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Nurse Tina Carlson’s Poems on the Generational Consequences of War

By Joy Jacobson

April 28, 2017

It’s National Poetry Month for another minute or two, and since you probably haven’t dedicated as much time to memorizing poems as the month might suggest, I offer you absolution in the form of a poem composed by a woman whose work concerns itself with absolution.

 

Tina Carlson, Ojo Caliente, NM

Tina Carlson, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, released her first book of poems, Ground, Wind, This Body, through University of New Mexico Press in March. The book is a chronicle of sorts, one that winds through the wretchedness wrought by war and the deep, lifelong impression it leaves in the lives of a returning soldier’s children.

Tina is a dedicated nurse who works with the homeless in Albuquerque and a true poet—and what a combination: a carer both of human beings and of the language we use to shape and reshape our experience—who is also one of my dearest friends.

 

Try reading this poem aloud. It comes about midway through her book (offered here with the poet’s permission): 

Summer Nights

 

After rain, the earth shines in gratitude. We are nine,

awake on wet grass and the sky, a vast cup of stars.

Because our lives are small fires buried under dry fields,

the muddy homes of childhood, auditoriums of weeds, and trees.

Even discomfort glistens here.

The whole world breathes together, watches messages

pass across the wide face of the moon. We were born into wildness

after the war. Each year, watch the hillsides burn aspen yellow,

then the wind changes everything to brown.

For you, I am an arsonist.

Our fathers take aim at us behind doors with imaginary weapons,

still living in battle. Almost criminal, our desire to thrive in this world.

Our futures arrested, like the cat’s gift in the doorway:

birdlike, perfectly curled into the shape of an egg, gelatinous.

Even after several re-readings I am left breathless by that last image.

 

With the astonishing opening lines we begin in thankfulness for a thirst quenched, for the simplicity of wet grass and cupped stars—a childlike sweetness that gives way immediately to an underground fire. By line 3 we know we are in hell, navigating atemporally a place that by some unnamed grace makes even pain beautiful.

 

The poem doesn’t let on who “we” are, and so it allows me to step as a nine-year-old into that space. “For you, I am an arsonist,” the speaker says, implicating me in the near-criminality of a “desire to thrive,” despite our aborted future that has been left uncannily as a “gift.”

 

When the speaker states “We were born into wildness / after the war” she means the Second World War, but she could also be referencing our current landscape of perpetual War on Terror. Regardless, wildness in this poem’s universe is a two-headed thing, both a natural and a manmade chaos, one that helps us survive our wounded fathers and also nearly annihilates us.

 

Such antipodal tensions abound in this poem, as throughout the book. Redemption is almost always at hand, as in these brilliant lines, in which it seems that the entire world is being born and dying at the same time:

The whole world breathes together, watches messages

pass across the wide face of the moon.

Yesterday was Poem in Your Pocket Day, but it’s not too late to print this one out, or another of her poems from the book, “Ojo Caliente: Metamorphoses,” that recently appeared on Verse Daily. Carry it with you. Give it to a colleague. Read it to a friend over lunch.

 

I asked Tina what it’s been like to have this book published. She said by email: “Having this book out in the world was initially terrifying. So much was never supposed to be spoken. But the book itself, like a child, has its own life now, and wants the secrets to be over and the war wounds to be healed.”

 

Poetry has often served to bear witness and to speak the unspeakable.

 

I’ve been reading Tina Carlson’s numinous poems for more than 20 years. It thrills me that now you can read them, too.

Joy Jacobson
Joy Jacobson is the CHMP’s poet-in-residence and cofounder of our Writing Reflective Narratives for Clinicians program.

Nurse Practitioner Veneta Masson on the Value of Poetry and Stories

By Joy Jacobson

March 17, 2017

Yesterday, the Trump administration released its proposed federal budget, which an incisive Twitter user described as “what a cartoon villain would propose.”

 

  • It would cut the Environmental Protection Agency by 31% and Health and Human Services by 16%.
  • The National Institutes of Health would lose $6 billion.
  • It would decimate support for after-school programs, Meals-on-Wheels, and the neediest college students.
  • And among so many other deprivations, it would kill the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

The proposed cuts are all of a piece in their cravenness and cynicism, serving to boost military spending and so-called homeland security. For a strong analysis of this proposal’s radical conservatism, I recommend this piece at the Intercept.

