From my position, everything goes up, not down. When my nurses rest Their legs upon my chairs, all that is in view to me are 10 dirty toes attached to round soles and heels of the same bare feet. They are not dirty to me but just soiled from walking around the room. I am fascinated by their toes' activities moving up and down or by one foot scratching the other foot. Sometimes I lie awake at night imagining how to write a symphony by their toes' movement. -- Hope Baum
The poet is a pretty woman in a flowered robe, her own feet covered with pink ballet slippers and her body wracked with multiple sclerosis. The bed to which she is confined has been wheeled into a conference room, where she whispers barely audible strains of poetry to her teacher, Carolyn Kurylo.
Kurylo, her dark hair falling straight down her back, lightly rests one thin hand on a student's shoulder while she reads. Around the room are eight residents of Iliff Nursing Home in Dunn Loring.
Kurylo is a doctoral candidate in education at George Mason University, and as part of an internship project she has been conducting weekly poetry sessions this summer at the nursing home.
The poem she is reading is Susan Wood's "Snow Dome," which lets the reader view a paperweight from the outside, and as part of the object itself. Kurylo wants her students to try imagining what it is like to be an object, feel an object, enter an object.
There's a good reason for this approach, Kurylo explains later. "The week before, I'd brought one of my paintings for the residents to write about -- I like to paint, as well as write. Then they asked if a blind patient could join the group. Well, I let her feel the painting -- I do a lot with texture -- but I wanted to bring her something she could really get her hands on."
The "something" is a replica of a bust of David, Michelangelo's masterpiece, which the group passes from hand to hand. As the sculpture goes around, the group composes a list poem, gathered from their comments.
Says the blind patient: "David was known as the sweet singer of Israel, so he had his precious moments, too."
Says Henry Irion, a lawyer and novelist who is recovering from a stroke: "I see a sense of humor in his mouth."
Says reclining Hope Baum: "I think he's reflecting on something. I don't know what."
Kurylo urges her on: "Yes you do, lady, you have a wonderful imagination. What's he thinking?"
Hope Baum, barely audible: "Maybe he's thinking about what life could be."
Kurylo has become accustomed to such startling remarks since she started the weekly poetry meeting at Iliff in July. Then, with only three residents attending, she asked her students to think about beauty, to "envision an image." Writing down their thoughts, she rearranged them slightly, and brought back a list poem for the group to share.
Each week, Kurylo has brought a different topic to the class, ranging from gifts the patients have received and things they find distasteful to particular pieces of music. She has read modern poets, to give the class some feel of how others have approached these topics, and then has recorded the patients' reactions.
After each hour-long discussion, Kurylo works individually with any patient who requests a session; it was from one of these that Baum's "Ode for My Nurses" sprang.
Asked how she keeps from getting too involved with the patients during the intense sessions, Kurylo replied, "When you're dealing with people, why not get involved?"
An English teacher who has spent 12 years in Fairfax County schools, Kurylo says she learned long ago to "get involved with the students in the classroom, but not take their problems home with me."
She got the idea of teaching in nursing homes, she says, from Kenneth Koch, a poet and teacher who worked in New York City nursing homes and later wrote a book about his experience.
At Iliff, Kurylo discovered the patients "want each other's company," so she arranged a seminar approach. "Word got around about the course," she says, and the group grew each week "in numbers and enthusiasm."
Her internship ends this month, but Kurylo hopes the project will continue. She has trained some of the nursing home staff to take over and has written several projects to continue the program.
"I hope this will keep going indefinitely," she says, "because of the tremendous sense of self-worth it seems to give the patients. One man told me, "This is the one time during the week when I am inspired intellectually.' Wouldn't you want to keep that going?"