Turner Canty interviews Mary Jane Nealon

Mary Jane Nealon RN, MFA is the author of BEAUTIFUL UNBROKEN: One Nurse’s Life (Graywolf Press; 2011) and has published two collections of poetry: Rogue Apostle (Fourway Books; 2001) and Immaculate Fuel (Four Way Books; 2004). She is the recipient of fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. In 2005 she was the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholar. She lives in Missoula, Montana where she works as the Director of Integration for Partnership Health Center.

Turner Canty received a BA from the University of Montana in English and Creative Writing, and now lives in Oakland, California. He writes poetry, and his work can be found in Fence, the Oval and other magazines. He is the newest edition to the Omnidawn feature writing team.

An excerpt from the memoir follows the interview.

Turner Canty: Midway through Beautiful Unbroken, you talk about a friend, Wendy, who demonstrates the futility of grasping for what you want. You call this a gift, which is one of many to come to you at that time. While writing Beautiful Unbroken, did this “gift” come in handy? Or did you find yourself occasionally grasping to define moments in a concrete fashion?

Mary Jane Nealon: In 2004 I won the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship and decided to spend part of that time in an apartment on the Irish Sea just outside a four house village called Coolnacopogue where my grandmother was born and where my cousins still live. The “requirements” of the poetry fellowship included writing three poems, which they never really want to see. It was the ultimate gift and after a couple of days of working I had those three poems and more. It was indeed my gifts from Wendy, and all those who taught me patience, that I decided not to plan the rest of the year. I woke each day and went for a walk and looked at the sea and the stories came back to me. The time was very meditative and reflective and filled with neighbors and librarians who would ask curious questions about my life and how I had come to be in the village.

Each day I gave over to someone who was no longer living, or someone whose suffering had touched me deeply. The gesture was very much like a hand opening, which was the lesson Wendy had taught me about grasping. I would say that lesson was hard to hold on to once the book was finished. By then I was living in Auckland, NZ and found I wanted something to happen with it. I set about writing an agent a letter and when I was lucky enough to be taken on my first attempt, by Bill Contardi at Brandt & Hochman in NYC, I started to think I could control all of what came next. Grasping defines the next steps for sure. I had many hopes as he sent it from one publishing house to the next. I did re-writes based on those editors’ suggestions and I started to feel quite frantic about what I dreamed might come of all our efforts. Interestingly enough, it was only when I sort of gave up and I asked my agent if I could enter it in the Bakeless contest that once again I had success. The gifts I have been given, by much wiser friends, are easy to lose, it is a practice to hold on to them.

TC: Early in the book you ask the question “What do we owe each other?”, to which you answer “We owe more than we have. We owe more than we can bear.” In dealing with so many different deaths at so many different levels of familiarity in your life, how did you learn to treat each one in the limited words you had for the book? How did you resist elegizing each person? How did you repay them?

MJN: I believe we can be fully elegized by one gesture: the way a foot looks in shadow, a hand wavering over a feverish forehead, a back turned to the window. All of these moments are about our shared humanity, we’ve all had our bodies inhabit the same postures. I also had carried so many of those stories for so many years that in my mind they were large and unwieldy, and the act of writing about them helped me to wrestle them into what I thought of at the time as prose poems. Being a poet first and foremost, I believe in the weight and power of a single image and often when I had written a paragraph about someone, for me at least, it seemed to carry their entire story.

In terms of repaying all those who were lost, there is no way to do that. Their willingness to have witnesses to their suffering was a brave and tender thing to offer, and I don’t know that anything would ever be enough. To live a good life is important in honoring those who don’t have the same good fortune, and I do try to do that. Also, a friend said once: “you are never really dead as long as someone who remembers you is still alive.” I love that. I still have a picture of Tony, the 18 year old bread baker in my book, and whenever I see that picture I feel a rush of everything about him. And he died in 1978. That’s a priceless gift he gave me, something about his vulnerability, his joy, his courage has always stayed with me. He had a hallucination one night from this cocaine spray we were using to treat his mouth sores and he thought we were all on a picnic in the park. He took my hand after I tried to reorient him and he said, “tell me then, am I not wearing bermuda shorts?” “No Tony,” I said, “but I wish we were, I wish we were on a picnic.” He said, “that would be fun. Please don’t tell anyone else, don’t tell anyone I was so confused.” I always have held on to that moment. It was so touching to me that he was dying but even then didn’t want to be wrong about anything. So how could I ever do anything worthy of that moment when he took my hand and shared that fear with me?

