October 26, 2019

T.S. Davis, RN


The gravedigger sits on the backhoe smoking a cigarette.
It’s quiet beneath the trees that partially hide him
from the scrum of mourners beset by grief, regret,
their weeping faces wan and pinched and grim.
The gravedigger waits until the last one leaves,
then yells to signal his men to lower the box,
and turns the key that wakes his rumbling beast
that lumbers now to move the dirt and rocks.
The gravedigger fills the hole until the mound
remarks upon the grass like blood on skin.
And when he cuts the engine there is no sound
except the whispered shush of trees in wind.
The gravedigger thinks of all he needs to do
before he sleeps tonight, like me, like you.

from Rattle #28, Winter 2007
Tribute to Nurses


T.S. Davis, RN: “When I was fifteen and living in a cage of equal parts conditioning and inexperience, Dylan Thomas and Kenneth Patchen roared up in a metaphorical ’65 baby blue Mustang blasting away with words like hollow tip bullets at the concrete and steel of my small town prison and broke me out of jail. I joined their gang and I’ve been on the run ever since.”

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August 13, 2019

Monica Groth Farrar, RN, BSN, BA


Because I stopped
to shine my shoes in the street
with spit on a hankie,
I am fine and dandy
where otherwise I might not be.

Had I ignored wet pigeon shit
dirtying my patent leather,
that baby grand split from rope
on its way out the window
would have pinned me
and my fouled shoes instantly,
nasty trash for garbage collectors.

Somebody didn’t tie the rope
tight or right, who knows?
All I can tell you is when
that piano hit pavement it splintered
in a cacophony of sharps and flats.
You ever hear a piano die?

For luck I put in my trouser pocket
a black key landed to the right of me.
Whenever I do die let my wife
dispose it with the rest of my things.
As long as she buries me
in my one good pair of leather shoes.

* * *

People wondered why
a handsome man married me.
His auburn hair I cut the way he liked.

My quiet mouth was almost pretty.
I licked threads fed through eyes
of silver needles to hem his pants.

My husband was afraid of fire.
I saved the cremation receipt
with his few love letters.

His ashes are under our bed
in a box cheaper than a casket.
Tomorrow I go through his clothes.

from Rattle #28, Winter 2007


Monica Groth Farrar, RN, BSN, BA: “I wrote ‘Things They Save’ after reading about a man captured in an early daguerreotype because ‘he stopped to shine his shoes in the street.’ Intrigued by the sound of that sentence, I wondered what would happen if I tried to tell the man’s story.”

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February 25, 2014

Cortney Davis, RN, MA, ANP


I don’t know why I always say
what I think she wants me to say
when she asks if this infection—
these sores, these lesions, this bad prognosis—
is the result of love she made
with the man now her husband
or could it have been another man
and does this infection prove
that she is bad, something she’s
suspected all along,
or maybe it was just bad luck
or could it be, she asks me, punishment
for the way she beat her children
telling them shut up, shut up,
and wouldn’t it be better, she asks
if she herself was never born,
her own mother on the streets
like a forecast of her life?—
but then she says, Still,
I want to live; I’ve learned my lesson,
and isn’t my whole life about to change?

and every time she asks
I always say
Yes, yes, I’m absolutely sure it will.

from Rattle #28, Winter 2007
Tribute to Nurses

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May 21, 2012

Geri Rosenzweig, RN


for Dan

When at last
you find the street of the cellist,
may the dread
that accompanied you
fall by the way,
may the yellow hive
of her window direct you
to the garden
where the russet tint
of alders keep
for all time her three
stone sundials in their shade.
Don’t worry
if the thumbprint
of oil placed
on your forehead trembles
at the pallor of her hair,
in the layered
softness of snow falling
on your shoulders,
in the hum of zero
sounding your arrival,
listen for notes
drawn slow from the tattered
libretto of your life.

from Rattle #28, Winter 2007
Tribute to Nurses


Geri Rosenzweig, RN: “I had a short term memory problem back in the days when such defects were only guessed at. Much to the amazement of friends and teachers, I could memorize poems without difficulty and recite them back in class. I believe it was the pleasure my brain took in the cadence, the music, the lilt of language when I was a child that makes me write poems, plus the freedom I feel when writing. For me, poetry is the only way I make sense of this life.”

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May 19, 2012

Nancy Kerrigan, APRN, MS

St. Patrick’s Day, 1966

Mental hospitals and snake pits, synonymous,
when I began my career. Stairwells smelled
of Lysol. Patients lay on the dew covered
lawns, their dormitory bedrooms padlocked
all day long to prevent napping. Eight-hundred
milligrams of Thorazine made walking feel
like trudging through deep mud.

