This past week I spent time cleaning my office at work, recycling (shredding) the detritus of an academic life: tenure and promotion materials, teaching evaluations, student papers, and my own papers. I do this periodically to ensure there is never too much of me—of my identity—at work, not from a pathological paranoia, but rather from a desire to maintain healthy boundaries. Or at least that is what I tell myself.
But during the cleaning and sorting I found a hand-written draft of a prose poem that I wrote many years ago during a workshop I taught on narrative medicine. It was in response to a close read and discussion of Jane Kenyon’s poem “The Sick Wife” and her husband Donald Hall’s poem “The Ship Pounding.” As Carol Levine writes in “Two Poets: One Illness,” the poems “…offer a rare view of the same illness from the perspective of the patient (Jane Kenyon) and her husband and caregiver (Donald Hall), both distinguished poets.” (Journal of General Internal Medicine, March 2010, 25(3): 275-275.)
In Hall’s poem he uses the metaphor of a ship to describe his experience in the hospital when his wife was sick. He concludes with describing the hospital as “the huge vessel that heaves water month after month, without leaving port, without moving a knot, without arrival or destination, its great engines pounding.” I used as an accompanying writing prompt for workshop participants to write a description of their own metaphor for their particular work site. What is your metaphor for your own work site? Here is what I wrote (and found while cleaning my office—and have now shredded):
Dusty, moldering storage closet
door with stuff behind
old files labeled for people and departments and programs that died long ago
textbooks for subjects that are no longer taught
a ceramic statue of Florence Nightingale holding her lamp
beside a bowl of nectaries
people who have retired but won’t leave
people who should retire
computer parts, old landline phones, stenographic paper
which is what exactly?
My office—bare–no books
A few seashells
I can leave, clear out in a moment
Not closed inside a storage closet.