Friday, January 24, 2020

Poem366: “Nursewifery” by Ruth Williams


Nursewifery by Ruth Williams

Nursewifery by Ruth Williams, Durham, North Carolina: Jacar Press, 2019

Ruth Williams’ elegant chapbook Nursewifery, from Jacar Press, is as clever and innovative collection as I’ve seen, and I hope that my introduction to it here might lead others to discover how special it is.

My mother was a nurse and my two sisters are, too, and I’m interested in the profession, though I was never in any danger of becoming a nurse myself. (Once, as a teenaged candystriper—which, admittedly, feels like the first line of a pornographic novel—I had the embarrassing experience of fainting on the job from witnessing something a little too intense for me. In a family of nurses, I ended up in the gift shop, in the very hospital where my mother was the night nursing supervisor. I’m sure she heard about my experience, but I can promise she didn’t hear it from me.)

Among the majority of the people in the world who are not nurses? Ruth Williams. But she is a feminist scholar with an interest in this woman-dominated profession, and she is also seemingly a student of history. The role of combat nurse captured her fascination acutely enough to produce this outstanding small collection about military field nurses from, seemingly, the era of Florence Nightingale—the Crimean War and thereafter. The nurse whose voice offers up the poems in Nursewifery wears a pinafore and works alongside horses, but the exact conflict in which she serves is unstated, unless I missed a clue somewhere.

The most fascinating thing Williams does is her focus on the different types of stitches nurses use to suture wounds. Some of the poems bear the names of stitches as titles—titles like “Vertical Mattress Suture,” “Locked Suture,” “Corset Plication Stitch,” “Far-Near Near-Far Modified Vertical Mattress Suture” (no, really …), and more.

It turns out that our means of repairing ripped or cut skin offer potent metaphors. She explains each stitch in an epigraph taken from the Medscape website. The quote to start “Deep Tip Stitch” offers a powerful example:

The deep tip stitch provides longer-term support than the traditional corner stitch and improves alignment of the tip with the sides of the closure.

The unnamed nurse persona who voices each poem identifies with this stitch:

We thought ourselves exceptional,
though we knew we were merely women

wearing uniforms to distinguish us, not as individuals,
but as a type of caring, a calm blue

stitch.

Williams continues in this voice, saying, “We pulled together // what could not otherwise be touched,” adding that ability was the nurses’ “special softness, // our elegant way of aligning the world.” I offer a lot of this small poem, but I’m really fascinated by how Williams takes something so prosaic and makes it in to such a powerful symbol. The life of the nurse is exactly like the description of the deep tip stitch, and Williams proves it.

As I savored this chapbook, I took time out to hit YouTube, where there are quite a few stitching demonstration videos, most of them featuring thick, fatty squares of fake human flesh, sort of Caucasian-ish on top and yellow underneath. As I looked up demos of each of the stitches Williams named, the same calm male voice explained how to execute each suture, and a video showed a hooked sewing needle manipulated by forceps. Throughout, he peppered some of the same jargon used by Williams; for instance, the first poke of the sewing needle through the skin seems to be called “the bite”—another strong metaphor.

Williams has much more than a good concept going for her, though. This is also a powerful collection, with the suture poems “stitched” throughout the book, which offers a daming critique of war and the harm it does.

One of my favorite poems in the collection is called “The Suitor,” which recalls a first dance with an early beau of the battlefield nurse. It continues,

Later, you’ll
find him again

on the table

red weather
between you.

This is a small poem, but it packs a dramatic wallop, and damage from war being referred to as “red weather” is highly arresting to me.

Williams is the author of two other collections, so her work shouldn’t be hard to find. I recommend you read her work—stat.

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