I’ve heard Brian Turner speak eloquently about his time as a soldier in Iraq and I’ve read many of the poems it inspired. In the British litmag Port he writes about the one book he carried in his assault pack the whole year he served there, an anthology titled Iraqi Poetry Today.
I could take my last breath in this land, he observed. And, were that to be the case, I wanted to try my best to understand the deep history of where I was in the most nuanced and meaningful ways possible…by living with the poems and the work of poets…
In a less dramatic but nevertheless powerful way, my work as a nurse brought me into contact with illness and death on a daily basis, so Turner’s choice of books made me think about what I carried—or might have carried—in my uniform or lab coat pocket for enlightenment and comfort. While there are many poems, essays, memoirs and stories that were intensely meaningful to me during my clinical years, there is only one I clearly remember carrying into “combat.” It was a 4x6 inch blank notebook. I’d step out of an exam room or hallway, fish around in my pocket for the book and quickly record what had seized my attention.
Even now, when I open to a hurried scribble, the hush that falls as my fingers hesitate over the left breast, I am swept back to an encounter with a specific patient in an exam room at the women’s clinic. I remember what this experience meant to me as a clinician and a woman whose sister had just died of breast cancer. That phrase never found its way into a poem but it is still among the things I carry.