Janice N. Harrington worked as a nursing home aide in college, and she drew on that experience to write “The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home.” This book-length collection of poems vividly describes the daily routines and grapples with the philosophical concerns of long-term care, including the complexities of aging, the burdens and rewards of caregiving, and the inevitably of death.
You may be familiar with these poems already, as the collection was published in 2011. But I first learned about it in November, when CBS Chicago included Harrington in a “Best Local Poets” feature. I read the book in a single sitting over the holidays.
I don’t read poetry very often, so if my experience is any indication, you don’t need to be a particular fan of poetry to appreciate Harrington’s work. Her language, while artful, is rarely esoteric, and many of the poems tell some sort of story or paint a portrait of a character.
In “Feet,” for example, she conjures up a resident whose feet have been “deformed by cheap leather and unfortunate genes,” with “toes beveled inward … an open crater on the knot of each big toe.”
Harrington goes on to describe how the aides were rough with this man, how they “choked his feet into trouser socks” and “yanked corduroy slippers into place,” then later “slid and dragged him to his room.”
But just when the reader is despising the aides, Harrington cuts them some slack. They’re “girls just doing the job,” she writes. They “didn’t know that a sheet’s weight could break a man.” They didn’t know about “the blues that linger in a man’s feet when he sleeps in a county bed.”
The poem ends with this line: “They never knew, and all he said was Careful, careful.”
I think this poem shows how great Harrington is in bringing out the complexity of caregiver-resident relationships. The aides’ ignorance is both deplorable and understandable, she seems to say. The resident’s reserve is presented both as a kind of admirable stoicism and as an unhelpful withholding, preventing the aides from learning how to do their jobs better.
The middle section of the book focuses in large part on the relationships between residents and staff, particularly aides, and this part of the collection ends with the poem “Armistice.” The title implies that there is an ongoing battle between staff and residents, and the armistice described by the poem occurs at the end of the day, when the aides and a group of grizzled male residents play cards together. Unlike the man in “Feet,” these residents do teach the aides many things, including how to shave a man’s skin and how to shuffle cards — what Harrington in the poem calls “useful lessons.”
There are useful lessons for the reader in this collection, although Harrington is not out to say exactly how to solve problems. She doesn’t even suggest that they can be solved. For instance, if she recognizes that open communication improves staff-resident relationships, she also seems to say that this is impossible to consistently foster. In one poem, she envisions a future in which she is the resident, being lifted by an aide who is new to the job. Far from mentoring this aide, Harrington in the poem knowingly puts too much weight on the aide. Doing so brings her a particular secret pleasure, a kind of sense of her own continued existence. I found it hard to begrudge the narrator of the poem this feeling, even though she could have injured the aide and was perpetuating the “battle” between residents and aides.
While Harrington seems to say that residents and staff always will be alienated from each other to a degree, her collection is not unremittingly bleak or harsh. The very act of writing poems about the day-to-day tasks of caregiving elevates and affirms the importance, almost the nobility, of the job. You can see this in just the title “Ode to the Bedpan.” The poem “Pieta” compares the way a worker holds a resident to the way Mary held the crucified body of Jesus. Other poems that elevate the everyday include “Catheter” and “Chart.”
Harrington’s poetry lavishes attention on many things — catheters and wound dressings and bedpans — that rarely get this type of literary treatment. She also focuses on the people who aren’t often the subjects of poems, notably in “May Engles.” The poem begins with a blurb from an aide’s diary, presumably an actual diary that Harrington found. The diary entry talks about a resident named May Engles who died with “no anything.” It says of her, “No book will ever give her a sentence.”
Not only does Harrington give Engles much more than a sentence, her poem raises Engles to mythic, even godlike status. Alluding to stories of religious figures appearing in everyday objects, she writes of Engles, “Let believers see her face on mildewed wallpaper in a Day’s Inn in Biloxi.” The poem calls for Orion’s belt to be renamed “May Engles’ garter.” It proclaims, “Let poets write in the form of May Engles: small and plain and common.”
Harrington certainly has done right by May Engles and residents like her, as well as their caregivers, but I wouldn’t describe her poetry as small or plain or common. I would say it’s expansive, rich with meaning and an uncommonly authoritative, nuanced reflection on long-term care, which I highly recommend reading.
Tim Mullaney is Staff Writer at McKnight’s. Follow him @TimMullaneyLTC.