Beautiful Unbroken: Poetry on the Front Lines of Nursing

Guest blogger Lanie Tankard has returned, this time with a book on a subject new to this blog, nursing, but nursing as seen through the eyes of a poet. Don’t you love the variety of human experience available to all of us in memoir? And take a look at this lovely cover:

Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse’s Life, Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, August 2011 (214 pages)

by Mary Jane Nealon

Reviewed by Lanie Tankard

What is a nurse? Dictionaries offer standard answers: a person who cares for the sick or infirm . . .  a licensed healthcare professional skilled in promoting and maintaining health.

Mary Jane Nealon goes one step deeper, however, in her definition. She uses the word “poetry” in her reflective memoir, Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse’s Life, due out in August.

Louisa May Alcott  explored that same question in Hospital Sketches after she worked in a Civil War hospital in Washington, D.C. At that time, nursing was just starting to evolve as a profession.  Alcott came to the same conclusion as Nealon did a century and a half later — there’s definite poetry involved in the interactions of patient and nurse.

And like Alcott, who nursed the sick and wounded coming off the fields of war in the mid 1800s, Nealon has worked on contemporary battlefronts: as a flying nurse on jobs around the country, and then — the first AIDS wards, a homeless shelter on Skid Row, cancer clinics, and hospice care. In extreme and somber settings, she finds moments of great beauty and offers profound insight.

One particularly strong section of the memoir is on AIDS. Nealon documents the beginnings of what would quickly become an epidemic. “Someone should have warned me,” she says, as she witnesses “moments of singular suffering.” At that point, no one had quite figured out what was happening. “They couldn’t all die, could they?” she wonders. “Oh, but they did,” she answers.

The relevance of Nealon’s memoir is significant. She ponders how to entice homeless black men with AIDS to take their medication after the Tuskegee experiment. A recent report shows clearly on an interactive data map that the poverty-HIV/AIDS link is heavily weighted in the South, while another offers the promise of new drugs to assist in preventing the “spread of the virus in gay men.” After thirty years, AIDS is still out there killing.

A different segment of the memoir takes place in a New York homeless shelter on the Bowery. Nealon looks around in disbelief, saying, “I thought I knew what poverty was.” Her vivid portrayal of Lower East Side flophouses documents the stark contrast of upscale luxury developments going in there today. Nealon was never afraid to enlist in regiments sent to serve in the most desperate regions of humanity, to volunteer for intense duty others were hesitant to pursue.

Throughout all of her experiences, language was Nealon’s guide. Poetry kept her tethered to life in the midst of death. Her powerful words are infused with emotional sincerity, elevating the profession of nursing to an art form. She calls it “spending sacred time with strangers.” As the author of two poetry collections, she brings an intimacy to the way she depicts such settings, drawing the reader into her feelings. Nealon has won several fellowships, as well as the 2010 Bakeless Prize for Nonfiction.

While Nealon cares for other people, her own family members face medical crises. Her younger brother dies of cancer early in Nealon’s nursing years. Later, her parents both die. She goes to all her father’s chemotherapy appointments, noting with poignancy his upbeat reaction when he receives the news that he is not going to make it: “Let’s have Italian tonight!” Because she was working when her brother became ill, her mother holds that against her. Their relationship is rocky, but at the end it is hospice care that allows them to reconnect.

Nealon freely opens up her own life outside work to paint an impressionistic portrait of one nurse on the canvas of a society in transformation.

She describes a visit to the Esalen Institute at Big Sur. She talks about her own heartbreaks and losses. She follows an evolving interest in poetry as she takes classes and begins writing. She pulls up her blinds and depicts the scene she witnessed through her window on 9/11 as the second plane turned, angled, and “headed for the ribbon of glass” around Tower Two.

All these parts of her life Nealon juxtaposes next to her work as a nurse, searching for links and contrasts between them. She chronicles inevitable changes in the nursing profession as technology enters the picture. She observes herself in action as a sociologist would describe the process: “I had learned all the gestures that a suffering person needs. I practiced daily like a musician and my hands learned how to move over the suffering body unconsciously.”

Nealon fosters our empathy for those around us as she extends insight into the human condition we all share. The questions Nealon poses in her Beautiful Unbroken will make you view your own everyday interactions in a new light: “What is our responsibility when we stand alongside each other? At the elevator, at a bus stop, when ordering a bacon and tomato sandwich on rye, buying a movie ticket? Or not even alongside each other, but when we see one another from a car window?”

I’m still pondering the answers.


Lanie Tankard is a freelance editor and writer in Austin, Texas. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews.

Posted in

Shirley Showalter


  1. friesengroup on July 18, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    Many thanks for reviewing this memior. It is reflective of a recent conversation with a woman who teaches English and writing to nursing students. Our questions included, “How do we find a language for nursing, for caring for strangers? Where are the poets who speak this language?” I have forwarded this to her and look forward to reading this in August.

    • shirleyhs on July 18, 2011 at 8:26 pm

      Thanks, Kathleen. You are such a wonderful friend of this blog and generous writer and blogger yourself. Let’s hope the book and the question help those who help others. It’s a noble calling!

    • Lanie Tankard on July 18, 2011 at 9:20 pm


      You know, I’m betting just about any profession could be viewed from both a clinical perspective as well as a poetic. Even though this memoir is ostensibly about one field, its approach could certainly be superimposed anywhere. I hope you post your thoughts if you read the book, Kathleen!


  2. iris jones-simantel on July 25, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    I have a wonderful nurse poetry book called A History of Poetry by Ann Webster. When someone suggested medicalpoetry as a subject for our poetry reading group, I was proud to share Ann’s work. I find it inspiring to know that people can find poetry in just about everything.

  3. shirleyhs on July 25, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    Hello, Iris, and welcome to 100memoirs. I think the idea of medical poetry would be a great one for a group to explore together.I hope you might enjoy Beautiful Unbroken also. Isn’t that a beautiful name for a memoir?

Leave a Comment