TC: While reading Beautiful Unbroken, it seemed to me that in your nursing career, and in your love life, you shed a lot of cynicism as well as comfort. You rejected many societal norms by working with AIDS patients, dating a military boy, moving to Montana after 9/11, and so on. As a member of a different generation, I’m curious as to how, and in what ways (if at all) you felt society supported you as you made these choices?

MJN: This is such an interesting question to me and I hope I can do it justice. The short answer is I don’t think “society” supported me at all. I think there was always a lot of judgment for not meeting certain goals at prescribed times in my life. I went back to school in my mid-forties, I was the oldest fellow the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown had ever accepted when I was there in 1995. I did traveling nurses for six years when the average time was one year. That said, my community of fellow artists definitely supported me, as I supported them in their nontraditional choices. There is nothing wrong with the societal norm if that is what one wants, and I know plenty of artists who I respect who worked hard, got married at an early age, have children and savings accounts, own their own home …all while succeeding in their artistic endeavors. I don’t know what I would’ve done in my life if I hadn’t lost my brother at a young age and then, if I hadn’t chosen to immerse myself in grief. But I did, and it has been a full and interesting life. Someone posted something on Facebook recently about the unique hell it would be to be trapped in a movie theater reliving every moment of your life without the ability to change any of it. And I found myself wishing I could have that experience. I don’t think I would be tormented by the choices I made at all. I don’t have regrets even if I might make different choices about some things today. I view ownership as a burden. I want to be able to get up and go at a moments notice, taking only my wonderful dog, Maisie, and my old car. I have the same dreams I had when I was in my twenties and I am 56 years old. I think that’s a blessing. In terms of my generation though, I do believe coming of age in the early seventies was such a gift. AIDS had not entered our lives yet and the sixties had encouraged political and sexual freedom. Other women before me had laid the groundwork for independence and so my choices were not so radical in light of those times. In that way I would say society, or at least the times I lived in, both supported and encouraged my choices to travel and not have children. To roam the country in my little car picking up hitchhikers and writing poetry in roadside cafes.

On 9-11 I woke up. Seeing the attacks from my bedroom I asked myself all sorts of questions about the life I was living and the pace at which I was living it. My decision to come to Montana was about wanting to know my community in a way I didn’t feel was possible in New York. It was also my one last unrealized dream, to live in Missoula. Now I have other dreams, and I hope I always do keep that sense that the next call, the next letter, the next email will be about the chance to do something I love.

TC: Throughout Beautiful Unbroken I found many passages or lines which gave momentary relief, or at least asylum, from the death and suffering in the book. To me, these moments seemed inherently poetic and light in comparison to the darkness of the general flow of prose you give us. I often clung to these lighter moments, such as when you describe helping Joaquin hang his stars. Did you give us these moments as a way to show us the lightness of poetry, or maybe to show us some of yourself as a poet? And was it a relief for you to include these lines and moments as it was for me?

MJN: I can say honestly that I don’t write in a conscious state, I revise in a conscious state but often when I am writing the words just come and then I read them and they either feel right or they don’t. I think because my first medium is poetry that if anything I had many more of those moments in the first draft of the book, some that seemed perfectly plausible to me but that I had to edit out over time because they completely confused early readers. The hanging stars for me is much more painful than some of the other moments in that passage but also captures Joaquin for me in such a true moment that I felt resolve rather than “light” in the writing of it. It was one image that held everything for me, if the reader also feels that, then I am successful.

It is an interesting phrase the “lightness of poetry” because I do believe poetry carries a kind of lightness even in its darkest moments. I think Milosz is a great example of that especially in his poem that says: “on the day the world ends a bee circles a flower….” that entire poem to me is about the most minuscule moment of life against the worst possible thing that can happen: genocide. And yet it reminds us that we are not what defines life and that “life” goes on despite our cruel acts or our interpretation of what would signify the “end of the world.” That might not have been Milosz’s intention but it is a strength I always get from his poetry.

All writing is a relief in essence for me because the work of writing goes on all the time internally, the “typing out” of the words is the final construction of what I have been writing internally —
sometimes for years. The moments that include poetry are the most pure, the ones that feel most like a gift.

TC: What has been your biggest challenge since getting the book out?

MJN: How to get up every day and go to my real world job at the community health center (which I do love). Because the response of other people has made me realize how much this [writing] is what I feel my life is about, not at all a unique experience for any artist in our culture– but when you realize what you can do with time (this book would not have been written without the Amy Lowell fellowship), it is hard to spend time doing other kinds of work. When I was in Ireland I met a number of artists who were paid by the government to make their art, they lived poorly, essentially on welfare, but it was a choice they had at least. It boggles my mind how little we value artists in this country. It is hard to sit with all the unrealized projects and to experience, at least at my age, the fear that time is running out.


