t. 93, Lorraine Ritchie, editor, Listening with my heart: Poems by Aotearoa New Zealand nurses

Listening with my heart: Poems by Aotearoa New Zealand nurses
edited by Lorraine Ritchie.
Steele Roberts Aotearoa Ltd.
RRP: $24.99. Sc, 60pp.
ISBN: 9780947493479.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.

Listening to my heart is the inaugural collection of poems by nurses in Aotearoa New Zealand. The poems offer deep observation and insight into the lives and work experience of nurses and finds the common thread in these poems and binds them together into a satisfying and cohesive (if challenging) whole, all the while keeping patients and families in mind. The collection is beautifully illustrated with drawings.

In her Introduction, Lorraine Ritchie tells us that “Nurses are great storytellers. Their stories tell of the myriad experiences and situations they have found themselves in.

The second poem in the book, “Nursery nurse 1950”, by Lorraine Ritchie, is a highly-controlled sequence of five verses. This measured logic allows a description of a nurse caring for unmarried mothers living in the slums of Leith. The atmosphere of the slums in well conveyed:


You combed the lice

from their hair while

outside the promise of rain

slipped low over the docks. (p 12).


“birthday surprise” by Janet Charman allows the reader to visit the theme of a woman giving birth in the “hands of multiplying attendants”, but the woman appears to be a refugee:


they shoot me


death is a sunlit room     fresh linen under a sodden body

a quiet baby

a lift crushing the detail bland


i can’t hold you now i know where jerking limbs lead … (p 15).


“Salamander” by Kim Chenery recalls a child suffering from burns:


And in that fiery instant

you became captive

the snapshot of recollected horror

your skin melting like wax (p 17).


The longer poem, “The honey ant”, by Kim Fray is about a nurse serving in the Aboriginal Health Services Unit. Here, a child demonstrates how to eat a honey ant:


Instead of water she has honey ants.

She shakes some out onto her hand

she holds them close to her chest

picks one up with her other hand

bites off the honey ant’s swollen belly

she shows me how it’s done. (p 22).


Gayle King-Tamehana’s poem in longer lines, “Internal assonance”, recalls an incident when she was four:


When I was four, Hinereikura pushed me out the tree hut door

to see if I could fly but I am not a bird and I

crash landed, smashed my collar bone, cried my eyes out

the nurse was called Caroline; she was kind. (p 24)


The poem allows her to revisit themes of violence, disease, the death of a baby and the kindness of all the nurses who aided her throughout life. “Variations” by Kim Chenery recalls her chat with the mother of a ten-year old boy, whom she is caring for in an institution:


We chat together

today choosing to swim between the flags

our words clipped like nails.

I am weary


have been caught before in the rip of your anger

what right have I to challenge your interpretation of care? (p 28).


and Lynda J. King’s “The Journey” (p 27), speaks directly from the hearts of the poets. The first is about a mother dealing with her son’s cancer and the second is a rhyming poem that features a lone woman waiting for the results of her test.

from Memoirs of a student nurse” (p 30) by Helen McKinley is a revealing poem about a nurse’s thoughts a she consoles a woman undergoing brain surgery. The poem ends:


Will it be long

this wait for Godot?

And me conscious

of men above in green

their focus on greyer matters.


Penelope Todd’s poem, “Regarding hearts” (p 37), takes place in the heart ward. This is a stunningly poem in 3-line verses. The direction of the poem is simple but never sentimental as Todd recalls her nights in the ward:

They seemed to like me in the heart ward.

I was quiet. I noticed things.

I could spell adrenaline.


“The Night Before Christmas: an infection control nurse’s Christmas tale” (p 41), by Natacha Maher is a lengthy poem in seven four-line stanzas, with a coda. The striking feature is that despite the intensity and the authority of the emotion, Maher never loses her poetic integrity. The poem is based on the old song of the same name. This is the first verse:


‘Twas the night before Christmas when all through the wards

Not a microbe was stirring, not even the spores

The hand rubs were hung at the bed-ends with care

In the hope that the superbugs would not appear.


“Chaos” (p 44) by Simone Inkrot is a cry from the heart. She asks:


Who are we as nurses?

Glue that mends pieces

Paper that serves as a memory

Hands that remind and can comfort

Shadows that appear when the reality of life

And anxiety are immediate.


Two strong poems are Lorraine Ritchie’s “Late night round” (p 46) and “In the end” (p 50) by Lauren Becker. The former is about a dying patient and the nurse’s care for her as she watches her last breath and then


I kiss your head, close

your lids, walk slowly

down the corridor

to your file and write

‘died peacefully’, as we do,

flew out into the dawn

like a fantail trapped inside the house.

You never were for here.


“In the end” is an impressive and moving poem, consisting of simple words and short lines, about loss, which ends:


How vast the love

How fine the tightrope

How thin the veil.


Listening with my heart contains many striking poems and images; too many poems to cite. Just go out and buy it to read these remarkable poems and perhaps to give consolation to a loved one. Engaging with all the poems in their dynamic variety is a privilege.




Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).