Essay: “A Kind of Gift” by T.S. Davis

T. S. Davis, RN


…I resign’d myself
To sit by the wounded and sooth them, or silently watch the dead…

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.

I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)
        —from the poem “The Wound-Dresser” from Drum Taps by Walt Whitman, 1865

Imagine Walt Whitman moving among the Union soldiers’ beds lined up like fallen dominoes, holding a dying boy’s hand, mopping a feverish brow with a cool cloth, bowing his head while a gangrenous soldier prays for his life, touching water to parched lips. What’s the connection between being a nurse and a poet? I don’t know for sure. And I am a nurse. And a poet. I know the connection is elemental, almost primal, but it’s difficult to talk about, to analyze, without seeming almost voyeuristic.

I was a poet first and became a nurse later because I needed a day job to support my real profession. I wanted a vocation that would allow me to work awhile and quit, to move from place to place and always be able to find a job, to work whatever shift I wanted, and to get a decent wage for it. But there are other occupations that afford that, so what attracted me to nursing? Or more to the point, what has kept me a nurse? I had friends who were nurses, and surely that made a difference in my initial decision. But as every nurse knows, when you talk about your job, most people react by saying, I could never do that. Why is it that so many poets can?

I’d like to be able to argue that poets are a special breed, sensitive, compassionate, and empathetic, and certainly that may be true. There’s no doubt that those are traits needed to make a good nurse as well. But that’s not the whole story. Another trait of poets is the desire to strip away the trappings of civilization and the accoutrements of culture, to get down to the fundament of existence, to engage love, procreation, spirituality, death, to marvel at the universe revealed in a leaf of grass, and to somehow bear witness to it all with mere words. Nurses experience all this and more.

The average person who encounters what nurses see on a daily basis looks away, uncomfortable, anxious, maybe even sickened. And for good reason. I have put my gloved arm deep into a craterous opening in a man’s back to pack his wound day after day. I have watched a doctor slice a pregnant woman’s belly open to save the life of the child he pulled out of her. I’ve cared for a man who murdered his wife and her lover and then shot himself in the head but botched the job and lived. I’ve had to comfort the family of a young paraplegic who took his own life on my watch and my shift and cursed him for doing this to me. I’ve cared for a paralyzed man my age who could not speak and was believed to be brain damaged for twenty years and warehoused in a nursing home until a speech therapist taught him Morse code in one afternoon and rescued him from oblivion. I’ve pushed my breath into a dead man’s lungs trying desperately and futilely to revive him and carried the hallucinatory memory of the fetid stench of his breath in my mouth and nose for a week afterwards. I’ve watched miraculous recoveries, and slow painful deaths, families that deserted their loved ones, and families that stood vigil until the last breath expired. I have seen courage and despair in equal measures and soberly wondered if I would be capable of mustering the one or surviving the other.

These kinds of things, both good and bad, test nurses daily. All nurses understand what really matters about the lives we’re given to live because we see what matters and what only matters every day. In the wake of a brush with death, people often reorder their lives and priorities. But nurses see these transformational events routinely. These are the defining experiences of life and the subject matter of much poetry. So nurse poets are like rubberneckers passing a wreck on the freeway, voyeurs with a job to do. We know that what we experience is a kind of gift that teaches us what we need to say, what we need to shape into a poem.

After I was a nurse for several years, my poetry began to change. The subject matter became more intense, the imagery more visceral. Body fluids and body parts crept into my poems along with pathos and a new appreciation of time passing. My impatience led to didacticism which forced me to rethink everything I believed. Every poem seemed to be about living and dying. The luxury of free verse could no longer contain this elementally explosive content. I began using form to get some control over the emotions associated with decay and renewal, to try to bring some order to it all, to wrestle a frame around chaos and call it art.

Eventually, like most nurses, I burned out on caring for the ills of others. I got numb. I left the profession for five years until I could come back again with a sense of wonder and compassion. When I did return, I went into psych nursing, eschewing the travails of the body for those of the mind. I worked with addicts, schizophrenics, personality disorders, and veterans chronically homeless from PTSD, medicating themselves with alcohol and drugs. The wounds of the mind are as real as the wounds of the flesh but invisible to the eye. Separating cause from effect in the mentally ill is like trying to unravel a metaphor by Dylan Thomas—it comes apart into separate meaningless seemingly unrelated pieces. It only seems to have meaning when the pieces come back together, or as Williams Carlos Williams—Dr. Williams, Poet/MD—famously said, “No ideas but in things.” It is what it is, and that’s the starting point in mental health nursing too.

My poetry took another turn under the influence of my psych patients. I started looking harder at myself, at my own neuroses, at my own place in the world. I’m middle aged and the time for thinking I could change, I could do or be anything is past. I am what I am. Whatever conflicting set of elements and experiences gelled into me is the metaphor of myself that means only what it is. “No ideas but in things.”

My poems, mainly sonnets now, construct that focus like a microscope on one paradox at a time, these poems likely represent the final incarnation of my life work. Sensing this, I feel myself beginning to sum up all that I know, all that I’ve learned of life. Get it down, now, before it’s too late. Deep in my breast, I have my own fire, a burning flame. And from my own life, I continue to draw the lessons from what I’ve seen of suffering, mercy, redemption, despair. A nurse who is a poet cannot take his or her eyes off these.

There is a small measure of guilt in being a nurse and a poet. Over the years, I have received more from my patients in humanity and poetry than I was ever able to give them. Poets who are nurses, all nurses in fact, understand this: there’s more of an intangible nature coming in than going out. Maybe that’s why we do it. To feed the flame.

In his poem “Complaint” from his book Sour Grapes published in 1913, Dr. Williams describes a midnight visit to the home of a woman laboring to give birth. He stands witness to her great struggle, waiting for the moment he will be needed to catch new life coming into the world, but in the meantime: “I pick the hair from her eyes/ and watch her misery/ with compassion.”

We do what we can to alleviate the pain, but when we can do nothing else, we sit and watch and wait for the poem, like a miracle, to be delivered. Like Williams, like Keats nursing his dying brother, like Whitman in the Army hospitals, for whatever combination of compassion and art, we try to be faithful, we do not give out.

from Rattle #28, Winter 2007


T.S. Davis has published in numerous literary magazines and authored two books of poems, Sun + Moon Rendezvous and Criminal Thawts. He produced the Seattle Poetry Slam and competed twice as a finalist at the National Poetry Slam. Mr. Davis was also a writer and performer in Seattle for the award-winning live comedy show Carlotta’s Late Nite Wing Ding. For two decades he worked as an RN specializing in spinal cord injury, psychiatric nursing, and addiction. Currently he lives in Asheville, NC, where he writes Shakespearian sonnets and works as a state inspector of nursing homes.

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