In those days, there were two patients from Brooklyn I was taking care of. Young boys, in rooms next to each other. Their headboards met at the wall. Everything was the same but in reverse: as I went from one to the other, the suffering in one room was a mirror for the other. Tony was an eighteen-year-old baker in his family’s bread bakery. Years later it became a famous place. The bakery was in Moonstruck with Nicholas Cage and when I saw the movie I could remember the feel of Tony’s fevered skin. He had black curls and big dimples and leukemia. He didn’t live long enough for his hair to fall out.

Jack was the other boy, nineteen, a student at Brooklyn College. He had testicular cancer that spread to his brain. He was bald from months and months of chemotherapy and radiation to the brain. He said to me once, “I was kind of relieved to find out it was in my fuckin’ brain, you know? I was at this party with my friends and I started seeing weird lights and shit, and I thought, ‘Jack, if your friends have passed you bad dope, they don’t respect you no more.’ At least it wasn’t that.” I remember when he said it I was handing him a milk shake and the frost dripped down the side of the glass and his hand overlapped my hand and he took the glass from me. The whole time I felt the glass might fall between us, but it didn’t and his hands, which were so pale they had a greenish tint, held on and then he raised one and patted me on the shoulder, as if to comfort me.

One night I took the bus down to Lafayette Street to read with Poets Against the Nuclear Thread at the Gallery for Social Change, and I ran into Tony’s mother on the street. I was wearing a pale pink dress and pale pink ballet shoes. I felt unfaithful, dressed up, caring about the future. She grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go of me. “I don’t want him to suffer,” she said. “I can’t let him die, but I don’t want him to suffer.” I stood there holding my little poems. I was just twenty-two years old but I told her that I would make sure he didn’t suffer. I promised her. She stretched up to kiss me. She was only about four feet ten inches tall and round as a ball. “ God bless you. God bless you,” she said.

At the gallery, I started to cry when I read my poem “Agent Orange in Arkansas,” and everyone thought I was passionate about the earth. A homeless man drank free wine in the back of the gallery. He stood up and yelled, “Fuckin’ A, man! Fuckin’ A!” I was ripped in two, cleanly, like a sheet of paper, pretending to care about big things, but all the while I was wondering how I would keep Tony from suffering. How could I keep his mother form losing him? How could I ever keep from breaking my promise to her?

In New York, a city of millions, I observed everyone. I carried a notebook everywhere and started saving stories, started imagining I new everything about casual passersby. There were snippets of conversation I held on to and fleshed out, and in this way I tried to make a community large enough to disappear into. A man in a bar on Second Avenue cam in one night and said to his friends, “I went hunting this weekend. I shot a deer nine fucking times! He moved, and I shot him again, he moved again, I shot him again!” I gave him a name, Mickey. I made him a batterer with an arrest record. I could see his T-shirts, bloodstained, torn, hanging on the shower curtain rod in his bathroom. In my imagination he would be transformed by a random act of kindness and move to Micronesia, where he would minister to the poor. Everyone who wasn’t dying could be saved.

To others, I looked like someone who led a normal life, but occasionally in the grocery store or the library or on the bus I found myself looking at a handsome young man and then looking at his neck to see if there was swelling around his lymph nodes or if his skin had that now-familiar pallor. In my writing class at Columbia, there was a guy who wore lather, a bouncer at the Ramrod on West Street. When I read a poem one day, he said, in front of everyone, “I hate your mother-earth shit.” I stared him down and didn’t reply, and another boy passed me a note that said, “Don’t hide, you’re beautiful.” I managed to ignore both of them because they weren’t dying and so they didn’t really matter to me.

Although I was surrounded by death I was oddly comforted by the boys whose bodies took on the shape of my brother’s body. They all had the same cancer starvation, they all had delicate, bones. And when they died, I washed their bodies and wrapped them in plastic, then cloth. Each tragedy reminded me that I was not alone in my tragedy. Each soul in each young body was a way to relive the moment when my brother’s body opened and his soul widened in the room, then flew out from the corners of the window. I wanted to move on from the repetition of loss. I wanted to turn the compass on its side and run as far as possible from the quivering center, pointing this way and that way but never really stopping under the shatterproof glass. I was holding it in the center of my palm, trying to figure out which way to go.

Mary Jane Nealon. Excerpt from Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse’s Life. Copyright © 2012 by Mary Jane Nealon. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.