Nursing the Muse

For poet Belle Waring, art doesn't imitate life, it is life

Published January 16, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Poetry, Robert Frost once said, is a way of taking life by the throat. It is in this tradition that poet and nurse Belle Waring approaches her craft -- seizing difficult subjects and holding them in time. Just as Thomas Lynch weaves his experience as an undertaker into his poetry, Waring has used her professional career as a neonatal intensive care nurse as inspiration for her art. Her poems explore the frustration and gratification of a career devoted to caregiving.

While poetry and medicine might seem unrelated, for Waring they have been intertwined since childhood, when she accompanied her grandfather, a country doctor in Virginia, on house calls. "He used to recite Shakespeare and the romantic poets when I was small, so I grew up influenced by both medicine and art," Waring said recently in a phone interview from her Washington, D.C., home. Indeed, her first foray into writing was to record her grandfather's stories about doctoring.

Many of Waring's poems glow with the rage of someone stuck within a health-care system that doesn't always have a patient's best interest in mind. "The ones [doctors] who were sensitive and easy to work with don't make for such dramatic stories as the ones who were kind of cruel," Waring says. As a labor and delivery nurse, Waring often found that low-income women were treated poorly. "They were surgerized unnecessarily, not given adequate anesthesia or weren't spoken to with respect," she says.

Waring's work vibrates with the intuition of someone who has witnessed hundreds of births, some brutal and some beautiful. "Everything that is inside of you, from your ancestors forward, comes to bear on your childbirth experience," Waring said. "It's very mysterious and I don't understand it."

Dark Blonde
Poems by Belle Waring
Sarabande Books
75 pages

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


and I was stupid in it. I thought a doctor would not be unkind.
One wouldn't wait for a laboring woman to dilate to ten cm.

He'd brace one hand up his patient's vagina,
clamp the other on her pregnant belly, and force the fetus

through an eight-centimeter cervix.
She tore, of course. Bled.

Stellate lacerations extend from the cervix
like an asterisk. The staff nurses stormed and hissed

but the head nurse shrugged, He doesn't like to wait around.
No other doctor witnessed what he did. The man was an elder

in his church. He chattered and smiled broadly as he worked.
He wore the biggest gloves we could stock.

It was my first real job and I was scared in it.
One night a patient of his was admitted

bleeding. The charge nurse said, He won't rip her.
You take this one.

So I took her.
She quickly delivered a dead baby boy.

Not long dead -- you could tell by the skin, intact.
But long enough.

When I wrapped him in a blanket, the doctor flipped open the cover to let the mother view the body, according to custom.

The baby lay beside her.
He lay stretched out and still.

What a pity, the doctor said.
He seized the baby's penis between his own forefinger and thumb.

It was the first time I had ever seen a male not circumcised
and I was taken aback by the beauty of it.

Look, said the doctor, A little boy. Just what we wanted.
His hand, huge on the child, held the penis as if he'd found

a lovecharm hidden in his grandmother's linen.
And then he dropped it.

The mother didn't make a sound.
When the doctor left, she said to me in a far flat voice

I called and told him I was bleeding bad.
He told me not to worry.

I don't remember what I said. Just that
when I escorted her husband from the lobby

the doctor had already gone home. The new father followed me
with a joyful strut. I thought Sweet Jesus Christ

--Did the doctor speak to you?
-- No ma'am,
the father said.

I said as quick-as-I-could-so-I-wouldn't-have-to-think--
The baby didn't make it.

The man doubled over. I told him all wrong.
I would do it all over again.

Please, sir. Sit down. I'm so very sorry to tell you--

No. It's been sixteen years.
I would say, I am your witness.

No. I have never told the whole truth.
Forgive me.

It was my first job
and I was lost in it.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


Three nurses to hold him, this four-year-old who kicks me
crazy in the belly -- six months pregnant but ha!
I've got the needle -- the Measles-Mumps-Rubella.
Child, it stings like hell.

Listen to me, my little immunized enemy --
I'll take a bruise from you
before I'll see another kid like this one carried through the clinic doors
at the end of shift in his father's arms, seizing
The father's shirt is
black with sweat
is praying in Mexican

grand mal, I try to get a line in, Mother of God, intractable
Get him over to St. Luke's

but in the ambulance, he codes, and then, in the ER
with the furious swirl of personnel, crash cart rumbling up, curtains
snatched to shield him from the drive-bys and the drunks,
the boy expired.
Measles encephalitis.
He never got his shots.

So walk out, dark blonde, into the sun that will scald you red
and bleach your hair to tungsten burning, drive the dusty valley
smacked with
irrigated fields. Bad counterfeit. Too green.

His young bones green, unripe, gronjo
from the old Teutonic root --

Green. Untrained. Green. Freshly killed.
His young bones green and full of marrow.

Green at work there in rows, hands stretched out to pick a
beefsteak tomato at the end of season when they strip the plants clean
whether the fruit is ripe or not.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

Related Topics ------------------------------------------