From Our Breasts, Frances Cornford’s “The Old Nurse”

I’ve been planning on presenting this eerie ghost story by English poet Frances Cornford for awhile now, but I wanted to take care with the musical setting while working on our recently completed countdown of the most popular pieces here from this past winter.

Heidi Randen was interested in doing this as a guest reader, and it’s her voice you’ll get to hear today. She’s also the guest blogger for this piece, so before I say our customary few words about the music let me turn it over to Heidi.

 

From Our Breasts, Frances Cornford’s The Old Nurse

By Heidi Randen, guest writer for Parlando (and Frank’s wife)

Like the subject of this poem, I am an old nurse. When my husband shared these sad, sweet, ghostly, gothic verses, they resonated with my experience of nursing in the biological and professional sense. I breastfed our kid and have worked as a Registered Nurse in hospital and clinical settings with very old and very young people.

Frances Cornford wrote this poem in the 1920s when professional nursing was still a new concept.  Florence Nightingale pioneering nursing in the field during the Crimean War would have been about as far back in the collective memory as the Korean War is to us now.  Nightingale started the world’s first professional nursing school in London in 1860. This occupation would have been as relatively novel as computer programming or palliative care are today.  In an English village in the 1920s, an old nurse would most likely mean an old wet nurse or an old nursemaid.

Wet nursing is a humble and humbling profession:

Against my breast I felt a small and blunt-nosed head.

To breastfeed is to be reduced to a mammal, a one-person dairy operation.  To share your milk with an infant in need who is not your own is an extravagant act of human kindness, yet it carries great stigma. In my family’s American immigration story, relatives on my mother’s side repeat the line: Our family was so poor that your great-great grandmother had to work as a wet nurse in the Netherlands.

Breastfeeding is like still being a little pregnant.  Your body is not wholly your own, still providing shelter and sustenance for another.  This is also the case in professional nursing.  When I worked in the hospital, I would often forego sleep, meals and bathroom breaks if it was a particularly busy shift.  This self-sacrifice is why nursing is still considered a calling and is listed as the most trusted profession in the United States and the United Kingdom.

From Our Breasts 1080

The circle of life: the woman who breastfed me and who suffers from Alzheimer’s, being helped long by the person I breastfed, my kid who talks about going into nursing when they grow up.

 

In my experience talking with fellow nurses, neonatology, pediatrics, oncology and hospice are considered extra special callings.  It takes greater emotional mettle to get close to babies and children in pain, to help people with serious or life-limiting illness and their families.  Put any of those specialties together: neonatal hospice or pediatric oncology and you are exponentially special, perhaps super-human.

But nurses are very human.  We see things that are unbearably sad.  And there is nothing sadder than a dead baby.  It seems like the worst violation of the order of things.  But it is not.  To me, the worst thing in the world is when people are left alone in sadness and fear.  Like the woman in the poem, the nurses of the world—in all senses of the word—hear crying over the sound of storms, seek out those in distress and provide comfort.  The satisfaction of this experience is expressed tangibly by the poet:

And a sob-quivering body slowly growing calm
And toes like round cold buds that warmed inside my palm.

Like the subject of this poem, I too see dead people and they don’t frighten me. The longer you watch human beings move through all their stages, you see that the end of life has much in common with the beginning of life.  This became most apparent to me in the space of one day when I visited a friend in the hospital with a newborn and a friend dying in hospice.  The mystery of where that baby came from was the same as the mystery of where my friend was going.  To nurse is to help for a little while on another’s journey, then—like the old nurse at the end of the poem—to be alone again with this mystery after they leave.

The Old Nurse as published in Cornford's Autumn Midnight 1923

The page from Cornford’s “Autumn Midnight” collection where the poem was published in 1923. Woodcut by Gwen Raverat

Heidi didn’t mention this when she wrote this earlier this year, but of course now we are asking nurses and others to put their bodies on the line with our current Covid-19 crisis.

Here’s those few words on the music. My original starting idea was to use singing bowls as part of the arrangement, but I have only one available, and while I could manipulate the single pitch after recording, I wanted them to play intervals and triads and decided to go another route. I used some gongs and bell for the piece’s intro, but much of what sounds like the singing bowls is an electric guitar being sustained to feedback levels and then being fed through a modulated reverb. I also made use of one of my favorites, the Mellotron cello sound, because that instrument’s uncanny aural valley always sounds spookier than the real thing to me.

The player gadget to hear Heidi’s performance of Frances Cornford’s “The Old Nurse”  is below. If Cornford intrigues you, I’ve presented two of her poems with original music earlier this month.