Keeping harm away is what honored nurse and acclaimed poet Cortney Davis of Redding, Connecticut, does with her nursing and her writing. These two vital parts of her life are separate yet inseparable, since the subject of both is one of the most mysterious under the sun-the human being.
"The desire to keep the harm away takes place on an unconscious level," Davis says. Separated from her parents in infancy until she was nearly two, she doesn't remember that time, but she has a sense of the emptiness and the helplessness of it. "When I see a patient who is confused, hurting, vulnerable, I recall what I felt, and it encourages me to share in a particularly kind way."
Davis's parents sent her to live with family friends outside her native Pennsylvania at a young age partly because of her father's struggle with what's now known as post traumatic stress disorder. A World War II battalion leader, he shouldered the burden of leading troops charged with sweeping for land mines. "He suffered terrible nightmares and flashbacks," Davis said. Another reason for the separation her mother's recurrence of tuberculosis. Davis' intimate experience with struggles like these give her a keen awareness of how disorienting and dehumanizing a patient's plight can be. "They're taken from everything they can count on. I try to honor that experience with memory," she notes.
For Davis, to honor with memory means capturing the patient's experience with the permanence of the written word, her poetry. "When a caregiver experiences something with a patient, [the caregiver] holds that experience forever in time," she says. She acknowledges, too, that writing the experience helps dispel it. "To honor by witness helps to let go of it. You honor and dismiss," she notes, in what for a caregiver by calling is a necessity.
Davis began writing poetry and short stories at seven. The poetry was encouraged by her mother, the short stories by her father. "He would start a story and let me finish it, and he praised my being able to use my imagination." Both parents read to her, and her father took her on walks. "He made me an observer," she says, a skill became indispensable.
Her early training didn't lead directly to writing. "My educational path was convoluted. I started as an art major but realized that I wasn't going to make a lot of money at it," she adds. She soon switched to English but married after only two years of college. "Then I got divorced and needed to make a living."
At that point, nursing was the farthest thing from her mind. "I never wanted to set foot in a hospital, but I had this opportunity," she notes. Being a nurses' aid allowed her flexibility to raise her daughter. Soon, a doctor noticed her talent and encouraged her toward nursing. In 1972, she obtained an associate's degree in nursing from Norwalk Community College, where she was valedictorian, and in 1978 she was certified by Cornell University as a nurse practitioner, a relatively new field at the time.
It was while studying for a master's in English at Western Connecticut State University that she rediscovered writing. "I had to take an elective, so I took modern poetry and had Jim Scrimgeour as a teacher. He taught me you can be a married woman and still write poetry," Davis says. She started writing but didn't write about her work until two years into her career, when a young patient died of leukemia. "We were very much alike. When [the patient] died, I didn't know what to do, so I wrote about it," Davis notes. "It was the big ‘aha' moment."
She realized that how nurses care for patients is a metaphor for how people care for each other. It's a metaphor as steeped in mystery as the creative process. "It's partly a gift, but I'm not sure where it's coming from-somewhere deep inside me." Then there are the external mysteries-life, death, suffering. "Poetry seems to be the vehicle that lets you talk about mystery, spirit and death that reaches people not just intellectually but in the gut."
Davis' ability to capture inspiration in the form of a poem came with help from her mentor, acclaimed expansive poet Dick Allen. They met in the early 1970s, Davis entered a city-sponsored competition in which he was the final judge and she won first place. "What drew me to Davis's work was the specific imagery, the physicalness of it, the body sense of it, combined with passion and subject material. In beginning poets, the ability to be specific is rare," Allen said.
The poem Nunca Tu Alma exudes these qualities and is as immediate and invasive as its subject, a 12-year-old girl struggling to comprehend her rape. "I try to tell the truth," Davis says. "If we can see what happens to us physically, we can glean what happens to us emotionally and spiritually," she notes. Sometimes, other caregivers are offended because she exposes the flaws of the profession. "That's part of my job as a witness," she says. But as a caregiver, she is still in the business of protecting the patient. "I go to lengths to make sure the patient doesn't see that [the poem] is about them."
Protecting the patient is part of the ultimate goal of healing, which has a place in the poem. "A poem can be about death and still be about healing," Davis notes. While focusing on this process, she doesn't think about writing. "When I'm at work, I don't think, ‘this could be a poem.' I'm sensitive to the undercurrent of emotion in the room. It can be painful at times because you're identifying with the patient."
This slice of life shows the importance of a caregiver's attention to those who are suffering. Davis's recently released collection of essays, The Heart's Truth, brings the concept of poetry into the mix. "Poems help me to be creative, open, and more able to do what I must as a nurse. Poems, if we give our heart to them, might prepare us all for nursing's most important work: paying attention; accepting; healing when we can; and when we can't, letting go."
For more information about Cortney Davis' work and upcoming engagements, visit the contact page of www.cortneydavis.com.