 

Because I want to talk about poetry and stories.

 

Veneta Masson

This week the Annals of Internal Medicine announced it had chosen “Tinnitus” by Veneta Masson as the best poem it published in 2016. On Wednesday I spoke with Veneta, a poet and essayist, a nurse practitioner, and an instructor in ethics at Georgetown University, about the value of poetry and narrative in nursing, medicine, and health policy. Our discussion wasn’t overtly political, but I’m grateful today for the quiet affirmation she offered of the arts.

 

I asked her about the synergies being made between the literary arts and the health care industry. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs, for example, recently held its annual conference in Washington, DC, where Veneta presented on a panel called Crossing the Line: Writing as a Healing Practice. This seems significant: for years the arts have penetrated various health care arenas, but now issues related to health and health care are making their way into the country’s biggest conference for professional and student writers and writing faculty.

 

“Writing gives you new energy for your work,” Veneta said. “It’s like you need to do this to resolve what’s unresolved in the mind and heart. One time I was writing about a mistake I made or what could have been a mistake and the guilt about what I could have done. I had to find a way to put myself at rest. In that case it was in the form of a poem.”

 

Veneta told me about a Literature and Medicine group at George Washington University that met for dinner to discuss one of her books of poems. “I had written about an immigrant woman and her child, and a man approached me afterward. He said, ‘I couldn’t say this in the group, but I felt you were writing about my mother.’ What more could a writer want, as far as connecting with another person?”

 

Indeed, those connections appear to be neurological, as well as sociological. Veneta mentioned an article written by physician and fiction writer Louise Aronson, Story as Evidence, Evidence as Story, published in 2015 in JAMA. Aronson writes:

 

Mounting data, and the entire historical record across cultures and continents, suggest that human beings are uniquely wired for story and that stories, with their linking of the cognitive to the emotive, are often both more memorable and more persuasive than other sorts of information.

 

Veneta’s prize-winning Annals poem is behind a paywall, but she gave me permission to reprint another poem first published in the online journal Pulse, called The Whole Story. It’s a beautiful melding of narrative momentum and lyric concision. With just a few images and happenings she makes a world I want to inhabit, one with sunflowers and war talk, plus the unexpected poignancy of a shy bride waiting her turn at the door to a funeral.

 

After I spent hours fretting over the proposed budget, reading Veneta Masson’s poem restored me, somehow, to my right mind and to a couple of simple truths: humans need poetry, and health care is stories.

 

The Whole Story

 

After she died

there was talk of war

the stock market crashed

the cat didn’t eat for three days

her youngest came home from school in tears

her husband grew a beard.

 

I do not lie when I tell you these things

nor do I tell the whole story.

 

I do not say that her funeral day dawned bright

and unrepentant

 

or that all the sunflowers in the city

were gathered at her wake.

 

I do not mention the ruffled bride

also in white, waiting discreetly outside

the door of the chapel.

 

I do not tell how, at the gravesite

smiling children blew

soap bubbles over her casket

 

and how they were not buried with her

but were borne up and away,

carried gently on a light wind.

 

And check out Veneta’s Notebook, her observations of matters literary, medical, and otherwise. In one entry she writes about writing: “that’s where I find out what I’m thinking and (like Descartes) what’s true and what isn’t.”

 

Joy Jacobson
Joy Jacobson is the CHMP’s poet-in-residence and cofounder of our Writing Reflective Narratives for Clinicians program.

A Quiet Testament: Poetry, Sabbatical, Medicine

By Joy Jacobson

October 5, 2015

Sunrise, Taos
Sunrise, Taos

I was about to go pick pears. I’m spending the fall at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, an artists’ residency program in Taos, New Mexico, where one of the other artists had procured a ladder and said I could join her if I liked. But just as I finished my breakfast and my tea-and-scribble hour, I saw her pedaling her bike back down our road with two white bags pendulant from her handlebars. I’d missed my chance.

 

I’ve noticed that this northern New Mexico light as it passes through the Siberian elms nearly matches the green of the pears. Just a hint of yellow, hint of spring, the hue of birth in the season of death. My friend the poet Laurie Kutchins knows about this cycle: “birth breath / death breath / crow and stork,” she writes in a poem called “Prayer.” We have no storks here in the high desert but plenty of corvid species, from magpie to raven. The biggest birds sunbathe each morning, wings outstretched, in the high reaches of the elms. A dozen or so of them spread across several trees, taking a daily break from roadkill to enjoy this peerless light.

