Book Review: The Hands of Strangers

The Hands of Strangers:
Poems from the Nursing Home

Janice N. Harrington
Rochester: BOA Editions, 2011
ISBN: 9781934414545

reviewed by Mike Walker

Janice Harrington, an accomplished poet and author of children’s books, takes on a difficult, deep, yet rewarding topic in this collection of poems regarding life in a nursing home. It would be all too easy to approach this topic with an overly-heavy application of pity and pathos, but Harrington, an adept wordsmith and even more adept student of human character, avoid such trite pitfalls. To write of the elderly and their frail condition, to write of the loss of abilities—and sometimes even loss of memory—that these people who have seen so much, done so much, now grapple with, is no easy undertaking but one Harrington masters in poems such as “Pietà”:

His blue-milk skin, blue-veined
and blue-bruised, eases against her chest.
His brow leans into her shoulder. His lips
press her uniform’s rough pleats and leave

damp wings traced in spittle above her breast,
though she does not notice and, straining,
bears the weight as the years have taught

The focus and intention of her words are clear here, but the impressive aspect isn’t in the empathy for both the elderly patient and the patient nurse that Harrington conveys but the nuanced, careful, way with words she applies in her approach to description. Harrinton’s biographical information included with the book itself mentions that her upbringing in rural Alabama greatly influenced her manner in story-telling, but there is also an astute aspect of formalism in this poem fitting of its namesake. Harrington is not always original in her foci in these poems—there’s a lot of expected scenes and issues that you’d not be surprised to find in any collection around the theme at hand—but she is always sagacious in her descriptions. If you are going to entitle a poem “Old Photos” in a book dedicated to life in the nursing home, you’d better be a true master with words and also able to conjure a tale alive in very fast time. Harrington rises to this challenge time and again in these poems, performing a task difficult for any poet dealing with any topical matter, which is to provide the reader not only with a pithy description of the subject at hand but to allow his mind to wander outside of the immediate and into the related. As I had recently been reading about the history of mental illness and its treatment in South Carolina, many of Harrinton’s poems transported me back to that topic as well as the specifcs she concerns herself with in her poems. To me, this is most necessary because good poetry can open up the full gamut of the issues it regards in a way that even the most deft of prose often cannot.

One of the most outstanding poems in this collection is one entitled “May Engles” after a character—more than a character, a person, for we are not dealing in the remote world of fiction here—who passes away, neglected, unknown, without fanfare. In turn, Harrington takes it upon herself via measures both normal and supernatural to memorialize May Engles, to project her name and image far out into the world as we do for movie stars who die young or political leaders we actually profess to love. Again, it’s not the concept but the word-craft here that makes the poem stellar: we can imagine a woman dying in the nursing home, alone, without the attention to her basic humanity we all would hope for—that part is easy enough. Reba McEntire even had a song on an album in the early 1990s about a nursing home resident who did not die but never was visited by her family. It’s not a very original problem, the plight of the unfortunate elderly and how much of that plight is predicated on memory and lack of community with those who should matter most. However, in Harrington’s hands it becomes a poem of magical realism, of history, of tall tale. Harrington’s charm, and also her greatest strength, is that she never preaches, never tries to shame us, but instead brings us to feel awe-struck wonder where instead we only expect at best to feel sympathy. Another reviewer of this book claimed Harrington illustrates the “terrible” of her topic—the horror, I think he meant, of nursing home life—but I think she demonstrates the acute abjection and also the scant places of sublime beauty in such life.

Most of the time when we are invited to visit a nursing home or volunteer at one, to become involved in the lives of our elders who are to some extent confined, restricted, in their abilities, we are implored via a joint calling of duty (to our elders) and emotional profit (the stories we’ll hear! the things of history we’ll learn!). The public relations ploy of the nursing home as an institution nearly always brushes the disturbing or difficult aspects of nursing home realities under the rug or else simply claims such is best ignored in favor of the goodness—the vitality of humanity—encountered there if we dare. All this is noble, and all is fair, but what Harrinton accomplishes via her poems is something else, a discernment of worthy detail in even the most difficult, most harrowing, most distressing parts of life in an institution of chronic care.

