Rather inflammatory stuff

Wanting inspiration, I just reread a favorite passage from Robertson Davies’ novel, The Cunning Man.

In it, Dr. Hullah, a Canadian physician during World War II is assigned to a hospital ward in Oxford, England to care for 26 young men seriously wounded by friendly fire.  They suffer from amputations, head injuries, and shellshock.  All are angry and resentful, despairing about their future.

As he listens to them, it dawns on Hullah that this rage, this disillusion, this disappointment was not what it seemed.  It was the duct through which flowed an unhappiness and a pathos that lay at the very bottom of the spirit, and might perhaps be inborn…. What to do?

One day, he bicycles into town and finds himself in a bookshop.  Poetry was what he wanted, not poems that would appear to dispense education or culture but the sort of anthology that might appeal to everyman.  I needed poetry, or better call it verse, that would catch the ear, stick in the memory and tell a story.  With simple poems of grievance, merit overlooked and injustice nobly born, he institutes a regular reading hour.  Slowly these men who had suffered wrong—wrong that was nobody’s fault…or certainly not the fault of anybody who can be identified—begin to open up and talk among themselves.

He is eventually summoned by his supervisor who says he’s heard that Hullah is exposing  the men to some rather inflammatory stuff.

How wonderful to find in poetry this inflammatory stuff, words that open us up to the fear, sadness, anger or anxiety at the bottom of our spirit, inborn or not. This is what I want for myself when I am troubled and for all who suffer:  not the edification, pleasure or even enlightenment poetry can offer but simple, resonant language that sticks in memory and tells a story we need to hear.

Poetry for a dollar

Friend, I bought it

at the Tenleytown bus stop

in front of Best Buy

from the poet himself,

a soft-spoken man in suit and tie

who stepped up from behind

and made me his offer—

crisp photocopy of a handwritten poem

dated yesterday.


The bus arrived and I hustled on board

with my purchase.

I like the poem about TV and rainbows

but what haunts me still

is the man himself

a poet like me

who thought his work worthy

of strangers’ regard

and cash on the spot


and this:  that poetry could simply

show up at a bus stop

like the school child in uniform,

the elder with bags en route to the store

or the middle-aged woman

who just dropped off her car at the shop.

Trashing the Black Notebooks

It was one thing to let go of most of my library when I moved.  It was quite another to trash the black notebooks, a collection of three-ring binders in which I kept my journal from 1965-1995. I reread each volume a few years ago in preparation for letting them go—but I wasn’t ready.  Then, this month, with just a glance at the first page of each as I snapped open the rings and moved the thick stack of lined paper from black notebook to black trash bag, I completed the job I’d set for myself.  It hurt.  I still don’t feel quite the release I hope for. But it felt like a necessary task.

Now here’s a question that intrigues me.  Why, after 1995, did my journals change dramatically?  I moved from lined paper to unlined sketchbooks and from verbal to visual entries (sketches, photos, collage, mandalas, clips from periodicals, short quotes, commentaries and notes).  Even my handwriting changed. 

True, I’d recently attended a workshop on keeping a visual journal.  Coincidentally, my sister sent me a colorful day book in which I kept notes.  More important I think were the big changes in my marriage, my career and my creative life.  I never thought of 1995 as a watershed but it was.  I have no reason to hold on to the record of the years prior.  I lived them.  They formed me.  But truth be known, I never browsed through the black notebooks like I do the visual journals. They shine a light on my path.  They continue to inspire me.  They make me smile in a way the black notebooks never did.


Poised, no longer


       you wait as every part of you sheds

              what once was,

                                    and is no longer


This is a stanza from the only poem that’s ever been dedicated to me.  It’s called “Prayer For The Wild Voice” by my fellow poet Cheryl Hellner and first appeared in Heron Dance, a  journal of art and nature.  I go back to it often during times of uncertainty or change.

 Your pen, poised over an empty page

Your life, no longer settled

Your dwelling, shed of so much that is no longer necessary

You wait, and this  waiting is active, physically exhausting, mindless.  You prepare for the unknown, you listen for a voice within that must be set free.  You set it free.

Odd Volumes

A personal library is not a collection of odd volumes:  It is the outward representation of one’s inner life, a mirror of the soul, the past spread out before your eyes.

                                                                                                        Michael Dirda

                                                                                                       The Washington Post

 I will be moving soon.  Time to choose among my possessions, decide what to pack and what to leave behind.  Books are the hardest to cull.  It’s not that I could not take them all—it’s that I want to travel light and make space for what is new.  When I was younger, this was easy, a matter of course.  Not now.

My well-thumbed copy of Sound and SenseAn Introduction to Poetry has followed me since high school.  It will make the move.  Knowing Woman by Irene Claremont de Castijello has been seminal in my development as a woman and will certainly come.  But what about Märchen der Brűder Grimm and the other volumes from German language study and travel in my 20s?  What about Thomas Merton and the other spiritual writers who enriched my 30s?  the outdated but once essential and still prized texts and reference books from my clinical years?  the anthologies in which my work appears?

Then there are the Tony Hillerman murder mysteries that I (who’d never read murder mysteries) was delighted to discover because they taught me about Navajo culture and introduced me to memorable characters like Navajo tribal policemen Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.  There’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, a massive tome I bought one bleak winter but have never got around to reading because that stage of life seems to have passed and the collections of personal essays (Lewis Thomas, Bill Holm, Kathleen Norris) that have come to me at critical times in my life.  As my eyes roam each shelf, I am flooded with memories.

Dirda is right.  A personal library is a mirror of the soul, a record of one’s journey through life.  Still, all of my books, even those that won’t accompany me this time, have already left their mark.  That will be my consolation as I drop them off at Goodwill or some other station along the way to their next destination.


