Copyright © 2020 by Cortney Davis
Birth is a beginning, my Buddhist friend says.
Even opening a cereal box at dawn
is a beginning, the way the separate grains meld
into something new, milk drizzled
from a pitcher, blackberries on a silver spoon.
And every breath seems new, he says,
sacred as the morning prayers of the devout.
On my ward today, two patients died . . .
Death is also a beginning, my friend says. It’s like
closing out the lights at night to summon sleep—
the possibilities are endless: constellations,
Listen, he says, and I hear their voices singing.
a new moon easing into sight.
Silver scissors glistened, the fluted jewel of a nursing pin
nestled against her breast. I was restless,
watching the shirt move over the boy’s back
three seats forward. She hushed us, a hiss of cotton against silk,
then she said pain and shot, and there
in that bright arena, a crescendo of moans like sweet violins.
I learned how cells collide then meld and peel into spheres,
multisided like soccer balls or Rubik’s Cubes.
I stabbed oranges until my hands ran with juice, then patients
until my hands rang with grace. I learned the quick save:
airway entered upside down and turned into breath. I learned
to kiss death, my lips seeking those slack mouths while a boy
waited, flicking his bright cigarette, the burning eye that led me,
my shift over, to his embrace. Even there,
I longed for the corridors where patients slept in silence
thick as grief. Where the night nurse moved
pianissimo, pale through hospital halls.
in my favorite dance—
I got sleepy, my right side
became lazy, then wouldn’t move.
Inside my lids a plush curtain
turned my friend’s face
into a ripe tomato. Mother’s
purple violets against the porcelain
kitchen sink became that thick pulse
stopped in my brain. At twelve
I never wanted to be a nurse,
but head down on my arms at the table,
I sensed the potential in disorder.
My friend chattered to keep me awake
while my father phoned the doctor.
When he said Emergency, Dad opened
a can of Campbell’s Bean and Bacon soup,
stirred it slowly in Mom’s enamel pan.
Keep talking, he told my friend,
while I obediently spooned,
with my good left hand, the dusty aftertaste
of soup he’d make me finish first,
when all I wanted were alarms,
women in white bright enough to burn
running with me in their arms.
When at last I was delivered
to their headlong rush, their quick
needle in my vein, their silent
bedside vigil I could count on, I vowed
I would always love their way: Fierce.
Physical. Then they returned me, healed,
to that damn, calm kitchen.
Details of Flesh
That morning I surprised a nurse
and her patient, the two of them
together, bloodless skin and white
uniform like a shroud, but her hair,
it was black and crackling.
Then the sunburned neurologist
stripped an unconscious girl.
Let’s see if she responds.
He rolled her nipple hard
between his fingers. Her body
arched, her breasts amazed.
So later, when the new doctor
found me alone in the room,
my white uniform neon
under fluorescent tubes,
I said yes. His tongue was salty,
his hands cold. I tasted his skin
clammy with so many bodies,
and I thought of them, my washcloth
making their skin gather,
the stark light on the details
of flesh. That day, in every ward,
nurses dripped lotion into their cupped hands,
and restless patients called them.
The Nurse’s Task
When I pluck the suture
or pack the ulcer with gauze,
it becomes my task
to introduce rage to this body
that calls me, nurse, nurse,
as if my hands were gold.
First I cradle the body
like a mother rocks.
I lean close
and let it memorize my face.
Then, I begin.
First, something subtle.
A hasty scrape.
An accidental pinch
as if I might thrust needle
down to bone. The body
raises its hands in disbelief!
This is nothing. I thread veins
with catheters of fire,
I change morphine to milk.
When the body asks why?
I am silent. When the body
whines, I act bored
and turn away. If sleep comes
I sneak in and shake the body
until, angry and squinty-eyed,
it rises on its elbow
and stares at me, at last understanding
that the flesh is everything.
This is the body I love—the one
that laughs down death’s trumpet.
The one that escapes.
The Vocation of Illness
Today, when he speaks about holiness, the priest says
that some people have the vocation of illness. I think about this
all the way home, the gray-spired church growing smaller
in my rear view mirror, and the vocation of illness looming
before me like a re-run movie, like when I was a new nurse
at St. Joseph’s and my first patient was a woman
dying of a brain tumor, before all the sweet nectars of relief
we have today, before the precise knife and bitter healing poisons.
I stood beside her bed as she writhed and groaned,
the harsh white sheets tossed and tugged into disarray.
As I straightened them, as I offered water, company, a back rub,
I’d listen to her constant moan, a long low sound
that rose into a shriek and then receded, like a fierce surf
that roiled and thundered in, then hissed back into the endless,
deepest, darkest blue. When I worked the night shift, I’d find her
still awake, eyes wide, voice hoarse from constant keening.
And today, after all this time, I learn that she was holy,
immolated on a cross I couldn’t see. Hello, woman who died in agony.
Can you hear me? Have your cries turned to singing?
Do you stand before the face of God?
Reading in Hayestown Elementary School
In the hallway, Raeanna and I are enraptured
by words, alone in a universe we’ve devised,
her homeroom like a city across town
with its muffled chatter, muted sounds of scissors and chalk
and, once in a while, the call and response of the alphabet.
Raeanna’s finger traces the page,
her lips expel the puff of air that means p
and then the funny, nasal ony—she says them together,
points to the shaggy pony in the book
and rides away, leaving behind her pink sweater,
the small oak chairs,
the white paste pots of third grade in Danbury.
I lean with her over the syllables,
learning the freedom of run, the beauty of violet
and bread, daring the uncertain, silent k in know, knead,
knock and, without warning, I see my mother,
just before she went blind, how she’d touch
everything, running her dry hands over my face,
reading the Braille of table tops with her fingerpads,
spidery, hesitant at first,
then expertly judging green or silk, even after
the macula failed, the eye’s center closed.
Raeanna points to “snoozed” and asks,
like sleeping, right?—
as she maps out the future, her vision
unencumbered, and so earnest it could awaken the dead.
Entering the Patient’s Room
Knock, then enter with quiet steps,
remembering that you carry with you
news of another world.
Be attentive, noting
the placement of chairs, the presence
or absence of flowers, of cards tacked to the wall
as if to take upon themselves a measure of pain.
Look at the woman resting in bed,
seeing around her the light
emanating from her wounds; go directly
to the bedside, not afraid to take her hand
or simply sit beside.
Speak your name, or wait,
saying nothing. Remain steadfast,
while the hospital clock offers its silent hours.
Let her mind and her body be all that matters.
Let this time be sufficient to the task at hand.