Not Nightingale



Edith Cavell, British Nurse Executed in German- Occupied Belgium, 1915


Not Nightingale

When I was little, I read biography–
for the young seek heroes–books about women
especially–a hagiography
of possibilities, of those who were bent

like me, who might too have been raised to please.
There was an astronomer from Nantucket–
no joke–Maria Mitchell–and so I squeezed
a telescope out of Christmas, and stuck it

on our front sidewalk, trying for satellites.
Then Clara Barton, Edith Cavell–not
Florence Nightingale–except to the extent
that any nurse from a then-past war seemed a lot

like Florence Nightingale, and was subject
to confusion with her, none having a name
so apt–itself a balm, a cool compress–
Florence–on a bandaged head–and for the lame.

the grievous–Nightingale–a wing.  But the book
on Cavell was favorite, its cover dark
and lamplit, a woman cloaked in the look
of the secret and stalwart—nothing of the lark,

no, the nightingale, disguised perhaps as wren,
swallow–I know I read it thoroughly
and, on a trip to Brussels, searched on end
for Cavell’s alleged statue, but found only,

with my folks, the little peeing boy–
urinal fountain–I pretended to laugh
but stared hard.  (I was eight.) But what so
amazes me is that yesterday, years past

my crush on Cavell, I first read of her death
in front of a German firing squad.
World War I.  How in the world had that left
me blank?  My aging brain’s mockingbird

crows that I must have forgotten, but how
forget her last night’s words–”Patriotism
is not enough.  I must have no
hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

Surely, my young mind would have clung to her
figure backed against a wall, would have looked
at that imagined stance from every angle;
Could I really let that go?  Or did the book

protect me, a young reader, undoubtedly
female, offering only episodic
Cavell?  And, if so–  if so–  what else in me,
my learned-scape, has been bowdlerized, picked

over?  I need, I tell myself, to learn more.
About everything.  I don’t want mown
facts, trimmed truths==let me read myself sore,
and those gaps that I still hide–let them be sown–

And let me remember what’s read–if I can’t,
let me read it again, re-catching light
from page and vow to illuminate the slant
of now, telescoping (better) the bright

flares that have lit so many dark trails,
but also, the dimmer lamps, for we old
seek heroes too; and though I love Nightingales,
brave Cavells, though I too would love to be bold–

those who simply have no hatred, bitterness
also fit a pantheon, their song,
whether caroled by day or night no less
sweet–something (while reading) to sing along.

Agh!  This is an absolute torturous draft poem for Susie Clevenger’s prompt on With Real Toads to write about a nightingale.    Edith Cavell was a British nurse who, when working in German occupied Belgium during World War I, nursed both allied and German soldiers, and helped some allied soldiers to escape.  She was tried and sentenced to death and, though many diplomatic efforts were made to save her, was shot by a German firing squad on October 12, 1915. 

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15 Comments on “Not Nightingale”

  1. This is simply a MAGNIFICENT poem – a tale of a true heroine. Her parting words are wonderful. I loved reading this about someone I had not heard about. So many heroines in those – in all – times. Right now I am reading about Somaly Mam, and her work rescuing girls caught up in sex trafficking.

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Thanks, Sherry. I would like to read more about Somaly Mam. She is so charismatic and I liked her a great deal and then there was a big expose, and now there seem to be real questions about the expose! Agh! If she does good work, that’s the main thing. k.

      On Fri, Oct 31, 2014 at 11:40 PM, ManicDDaily wrote:


  2. I hadn’t heard about Edith Cavell either. How little I know of being truly courageous, or the depth of compassion that would move me to speak such words. Though we cry a millions tears, what are their worth if we only cry for ourselves? Thanks so much for taking part in the challenge.

  3. Jamie Dedes Says:

    K, this is a stunning poem. What memories you’ve brought back. Long summer days of reading biography (I read the same as you in that category) and Steinbeck and Betty Smith and Pearl Buck and winters reading with a flashlight under the covers. Such a wonderful time of wander and discover. I love this. I love it a lot.

  4. Both Cavell and Nightengale are great heroes and I, too, was enamored of them, enough to become a nurse to be like them. I just love that you presented her in this poem in such a personal way with your yearning for all the truth available and your obvious love of the riches brought to us in books.

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Thanks. I don’t know why I never wanted to become a nurse. I did want to be an astronomer after reading about Maria Mitchell. Maybe because my father was a chemist (scientist not pharmacist)–I felt very drawn to science (in my mind), and always too, writing. So I would have a fingered list of physicist, chemist, biologist, astronomer or writer. (I think actress was probably stuck in there too somewhere.) Thanks, Mary. k.

  5. Such a wonderful poem – an epic(!) loved the continued bird imagery throughout and the longing to know more. The final 3 stanzas – a call to our own personal heroism. Really loved this.

  6. Kerry O'Connor Says:

    I enjoyed this poem, both for its narrative and the message imparted by Cavell. It reminded me of all the similar books I read as a teen. Such stories are fascinating to young girls.

  7. Steve King Says:

    Not overly long at all…I think the verses flew by. I think more poems should have this approach–illuminating history in a way that a tome never could. After all, the first great heroes were given to up in verse form. If you decide to revise–though I don’t agree with the characterization of torturous at all–I’d love for you to let us see how you work it out. This is a marvelous, artful, and educational piece of writing.
    Steve K.

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Thanks so much, Steve. I felt very down about this poem and finally posted because I just didn’t want to think about it any more! I did several different endings and may revisit that part especially. At any rate, your words are much appreciated. Thanks. K.


  8. grapeling Says:

    quit apologizing, first of all, please. your fans love your pens, of any duration.

    second, thanks for introducing me to Cavell. she was heroic.

    third, if you go dark, too, now with Joy fading to black. well, damn. I’ll miss your poetry.

    fourth – the pen! – I see this more as a prose poem, somewhat corseted by the format you chose, but wonder if it would have the same impact if you removed the enjambment. perhaps not. either way, you manage to crack open that fable we all create and codify as we age, and allow us to peer back at the moment when we still beheld wonder, and heroes. ~

    • ManicDdaily Says:

      Thanks. I felt this went on too long. It may be better as a prose poem. It is in a kind of pentameter with a very slant ABAB rhyme scheme but that doesn’t perhaps support the content– I just hated to let it go once I started the off rhyme. I feel so bad to have joy go though she surely deserves a break that I’ve been thinking about whether I should wait on the noveling– just because I don’t want to let down the side! I’m not saying that she is doing that– I’m very uncertain I can work on the novel right now anyway. K.


  9. margaret Says:

    “Surely, my young mind would have clung to her
    figure backed against a wall,” I wonder if it hadn’t been “watered down” for young readers – and a shame if so! The warning made me laugh – but honestly, it didn’t read long. I will have to google her – she sounds like a wonderful person to get to know. Thanks!

  10. hedgewitch Says:

    I am so glad I saved this for when i was thirsty for words, Karin. Beyond the length or subject it is in itself a quenching, refreshing drink—a complex, but completely accessible amalgam of language and image and emotion(ie poetry) which has been of great comfort to me this morning. I too wonder whether you ‘forgot’ her end, or whether it was edited out the way blood was from everything when we were young. I know I have forgotten so much–I don’t know if that is indeed the curse it often feels, or a blessing I am too small to recognize, but I do feel always that same desire to know that seems uppermost in this, and in knowing, of course, to learn how those we see as avatars of something within us have done it, so that perhaps we might make our own way towards that grace. This is an excellent poem, k. Thanks for sticking with it and getting it on the page.

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