Women slept coiled on communal bathroom
floors, guarding handbags, pictures of children,
a fork for a weapon. Hems of hospital-housedresses,
fabric worn thinner than tissues, wiped away
the few tears that managed to escape
this overmedicated state.

Come to my group, my plea, as I knelt offering
filtered cigarettes as free admission tickets.
In empty silence, we sat on single beds, arranged
in a square, in a room as cavernous as an airplane hanger.
What was my hurry, most had lived there twenty years?
Hardly a word dropped into the atmosphere

until St. Patrick’s Day, when I presented
a single green carnation to each woman in the group.
Anna sniffed the blossom; Edna placed it between
her breasts. Rose wore hers over her ear.
Vivian shared a memory about the feel of seeds
in her hands when she gardened. The oldest patient,
Lillian, who had a lobotomy, watered
the blossom with her drool.

from Rattle #28, Winter 2007
Tribute to Nurses

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May 17, 2012

Madeleine Mysko, RN, MA


At social functions, when someone asks me what I do for a living, I answer that I’m a nurse, and that I also write poetry. As a rule, the conversation then turns down the path I’ve taken as poet. Few people ask about the nursing (unless of course they happen to be nurses too). Few are curious about the connection between nursing and poetry.

Perhaps because of the order in which I name the two paths—nursing, followed by an “also”—people tend to draw the romantic conclusion that at some point in my nursing career I felt the call to be creative, and thus I write in my spare time for the sake of my poetic soul. Perhaps it is I who have led them to that conclusion, for I’m given to remarking wryly that no one really makes a living writing poems, but one can at least pay the bills by working as a nurse. No wonder then that I’m perceived as a nurse who happens to write poems. But in truth I’m a poet who happens to be a nurse. (I also write fiction, but then that’s another story, no pun intended.)

I suppose it could be said that a nurse who writes serious poetry is not unlike anyone else who writes serious poetry while also holding down a job outside the halls of academia. (Academia being the only place where a regular, working poet might be able to make living as poet.) Dana Gioia devotes a chapter of Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture to a discussion of American poets who happen to have made a living in business, ultimately making the case that these poets did not “simplify themselves into the conventional image of poet.” Gioia points out that he chose this particular group—poets who have at one time or another in their lives worked as insurance salesmen or bankers or investment brokers—because it serves the purposes of his wider argument as “one of the more extreme and paradoxical examples of the alienated modern artist.”

Is the poet who works in a hospital, tending to the sick, any different from the poet who works in an office building selling insurance? Maybe not, since both these poets work at “regular” jobs for a paycheck in order to work in the off hours towards the same goal—a well-crafted poem. But to me the more interesting question is this: All things being equal (that is, we’re talking about serious poetry that merits the consideration of both the literary critic and the lover of poetry) what is it about the body of work written by nurses—as a distinct group—that is worth our attention?

Gioia poses the same question about businessman-poets (all the poets he discusses in that particular chapter are men)—“Is anything even gained by segregating them as a distinct group of writers and comparing them to other poets whose lives seem more typical?” Obviously, given the depth of his own thinking on the subject, Gioia has concluded that there is indeed something to be gained. I agree, if only for the pleasure of digging past the intriguing question and into the poetry itself. But then Gioia goes off on in other directions (money and wealth as ancient subjects, for example) that may not be as useful to this discussion.

One of Gioia’s questions, however, went off in such a direction as to give me pause: “Why did these men write nothing about their working lives?” Clearly, one would never ask that question about the “distinct group of writers” who are nurses, for the obvious reason that when nurses write poems, they quite often are writing about their working lives, with all the poetic energy it takes to address what they know firsthand of illness, birth, dying and death, suffering and healing. One could argue that a great many poems in the English and American tradition address these very same subjects. Still, there is no denying that the majority of poems written by nurses—at least those specifically identified and anthologized as such—are uniquely set in the working life of the nurse, a working life that requires an intimacy with human suffering the likes of which no other profession requires. Poems written by nurses are more likely to be narrative, to appeal to the senses, to be attentive to the human body in ways that are knowing, and authoritative. It seems to me this is only natural, given the sort of experience a nurse naturally draws from.

