Friday, April 24, 2020

Poems for Nurses—National Poetry Month 2020

A stunned and exhausted nurse may become the iconic image of the Coronavirus pandemic.
In 2001 the iconic heroes of 9/11 were the firefighters—both the ones who rushed into the twin towers after the aircraft impacts and those covered in ash and grief in the hours and days after the buildings collapsed.  In war time they have often been soldiers like those who stormed the beaches of Normandy or raised the flag on Iwo Jima.  In the aftermath of earthquakes, floods, tornados and other natural disasters they are the rescuers searching frantically for survivors.
This year the iconic heroes of the Coronavirus pandemic are the nurses.  Sure, other get and deserve attention—first responders, doctors and other medical personnel, scientists seeking treatments or vaccines, and even other usually ignored essential workers including grocery clerks, truck drivers and delivery persons, custodians and cleaners.  But nurses have riveted our attention and sympathy with their tireless devotion in the midst of overwhelming chaos and suffering.
The most lasting images of this time might well be the portraits of exhausted nurses, their faces deeply marked by their masks, noses rubbed raw, sweaty, hair awry under caps and the same thousand yard stare of a shell shocked GI.  A close second might be the pictures of nurses in scrubs, arms folded calming blocking the path of screaming and abusive yahoos in trucks demanding the right to infect and kill.
Nursing is as old as humanity itself.  There have always been those who tended and cared for the sick, the old, the woundedfamily members, tribe members, or neighbors.  Their tasks were not to cure—that was the province of shamans, witch doctors, or later physicians.  It was to provide comfort and solace.  By Medieval times orders of nuns and friars were organized as were primitive hospitals and asylums.
But nursing did not become an organized profession until the 19th Century arising out of the bloody mayhem of war.  Florence Nightingale became the celebrated Lady with a Lamp during the Crimean War and then returned to England to found the first schools of nursing.  On this side of the pond Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix filled similar roles and found fame and adulation.

A World War I eastern European post card of a Red Cross nurse as an angel.
War time nurses often were called angels for their selfless ministrations.  They treated Doughboys in France, were trapped with their charges on doomed Corregidor and endured years as prisoners of war, were there in front line MASH units in Korea and Vietnam, and wore desert camo as they attended the mutilated bodies of soldiers ripped apart by roadside bombs.

Romance novel nurse.
In civilian life nurses became familiar figures in their spotless white uniforms and starched caps in hospitals and doctors’ offices providing efficient but tender care.  Romance between nurses and patients and between nurses and doctors became a staple of popular culture in novels like Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms, in countless films like the Dr. Killdeer series, in soap operas, comic books, pulp novels, and the prime time TV hospital dramas from Saint Elsewhere to Chicago Med.
On the darker side of that is the sexploitation of “slutty nurses” in countless porno films and videos.
Poets have long found nurses irresistible muses.  Here are some examples.

American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow first referred to Florence Nightingale as "The Lady with the Lamp"

In 1857 The Atlantic Monthly, a relatively new American literary magazine published Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Santa Filomena which was inspired by accounts of Florence Nightingale’s service in the Crimean War.  Saint Philomena is a patron of the sick.  In the poem Longfellow coined the phraseThe Lady with the Lamp” which forever became associated with the heroic nurse.

Santa Filomena

Whene’er a noble deed is wrought,
Whene’er is spoken a noble thought,
   Our hearts, in glad surprise,
   To higher levels rise.

The tidal wave of deeper souls
Into our inmost being rolls,
   And lifts us unawares
   Out of all meaner cares.

Honor to those whose words or deeds
Thus help us in our daily needs,
   And by their overflow
   Raise us from what is low!

Thus thought I, as by night I read
Of the great army of the dead,
   The trenches cold and damp,
   The starved and frozen camp,—  

The wounded from the battle-plain,
In dreary hospitals of pain,
   The cheerless corridors,
   The cold and stony floors.

Lo! in that house of misery
A lady with a lamp I see
   Pass through the glimmering gloom,
   And flit from room to room.

And slow, as in a dream of bliss,
The speechless sufferer turns to kiss
   Her shadow, as it falls
   Upon the darkening walls.

As if a door in heaven should be
Opened and then closed suddenly,
   The vision came and went,
   The light shone and was spent.

On England’s annals, through the long
Hereafter of her speech and song,
   That light its rays shall cast
   From portals of the past.

A Lady with a Lamp shall stand
In the great history of the land,
   A noble type of good,
   Heroic womanhood.

Nor even shall be wanting here
The palm, the lily, and the spear,
   The symbols that of yore
   Saint Filomena bore.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

A woodcut of Walt Whitman as a Civil War nurse.

Next to Clara Barton Walt Whitman was the most famous nurse of the American Civil War.  He volunteered to tend the injured on the battlefield after the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862 and continued his ministrations in Washington hospitals.  He wrote about his experience in his book Drum-Taps.

The Wound-Dresser

An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?


O maidens and young men I love and that love me
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recall
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur’d works—yet lo, like a swift running river they fade,
Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or soldiers’ joys,
(Both I remember well—many of the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content.)

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.


On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away,)
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard,
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.

I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.

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.)


Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

—Walt Whitman

Michael Earl Craig is a contemporary poet who lives near Livingston, Montana, where his day job is a farrier.  He looks at a nurse as a patient, perhaps one who is slightly delirious

Night Nurse

This night nurse is different.
She walks into my room and does not turn the light on.
She thinks I am sleeping.
I have just barely opened my left eye,
am looking through the slightest slit,
as moonlight exposes the room
for what it really is — a collection
of surfaces; lines and planes, mostly.
The night nurse puts a foot up on the radiator
and braces her clipboard on her knee
as she appears to take down a few notes.
I imagine she is working on a sonnet,
and that her ankle looks like polished walnut.
You imagine she is working on a crossword,
and that her feet are killing her.
The slightest slit is like an old gate
at a Japanese tea garden at night,
in the rain, that is supposed to be closed,
that is supposed to be locked.
“Someone has locked up poorly,” you’d say.
“Incorrectly.” But no one has asked you.

Michael Earl Craig

Ray Buchanan, the 89 year old Coronavirus victim who nurse Doug Rae comforted as he died.

Doug Rae, an intensive-care nurse at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver wrote a poem about his final moments with Ray Buchanan, an accomplished, 89-year-old costume designer who had worked in theatre and film

Today I held his hand
I told him
He was strong
This virus had
Taken over
No more fighting
To be done

Today I held his hand
And in the other
Held a phone
His family said
We love you
It’s time to say

Today I held his hand
As I hung up
On that phone
His breathing pattern
His heart beating
No more

Today I held his hand
Tears behind my
Plastic face mask
This protective suit
I’m wearing
Cannot shield

Today I held his hand
So he wouldn’t be

Doug Rae

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