sister to regain.

"The Feel of Flannel" is about a woman who, like her mother and grandmother, has breast cancer. She refuses to participate in a research project but instead barrels ahead into her uncertain future, planning to wear her nightgown to the grocery store and tattoo her husband's name "right here when this port comes out."

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Dehiscence

Haddad, Amy Marie

Last Updated: Jun-02-2003
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

In her poem, "Dehiscence," Amy Haddad speaks in the voice of a nurse tending a suffering patient. The patient has "come unstitched," and, seen through the nurse's eyes, the patient's wounds are devastating: fistulas "connect bowel, liver, pancreas"; the "stench is overwhelming," telling everyone, caregiver and patient alike, that medical science has failed, that no more can be done.

Moved by her patient's suffering and her own inability to help, the nurse does what she can. She washes the patient, changes the soiled sheets, removes the dirty dressings and replaces them with clean gauze and tape. "Done," she says. Stepping back, looking from a distance, she can no longer see the patient's wounds. She "is caught," as all caregivers have been at one time or another, in "the illusion" of the patient's "wholeness."

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Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Literature

Genre: Anthology (Mixed Genres)

Summary:

An anthology of poetry and prose by doctors, nurses, patients, and other authors, A Life in Medicine is divided into four sections: "Physicians Must Be Altruistic"; "Physicians Must Be Knowledgeable"; "Physicians Must Be Skillful"; and "Physicians Must Be Dutiful." Each section begins with the Association of American Medical Colleges' (AAMC) definition of the physician trait examined in that section, and short "explications" precede each individual poem and prose piece, linking them to the section's overall theme.

The anthology has a preface outlining the editors' goals and Robert Coles's introduction, "The Moral Education of Medical Students." These organizational touches make the anthology a classroom-ready text for medical students. The anthology's poems and prose--many of which are stunning--were taken from previously published works and exclude many well-known and often-used pieces. But those selections are readily available elsewhere, and the editors do readers a greater service by introducing many lesser-known, but equally important, poems and essays.

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The Andrew Poems

Wagner, Shelly

Last Updated: Aug-02-2002
Annotated by:
Davis, Cortney

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Collection (Poems)

Summary:

This book contains 47 poems about the accidental drowning of the author's son, Andrew, when he was almost six years old. This cycle of elegiac poems begins with the author's memory of Andrew's birth, then quickly plunges into the specifics of his drowning and the details of his family's daily life and survival since. All of the poems are excellent--direct and well crafted.

Outstanding poems include "The Boxes," which recounts how the police searched the author's house when she first reported her child missing; "Wet," in which Andrew's grandfather comes to his house for a blanket with which to cover his newly-discovered body; "The Limousine" and "Thomas Birthday" which describe the funeral and the birthday party held the day after the funeral for Andrew's older brother, showing how grief and happiness collide; "The Pearl," in which the author laments all things undone and not said, yet recognizes that "The pain that has come between us / will someday be our pearl"; "Faded," which expresses a common fear: that if grief fades, so will memory of the loved one; "Communion," in which, on the first anniversary of Andrew's death, the author mimics the religious ritual as she eats peanut butter and jelly at her son's place at the table, drinks from his plastic cup: "When I finished, / I wiped my eyes with your napkin, / gave thanks, / ate the bread and drank the milk."

Other important poems are "Dust," "In Our Beds," "Again," "Foxes," "The Dance," "Your Questions" (a long poem in which she speaks to those who wonder how she can bear such loss), "To My Parents," "Driving" (a stunning poem in which the author, years after Andrew's death, thinks she sees him in a passing car), and "I Thirst." In this last and final poem, the author's lines might well be taken to heart by all caregivers: "Fear of loss / and walls of self protection / will kill me / long before a broken heart. / I pray, / let every death / break me so."

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