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).


Often student caregivers are not prepared for the rush of sights and sounds that accompany pain and suffering. Sometimes experienced caregivers become numb to those same sights and sounds; we forget how viscerally we were once affected. We forget too that patients and their families might be total strangers to the images of hospital or illness, or that patients with chronic illnesses might be all too familiar with them. Nevertheless, for both patients and caregivers, these sights and sounds seep into our bodies, our minds, our dreams.

These poems return us to those primal sights and sounds (and reawaken in us their emotional and spiritual significance) in language that, because of the poet's expert, unrelenting use of surprising images, transcends the word. Reading these poems is like being in the body of the caregiver or the patient with every nerve ending alive, with every sense primed. Medical and nursing students might read and discuss these poems after they have been introduced to intensive care. These poems might spark wide-ranging conversations or even stimulate students and experienced caregivers to write their own deeply imagistic poems.


The Edwin Mellen Press

Place Published

Lewiston, N.Y.



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