In another poem, “Walking Roba”, Harrinton addresses the everyday, quick yet long-felt issue of lingering racism: a resident, an elderly Black man, needs to use the restroom and is not close enough to his own bedroom so an aide walking with him steers him into another patient’s room only to have that resident scream at them to “get that nigger out of here!”. Both men come from an era where racism was not as hidden as it is today and both came, we would hope, to witness change for the better, but perhaps not. Or perhaps the white man who yelled at Roba and the aide thought he was back in the 1950s—it’s hard to tell. What matters is that Roba probably was unsurprised, even if he’d not encountered his co-resident’s wrath before, he had without doubt encountered someone like him. He was beyond being insulted: the insults happened long ago and to a younger man. This old one was not so fragile even if he needed the help of an aide to make his way down the hall. Harrington, who is Black herself, addresses race in numerous places but she never makes of it a sermon or lesson; she never makes the book about racial injustice or even a single poem seem to be about such. She gains my greatest respect as a writer in her ability to accomplish this delicate task. Harrington is able to do such because she is able to write a poem such as “Ward of Sleep”, a poem about death that is both obvious in its sublimity but also has the structural feel of prose, almost of instruction. It reminds me of reading a naval medicine text once and encountering the instructions for preparing the dead for burial at sea: the washing, the care for the body. She is an astute eulogist here, and her ministry is both to the dead and those who remain of the living. Death, of course, is the most intractable malady anyone will face, and this is a place were many traumas and pathogens are greeted daily.

My favorite poem in this book though has to be “Reality Orientation Therapy”, a poem that owes a high debt to Ezra Pound—a poet who is, oddly enough, not mined nearly as often as you would hope by contemporary poets who need means of addressing the psyche in full. Harrington tells us that, “No, starlings have no songs. They cough like old men”. The birds, the choice of bird, the application of metaphor and most of all the boxy yet still not too long structure of the entire poem is consummate. It takes no time to read, and it’s done with so fast, but it contains enough information to last an hour. An hour of terror. The five minutes the nurse dreads of waking a patient who will not know even where they are when they awake, or perhaps even who they are. And yet there is never a sense of pity: we feel for the nurse as much as for the patient; we feel her understandable frustration.

The final section (of four) of this book is devoted to poems focusing not on patients or care-givers as have the other poems, but the mundane devices of technology that enable nursing home care—the complex medical history in the chart, even the lowly bedpan. The details of day to day life in the nursing home are made explicit by such poems—often hauntingly, awkwardly, haltingly explicit. The poems in this section are perhaps as a group the most powerful of all simply because they follow that favorite old rule of fiction writing—to show instead of to tell—a rule apt for poetry, it also turns out. Here, we are reminded also what “technology” really is: not just fancy electronics but anything tangible that enables technique. The willing, glad, and oftentimes greatly-hampered goal of both the nurses and the technology they use is to keep patients alive and functional despite the rigors of age and disease. Harrington’s book is painful and difficult because it makes the challenges faced in the more extreme aspects of elder-care very apparent and the reader may feel he cannot escape the imperfect, the frustrating, the tough chores of washing, feeding, trying to make someone remember her own name. However, you cannot help but walk away from this book impressed, not only with Harrington’s fine craft as a poet but with the tasks that nurses, aides, and others take on every day. You will not look at someone in scrubs who you know is not a doctor the same again when you see them in the grocery store at some odd hour, tired as all, buying something for dinner at midnight.

Harrington has done us all a great service in rendering views of the lives of patients and care-givers alike in this slim book; I would wish to suggest for her future efforts that she might do the same for police officers, for surgical teams, for a variety of fields that those outside of them see only in media stereotypes and plain language. The ability of poetry to bring difficult lives into view with empathy is something Harrinton handles with the utmost of skill, and I do hope she will continue to apply for all of our profit.
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