Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Contributor Spotlight on Cortney Davis

by Dan Froid

This year’s Book Prize closed at midnight yesterday. Did you submit your manuscript? In this week’s Contributor Spotlight, we take a look at another of our past winners.

What does Cortney Davis have in common with Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, Mary Renault, and Theresa Brown? All of these writers have, like Davis, also worked as nurses. Davis is a nurse-practitioner and the winner, in 2003, of the inaugural Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry for her collection Leopold’s Maneuvers.

Davis has published four other collections of poetry, a novel, and two works of nonfiction. She is also the coeditor of Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses and Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses. Mostly, Davis writes from her nurse’s perspective: that of the caregiver. This month, however, Kent State University Press released When the Nurse Becomes a Patient: A Story in Words and Images. The paintings, which Davis undertook after a series of medical complications and during a lengthy recovery, form a different way for Davis to respond to illness and care. It’s both a different medium and a different perspective. In the introduction to the book, quoted on Davis’s website, poet Jeanne Bryner describes the project:

In twelve amazing paintings and commentaries we see a woman’s dependency unveiled, how the body becomes faceless, sexless and totally exposed from the husking of our layered selves to be remade by the many hands, words and deeds of caregivers. This is a civil war, and Davis is the nurse who strayed outside the fort. She was captured in the country of illness. If you are not afraid of the mouth’s bear of terror, then take her hand, be brave enough to travel with her.

Davis has written elsewhere of the way harrowing experiences shift her understanding as a nurse and as a person. There’s only so much the job prepares you for, she suggests; sometimes it’s only changes within her life that have shifted her approach in her work. She writes in a story for NPR’s “This I Believe” series very frankly about grief. “I believe in grief,” she says. She continues:

I no longer comfort others with false cheer. In the hospital, where my encounters with patients are ever more distanced by sterile gloves, computer protocols and the pressures of time, one way I can still be present is during their moments of grief. I don't encourage anyone to move on, to replace, to remarry or put the photos or the memories away. Grief must be given its time.

Read the full story here. It’s a compelling piece, one that illustrates Davis’s candor, her willingness to discuss events in a place most of us shun on the face of it: the hospital. Maybe it’s partly because I’m the child of two nurses that I became interested in Davis’s poetry, but for anyone her work provides a valuable take on subjects we often prefer to ignore.

For more, check out Flavorwire’s list of the top ten literary nurses—a list that includes both real writers and fictional characters. Also check out Cortney Davis’s website, where you can read interviews and reflections on writing and nursing. And for more about the book prize, visit our website.