Susan Palwick's "Brief Visits"
October 30, 2012
I think I started reading Susan Palwick's blog after I finished my intensive unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) at Albany Medical Center. I did my unit of CPE during my first year of rabbinic school, so this was a while ago. I remember that I came to hospital chaplaincy work with deep trepidation: would I be up to the task? What if I couldn't do, or be, what was needed? To my surprise, the work transformed and uplifted me, maybe especially my nighttime visits to the emergency department or E.D.
And then a friend pointed me to Susan's work, and in reading her poems, I was thrust right back into the hospital experience again, with both awe and joy. After finding her blog, I wrote here:
A friend pointed me to a blog post I'm profoundly glad to have read: The first four ED sonnets, a quartet of sonnets written by Susan Palwick about hospital chaplaincy work. If you enjoy formal poetry -- and especially if you have any connection with chaplaincy work, or its cousins social work, counseling, and medicine -- don't miss these.
(Here's my whole 2006 post about Susan's poems: poems from the E.D.)
Some six years later, those sonnets -- part of an extraordinary book-length sonnet cycle -- form the collection Brief Visits: Sonnets from a Volunteer Chaplain, published by the Texas Review Press.
I was blessed to be asked to offer a blurb for the back of the book, perhaps because of my own (far less ambitious) small booklet of hospital chaplaincy poems chaplainbook (laupe house press, 2006.) For the back of Susan's book, I wrote:
Susan Palwick's poems remind me what I most love about hospital ministry -- in her words, 'story understood / as sacrament.' Here are the small mercies and outsized emotions of a night in the E.D., the infinity of human stories unfolding. 'These small rooms bestow / huge gifts,' she writes, 'God's strangeness shining from each tale(.)' These patients are fortunate to have Susan's presence, a manifestation of God's caring hands and listening ear; and we are fortunate to have her poems, which encapsulate our sweet, painful, poignant human lives.
I'm not sure I can offer a better review than what I said in that paragraph. There are so many shining moments of laughter and grief in this collection: the patient admitting "I don't know how to pray / right now," the realization that in the emergency room people suddenly become grateful for outcomes they would never have wished for ("'he's on a ventilator' better news / than 'nothing worked,'") her description of the hospital chapel ("it's almost always empty when I come/ I'm almost always empty, which is why / I come") which reminds me so much of the hospital chapel I used to visit sometimes at AMC.
These are powerful and poignant poems. Reading them, I feel lifted out of myself in much the way I used to feel when I walked the hospital's halls, in much the way I feel when I enter into real I/Thou relationship with a congregant or a stranger who seeks pastoral care. I recommend this collection highly. If you're clergy, if you're a chaplain -- or if you've ever felt mortal, alone, uplifted, or afraid. Hospitals are holy places because there we connect with some of our deepest human experiences: birth and death, mortality and fear, joy and exaltation. These poems bring all of those to life.
Get the book online: Brief Visits on Amazon.