I dare say that most of the poets represented in what Cortney Davis calls a “small revolution in nurses’ writing” did not take offense when Davis and her co-editor Judy Schaefer (both of them nurses, both poets) gathered them together under one title—Nurses—and published their poems in an anthology. (There are now two such anthologies.) The members of that small revolution owe a dept of gratitude for the passionate efforts of these anthologists, and for the outreach of editors like Danielle Ofri of Bellevue Literary Review. Were it not for the distinct grouping—for the category of “literary nurse”—some of these poets might never have received the notice they are due.

That said, I am still a poet who happens to be a nurse. The distinction is important to me because I resist the suggestion that any subject matter—in my case, the working life of a nurse—is of primary importance in recommending a body of work to a reader. Some poets are nurses, and others are insurance salesmen and, yes, a lot of them are academics, but regardless of how they make a living, the best of these strive to perfect their art. Confined by the topics relating to a particular profession, how can any poet grow as an artist?

In her foreword to Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses, Joanne Trautmann Banks writes that she’d like to remove the hyphen from the term “nurse-writers.” She concludes with an imperative: “Call them simply writers who happen to have unusual access to us.” (xiv) I think Banks has it right. In reading the poems in this tribute issue, it is worth considering the import of that “unusual access.”

By virtue of the profession, nurses have physical access to us: They are present at moments of human vulnerability. At the same time, the work that nurses do—often so close to our pain as to breathe the very air of it—demands a discipline that limits access to emotion. Good nurses keep a check on the feelings—fear, revulsion, anger, grief—that might compromise what they have to offer as professionals. Even at the joyful occasions, childbirth for example, nurses know they aren’t entirely free to indulge in emotion. On the one hand they must be empathetic and engaged, but on the other hand they must be removed and clear-headed. Thus, at the end of the workday, a nurse’s approach to writing a poem isn’t exactly like Wordsworth’s emotion recollected in tranquility. The nurse’s approach might be described as professional barriers to emotion dismantled out of poetic necessity. My phrasing isn’t as euphonious as Wordsworth’s, but it’s the best I can do, and I believe it’s true.

This is not to say that nurses write poems to let off the steam of pent-up feeling. It is to say that their approach to poems (even those poems addressing subjects outside the nursing workday—sea turtles and street cellists and the Day of the Dead, for example) is by way of a privileged and precarious access to human experience. Rather than merely reporting from the bedside, rather than aiming for sensation or sentiment, good poets who happen to be nurses work hard at the craft. As a distinct group, it is true they have an unusual access to us. But it’s important to note that this access is not easy, and that each poet in the distinct group presented here has approached it deliberately. Each one has mustered up the discipline it takes to make something beautiful out of what a nurse knows.

Works cited:

Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (Graywolf, 1992).

Davis, Cortney and Judy Schaefer. Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses (University of Iowa Press, 1995).

Davis, Cortney and Judy Schaefer. Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses (University of Iowa Press, 2003).


Madeleine Mysko is a registered nurse and a graduate of The Writing Seminars of The Johns Hopkins University. Her poems and prose have appeared in such venues as The Hudson Review, Shenandoah, Bellevue Literary Review, The Baltimore Sun and American Journal of Nursing. Her first novel, Bringing Vincent Home (Plain View Press) is based on her experiences as an Army nurse on the burn ward during the Vietnam War. A poetry collection, Crucial Blue (Rager Media), is due for release in 2008.

from Rattle #28, Winter 2007

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April 23, 2012

Jeanne Cook, RN


She says something about harpy cuckoos
in eucalyptus trees. Maybe she had been a harpist,
or a poet, or came from a fragrant grove in California.
I heard she had been a chemist,
but now her brain is scrambled
like a pile of labyrinthine wire encrusted with plaque.

Is she trying to make connections?
Am I the harpy cuckoo, cajoling her to eat?
Or is she merely re-naming the mashed potatoes
I am lifting to her mouth, the fork now become
a tree? What is naming, anyway,
but the way to say a thing?

She will have none of the eating.
She points to a vase of flowers, sees a face,
sing-songs, Oh, see, he’s come!
But when I turn to look there’s no one there.
And now the namings fly, new equations—
hermit thrushes and hydrogen, fire and figs,

oxygen, copper and telephones. At last,
to quiet her, I point to a photograph
of a handsome man in a naval uniform.
Is that your husband? I ask. She cocks her head
and smiles. It’s there, she says,
to show we were belonged.

from Rattle #28, Winter 2007
Tribute to Nurses


Jeanne Cook, RN: “There were thousands of them in forty years—strangers I cared for and cared about in a long nursing career. A few of them, all dead now, inhabit my dreams, are part of my history. I make poems to honor them and to tell what it was to be a nurse.”

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