I hear Their Voices Singing poems by Coutney Davis

picture of Coutney Davis
Author photograph by Jon Gordon.  

Cortney Davis’ I Hear Their Voices Singing has received enthusiastic reviews. Hilda Raz has commented, “‘Ever since I was a child, / I wanted to spend my life in praise,’ writes poet and nurse Cortney Davis in her New & Selected Poems. Here she looks hard at the body—at life, death, rape, abuse, disease, fear. Then she says, ‘I bless you with my fingertips’—not only to her patients, but to her readers, to us.  ‘At death, / you become wholly mine,’ she says.  And she tells us amazing stories, metaphors for passion, family, for love, for suffering: ‘This is the body I love—the one that laughs down death’s trumpet.’ I love these poems and the poet-nurse who writes them. She is compassionate, curious, detached, fascinated, candid, in love with the human body— its drips and weight—and the life it carries.  Praise Cortney Davis and her marvelous poems.  Read them now.”  And this from Margaret Gibson: “Over the years, Cortney Davis’ long vocation as a nurse has placed her with human beings who find themselves over the threshold of injury or illness, or on the threshold of dying, at times crossing over.  Her vocation as a poet has allowed her to take these liminal moments, or hours, with patients and turn them into poems written with fearlessness, clarity, and compassion.  Both the work of healing and the work of poetry require a capacity for attention that is both generous and strict.  Davis’ poems, which have these qualities, place us intimately in the midst of life.  In one poem, herself now the patient, she writes:

                        . . . how it was sometimes the feminine
                        my body sought
                        and other times the masculine
                        how necessary both
                        the tender gentle sympathy
                        and other times
                        the strength and deference
                        that lifted and held and did not let me fall

You will find just these qualities of tenderness and strength in the poems selected for I Hear Their Voices Singing.” 

  I hear their voices singing cover image
  Front cover photo “Nature & Nurture” by Jon Gordon.

Cortney Davis began her career in healthcare as a nurse’s aide, then as an OR scrub tech.  After graduating from nursing school, she worked as an RN in Intensive Care and in Oncology.  Again returning to university, she became a Nurse Practitioner, working in cardiology and pulmonary practices, and for many years in women’s health. In her writing, she examines how we care, or fail to care, for one another—the written word becoming the perfect place in which the act of caring becomes a way of keeping, revealing the mysteries of the world.  Having been both a nurse and a patient, she believes that a patient’s room is a sacred space. 

Her honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, three Connecticut Commission on Tourism and the Arts Poetry Grants, the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry for Leopold’s Maneuvers, the Wheelbarrow Poetry Prize for Taking Care of Time, two Connecticut Center for the Book Awards (in Non-Fiction and Poetry), an Independent Publisher’s Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal in Non-Fiction, a Tillie Olsen Creative Writing Award, and six Books of the Year awards from the American Journal of Nursing.  In 2007, she was awarded a Nightingale Award for excellence in nursing. In addition to nursing credentials, Cortney holds a BA and MA in English. She was selected to be the first poet laureate of Bethel, CT, 2019-2022.  For more information, visit www.cortneydavis.com.


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ISBN 978-1-943826-69-8
First Edition, 2020
192 pages

This book will be available by July 15 and can be ordered from all bookstores, including Amazon.



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,
a new moon easing into sight. 

Listen, he says, and I hear their voices singing.

Nursing 101


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
in my favorite dance—

pianissimo, pale through hospital halls.

Blood Clot


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
on Wednesday


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.