cover image The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home

The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home

Janice N. Harrington. BOA (Consortium, dist.), $16 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-934414-54-5

Most of us do not think much of the frail elderly, the people who require constant care to get to the end of the day, near the end of their lives; still less do most of us think about their caregivers, the paraprofessionals and aides who perform, in nursing homes and outside them, an endless string of repetitive duties. Harrington’s arresting book-length sequence of short clear poems takes long looks at these scenes, and at the people in them. Some are sweet (“an old married couple, admitted together”) and some are monuments to goodness, in patients and in their attendants: “Never carefully enough, never slowly/ enough are old women lifted and lowered/ into their rolling chairs.” At least as often, though, we see the difficulties, and indeed the disgust: there is a rape (in a poem called “Gently”), and another poem about “Pressure Wounds,”—“pus pit, grave pinch,/ mattress canker.” Harrington (Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone) stands out with an elegy for the otherwise completely forgotten May Engles, who died in 1977; everything else she depicts, though, could take place today. Both attendants and patients emerge as human, as people with tough tasks and inner lives, in these pellucid, scary, morally resonant poems. (Oct.)