Leopold’s Maneuvers
Cortney Davis
University of Nebraska Press
2004. $27.95 cloth, $14.95 paper,

The tradition of physician/writer extends back to the Egyptian Ibis-headed Thoth, “The Lord of Writing,” who also gave us the Healing Arts, along with mathematics, philosophy, music, and astronomy. Historically, it is Hippocrates’ forensic observations, the best known of which are the signs of death’s approach: “sunken eyes; dry, ashen color skin,” that are some of the earliest extant samples of a physician’s writing.

Down through the ages, healing and writing were coeval. Presently, along with the blossoming of humanities courses in medical schools, and the publication of literary work in professional journals, there is a growing archive of physicians and other healthcare givers who are also writers and poets.

Cortney Davis is a nurse practitioner who specializes in women’s health. In a former book, I Knew a Woman: Four Women Patients and The Female Caregiver, she unfolds her relationship with her patients with well-wrought insights such as: “When I look at Lila, her swollen belly, her thin lips, her jangle of earrings and chains, I remember something a great poet once told me, ‘Poems that are too perfect,’ he said, ‘like lives that are too ordered, lack the human mistakes that make them real.’
In Leopold’s Maneuvers, her third collection of poetry, she reveals some of her own childhood. For example, “Nights After Mother Died”:

I slept in the guest room,
the high bed. My father
snored from their room,
her side empty. I was terrified---
of him seeing me naked,
the bathroom door swollen
so it wouldn’t close.

Childhood traumas most of us have hidden somewhere in recesses of our psyche give what is termed “confessional poetry” credibility in its mode of self-therapy. All too soon childhood leaps into parenthood, and there is Davis’ beautiful poem, “Parturition,” in which outside coyotes “quarrel with the Long Night Moon;” while inside her first child is kicking in her belly, eager to be born. Such synchronicity is touching; indeed, the measure of our humanity is the depth of our metaphors. But it is when Davis draws directly upon her experience as a healer that she enters into her most interesting dialogues with life.
In “Ear Examined,” nurse watches as “doctor tugs the fleshy lobe…his probing speculum, its light a triangle / on the drum.” The ear, she reflects, is “teased by air to test its worth for sound: / those words we long for---a whispered oath, a lie.” This is what a poem can do: imagine flesh as it risks its everyday life, as an ear “making us believe / what eyes deny or hearts might doubt—

the narrow bones inside like a sparrow’s
in fight, willing to trust the slightest breeze,
the one that sings Yes! I love you---
as if words might mean exactly what was heard.

Davis has a gift for bridging her sensibility as a mother with professional training that adds empathy, doubt, and wonderment. Palpating with hands, mind, and heart, the poet concludes, “oh , / Renee, Shalika, Blanca, Marie, / the places you’ll go, the places you’ll go!”

© Rain Taxi 2004