I’ve been reflecting on the massive AWP conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) held here in Washington D.C. last month where I was one of more than 12,000 writers gathered to celebrate and hone their craft.  I came, for the first and likely last time, to participate in a panel discussion hosted by Joan Baranow of Dominican University in California.  She titled it “Crossing the Line—Writing As a Healing Practice.”

Talk about crossing the line!  Here I was milling about in a crowd of writers at the D.C. Convention Center which, as it happens, is located directly across the street from the crumbling townhouse where Community Medical Care, the mom-and-pop family practice I was part of for almost two decades, is awaiting certain demolition as the neighborhood continues to gentrify. 

This unsettling observation put me in mind of an essay I wrote years ago called “Crossing the Road.”  I dug it out and reread it.  Here are the opening paragraphs:

            I am standing on a rise at the far end of Dayspring Silent Retreat Center in Germantown, Maryland.  Behind me is a narrow strip of woods and the curve of Neelsville Church Road which marks the property line.  Since I first started coming here over twenty-five years ago, development has pressed in on Dayspring.  What once seemed pristine and remote from metropolitan Washington, D.C. has become an oasis in the urban desert.  From where I stand, I see daisy fields rolled out like a white blanket at my feet, evergreen borders and the Lake of the Saints, a rest stop for migratory water birds.  In the far distance I can make out the porch of the retreat lodge, lined with wooden rocking chairs.  In stark contrast, across the road, I see the closely-spaced houses and yards of a fast-growing suburb.  Decks, grills, swing sets and plastic pools camouflage the busy, productive and often stressed lives expedited by the SUVs parked in the driveways.

             In one of the flashes of insight that I’ve learned to expect while on retreat, I realize that what I see spread out before me represents two worlds, the instrumental world where the business of everyday gets done, and the expressive world of Dayspring, set apart for the renewal of body and soul.  One swath of land, bisected by a country road, supports both.  My life is like this land, I thought.   

Yes, the instrumental and expressive worlds, the practice of nursing and the healing art of writing,  CMC and AWP.  My life, like Ninth Street here in the heart of Washington, has been home to both.

Prescribing the Ations

I often make the case for poetry as good medicine.  I think of poems as small capsules of meaning that heal the soul thanks to active ingredients like celebration, consolation, inspiration and revelation—call them the “ations” if you’re a clinician and want to categorize them alongside the statins, mycins, salicilates and other classes of pharmaceuticals.

Truth be told, I’ve rarely prescribed poems to patients, but have done so from time to time for friends and family members suffering from illness, anxiety or uncertainty .  I also prescribe for myself on a regular basis.  Here are a few of the “ations” and poems that I find therapeutic. 

Celebration: Bugs in a Bowl, David Budbill

Consolation: Go Down, Dom Helder Camara

Humiliation:  The Mistake, James Fenton

Inspiration:  New Water, Sharon Chmielarz

Lamentation:  Dirge Without Music, Edna St. Vincent Millay

Meditation:  The Way It Is, William Stafford

Revelation:  The Guest House, Rumi

A Book of One's Own

I love lists. They’re concise, reductive, easy to absorb. That’s one reason I was drawn to Thomas Mallon’s, A Book of One’s Own—People and Their Diaries.  In it he devotes a chapter to each of seven types of diarist and gives examples of their work. By and large these diaries are not crafted or written with the benefit of reflection. But, he says, they continue to attract readers down through the decades.  There are the

·        chroniclers whose writing is rooted in the idea of dailiness and is meant to preserve impressions

·         travelers who record the sights and sounds of places they want to remember

·         pilgrims whose destination is inward, who want to realize their full potential

·         creators in whose private pages imagination comes to life through notes and sketches

·         apologists: the idealists, propagandists, and spurned lovers who want the world to sit up and take notice

·         confessors, animated by secrecy, who hold private conversations with God or some other embodiment of conscience

·         prisoners—the jailed, the invalid or otherwise incapacitated who are given voice in this medium

The big reason I dove into Mallon is that I, too, write my life.  Which of these diarists am I?  Except for one year in which I made a regular effort to explore my professional role (chronicler, pilgrim, apologist), I have not been a collector of days.  Nor have I adopted a consistent form.  Here’s my list of the molds into which I’ve poured my experience:

·         commonplace book (to-do lists, stray jottings about what I’ve read or thought, observations about events, places or people, numbers I want to remember)

·         journal (reflections on my life, musings from my imagination)

·         sketchbook (though I’m not a gifted artist, I often sketch or paint when I travel)

·         visual journal (a mix of words, collage, mandalas, headlines or illustrations torn from periodicals, drawings, photographs, interesting scraps paper or fabric)

·         pocket notebook with uncharted lines gathered from patient encounters, random observations from my professional life

·         this slowly evolving blog, Veneta’s Notebook

Letters to the future

Recently I found myself in the grip of Paul Monette’s 1994 book, Last Watch of the Night, a collection of passionate autobiographical essays about his last years with AIDS—before long term survival became the norm.  He addresses his own coming out, gay life, the impact of AIDS on the gay community and his own relationships, the importance of activism and the consequences of silence.  “It is simply not enough to be an artist, unengaged,” he writes.  “I consider the work I’m doing…as a kind of letter to my gay and lesbian children in the future…”

Letters.  I, too, compared my poems to letters in the preface to Clinician’s Guide to the Soul.  Literature in the guise of direct personal communication can do useful work in the world.  It can inform, challenge, heal, entertain, and create and sustain community. It can take distressing themes like illness and death and, rather than repel us, draw us to them.  Not only does it form a vital part of the record of human experience, it’s a seedbed for insights, ideas and action.

The One Book I Carried

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.