 

I began this post on a Saturday, which I have determined will be my (lower-case) sabbath each week of my 12-week sabbatical. A sabbath within a sabbatical—would that mean time off within my time off? Not quite. But I am allowing this place to help me redefine certain words, like work, routine. So far my daily rituals have included being outside for sunrise and sunset. As the equinox approached and passed, I saw more clearly what the balance of day and night (light and dark; activity and rest) can mean to the mind. I’m aware now of the shortening of each day and its effect on the birds, the temperatures, and my own poetical cycles.

 

This newborn alignment with natural rhythms is restoring me to something I’m daring to call happiness.

 

This month, I’m honored to say, my poem “The Donor at the VLA” has been published in the health policy journal Health Affairs, one of three winners of the 2015 Narrative Matters Poetry Contest. (There’s also a podcast of each of us reading our poems.) I love that a policy journal has made room for poetry. Health Affairs has long had a commitment to stories with its monthly Narrative Matters column, which demonstrates, over and over again, how policy affects real lives.

 

But why poetry? What can a poem achieve that a story can’t?

 

On this New Mexico sabbatical I am taking my poetry as spiritual medicine. I’ve given myself the task of memorizing a poem per week. The first was a poem by a former Wurlitzer resident, Robert Creeley. I found a 50-year-old book of his, For Love: Poems 1950–1960, in the fellows’ library here. Here’s the beginning of “A Song,” written in the late 1950s and dedicated to his former wife, Ann.

 

I had wanted a quiet testament

and I had wanted, among other things,

a song.

                 That was to be

of a like monotony.

                                       (A grace

simply. Very very quiet.

 

The passage can be read as a single sentence. But Creeley doesn’t want us to do that. His indentations, oddball phrasings (“of a like”), and against-the-grain punctuation (no closing parenthesis) interrupt the usual syntax to force a slow reading. I hear it in my own recitation as a musical utterance. A song. In repeating the word quiet Creeley invokes that quality—an invocation that has helped me to arrive into this new place with a new intention.

 

In my teaching I often read poems with nursing students, nursing faculty, and working clinicians. Poems can confer something rare in health care—or anywhere—a slice of sabbatical. The poet Mark Doty, in his fine book The Art of Description: World Into Word, discusses “lyric time,” in which a reader of a poem finds herself suspended, with no action required beyond reflection: “a slipping out of story and into something still more fluid, less linear: the interior landscape of reverie.”

 

That idea of slipping out of story, as out of the day’s work clothes, has something in common, I think, with Abraham Joshua Heschel’s conception of the Jewish Sabbath. He writes, in Between God and Man, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.”

 

That may seem a tall order for a poem, and I realize not all poets align themselves with such

Moon, Ristra, Taos
Moon, Ristra, Taos

an aim. And yet: “Poetry is how we pray, now,” Yahia Lababidi put it the other day on the Best American Poetry blog. He wrote that poems can act as “a sort of journalism of the soul, reporting on the state of our spiritual life.”

 

Maybe that’s the medicine poetry has to offer health care and health policy: a “quiet testament” reporting on the human beings at the heart of a vast and sometimes spiritless industry.

 

Don’t take a poet’s word for it. In August U.K. researchers reported the results of a study (abstract here) in which subjects read “complex poetic and prosaic texts” and underwent functional MRI of the brain. The researchers found that recognizing poetic qualities enhanced “capacity to reason” and exerted a modulating influence on the right dorsal caudate, “which may be related to tolerance of uncertainty.”

 

The tolerance of uncertainty: that sounds a lot like Keats’s negative capability principle, his term for the poet’s capacity for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” It sounds too like the work of sabbatical. It’s not easy; it involves listening, to the self and to the world; and it means contending with some old pain, old fear, on the way to gratitude.

 

What a privilege this opportunity is. Three weeks in, I’m still arriving. I’m sorry I missed the pears. But there are still some apples on the trees.

 

Joy Jacobson
Joy Jacobson is the CHMP’s poet-in-residence and cofounder of our Writing Reflective Narratives for Clinicians program.