By their involvement in the arts, whether poetry, painting, or writing novels, nurses and other health professionals have the opportunity to express a side of themselves which is not always possible in their day-to-day work. It is a creative way of reflecting and thinking about what they see and do and feel in their daily contact with patients.” – Lorraine Ritchie, editor of Listening with my Heart
The recently-launched book, Listening with my heart: Poems by Aotearoa New Zealand nurses, is the first anthology of poems by nurses to be published in Aotearoa-New Zealand. Edited by nurse and poet Lorraine Ritchie, with illustrations by Janet de Wagt, it contains poems selected from work submitted by nurses as part of a New Zealand Nurses Organisation’s ‘Visibility of Nursing’ project.
Let me state upfront my bias: I am a nurse. I am a nurse who loves books, and who has a list of requirements that must be met before I engage: the cover must be enticing, the size and feel of the book comfortable to hold (not too heavy), the font size and style appealing (not too small and looks good), the inclusion of behind the scenes information about the poets (who are these people?) – all must be examined like tasting a wine before deciding to drink.
I am in two book groups and many a worthy book fails to engage if these basic requirements aren’t met. It pleases the nurse in me that this publication passed such practical tests. My only niggle is the decreased font size for the poet author information. The cover image, a nurse’s medal set in stained glass (from the Wellington Hospital nurses chapel), perfectly sets the scene for the anthology, whose title comes from a line in “Hands” by Dianne McDonald:
I stopped listening to the words and started listening with my heart.”
Each poem provides a scene and story across diverse fields of nursing practice, with a change in the style and poem complexity on each page. A number of these poems connect with me – I can feel, see, hear and smell, and such sensations are magic.
“Magnolia” by Ann Jacobsen (a nurse from the Southern District Health Board who uses poetry to teach others about immunisation) is about the work of a public health nurse involved with childhood vaccinations. The poem interlinks the budding and flowering of magnolia bushes through the story of a nurse’s journey from town to town as she tries to follow up a family. I find myself thinking of this poem and rereading it.
“Twilight” by Lauren Becker (a mental health nurse in Auckland) is unbearably good. The description of the taut emotional and physical strings that are linked to domestic violence and the nurse’s response stays with me. It’s a haunting poem:
With the colour
But I know
It’s the dusky blue
And purple hues of
Broken bloodlines and
“Terminal”, by Pamela Markby (a nurse manager from the Southern District Health Board), is a short poem – brevity is its strength, with each word capturing the exhaustion of a workload and the emotional toll of caring. I could see myself placing a copy of the poem on the fridge and pointing to it when I came home so family might perhaps understand my need for silence, gentleness and a hot water bottle on the couch.
you are not a dinner-table conversation.
(from “Terminal” by Pamela Markby)
This book is a satisfying journey into the vast world of nursing and humanness. I hope there will be more.
Miriam Vollweiler is an Occupational Health and Infection Prevention Nurse. She works at Mercy Hospital, Dunedin, New Zealand.
Listening with my heart: Poems by Aotearoa New Zealand nurses (Steele Roberts 2017) is edited by Lorraine Ritchie. Find purchase details here.
Hear Lorraine Ritchie interviewed by Lynn Freeman about Listening with my heart on Radio NZ National here.