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The controversial poem “On the Wards” is written by Cortney Davis. She is known not only as the award-winning writer, but as a gifted nurse, as well. Probably, the ability to understand people’s pain and write about the emotions and thoughts that appear after each shift – is a cornerstone of Davis’s talent.
The poem “On the Wards” consists of five columns. Each column has a different number of lines. The poem does not have a regular rhythm and it does not rhyme, as well. However, each column reveals the moments from the author’s life. The poem is narrated on behalf of a nurse who works in the hospital. Davis brings caregiving and poetry together with evocative, lyrical language.
“On the Wards” is rich in imagery. The reader can easily visualize the hospital’s corridors and wards. Nevertheless, the writer managed to depict the clinic not like the place of suffering and pain. In contrast, Davis writes about the human sexuality “Or the penis / lying half-dead over the lax thigh / and how it firms up, rising drunkenly” (20-22). Moreover, the author narrates about her childhood memories that emerged after looking at the patient.
The first column starts with the phrase “7 A.M. and all I can think of is sex” (Davis). Such words open the intimate world of the speaker. She writes about the argument that happened that morning. Probably, the writer came into conflict with her boyfriend. As a result, she left without saying some important words “Could be / that argument we had this morning, / me slamming the door, all the things not said” (4-6).
In the second column, Davis narrates about the patient with the angry breasts. The speaker uses vivid and naturalistic comparison of patient’s nipples with “mother’s thimbles” (Davis). This image awakens the memories from childhood “Feeling suddenly like a child / who opens her mouth to rain, to lightning / burning down” (11-13). This episode proves that Davis has the ability to find some happy and bright images even in the hospital that is full of illness and suffering.
The third and fourth columns are combined with the idea of the forbidden fruit. The speaker says that “I never dared. / Even with the quiet ones in coma” (15-16), “I have never left my hands linger / although I have wanted, just once” (23-24). Davis writes about the sexual tension between the nurse and the patient. Nevertheless, there are the boundaries between the professional and personal lives.
Boundary is the main topic of the poem “On the Wards”. Perhaps, the line that separates the patient and the nurse became the reason why the speaker starts to “imagine the unimaginable” (Davis).
The last column begins with the irony “But how many breasts have I taken in my hands, / calling it ‘exam’ and how many penises / betrayed me, enjoying their bath” (29-31). The use of this literary device helps widen the image of a self-critical nurse. Her job is to examine the patients. Therefore, she must look at different parts of human body. Meanwhile, the nurse is not a soulless machine; except of being a nurse, she is a woman, as well. The poem confirms the idea that it is hard for the speaker to perceive her patients only as ill people.
Davis honestly writes about the thoughts that appear in her head while taking care of the patients. The writer brings to her experience the awareness of human sexuality that is almost accusatory in this apparently asexual context.