Husband-wife poets pen verse to cope with horrors, profound dignity of death

Baldwin nurse Shannon Musgrave has held patients' hands as they exhaled their final breath.

Peaceful endings at home.

Her husband, Vietnam veteran John Musgrave, has seen comrades mowed down by enemy fire and killed North Vietnamese soldiers before they could kill him.

Horrifying endings abroad.

Awe-inspiring, bittersweet, agonizing and brutal, the couple's experiences have become fodder for their poetry.

Their work comes straight from the gut, from the trenches of real life. It's clear, honest and cast in straightforward, everyman language.

Neither John nor Shannon has ever taken a creative writing class. Each gravitated to writing as a way to cope.

"I'm not sure what I would have done with all those emotions if I hadn't had that therapeutic outlet," Shannon says.

The husband-wife duo will read their work Friday during the third installment of the 2003 Lawrence Poetry Series at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

Combat poet

For John, poetry readings can be cathartic or devastating. He's never quite sure what to expect.

"I may read one poem 100 times and get through it just fine, and then on the hundredth time that I'm reading it, it may break my heart," he says. "I try to get into a mindset where I'll just deal with the work and try not to picture what I'm reading, but I've never really been successful with that."

John served as a rifleman with the U.S. Marines during the Vietnam War. He was wounded twice by shrapnel, and had to retire after taking machine gun fire to the chest during a 1967 ambush. He walks with a crutch and has limited use of his left hand.

In his most recent poetry collection, "Notes to the Man Who Shot Me: Vietnam War Poems" (Coal City Review Press, 2003), he finally addresses his would-be murderer.

"You waited until my first Buddy reached my side

and lifted me in his arms

before you fired a second burst into my chest.

Do you remember how the impact of those bullets

Shannon Musgrave John Musgrave Philip Miller :: Kansas City poet Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg :: Lawrence poet Sarah Ruhlen :: Lawrence poet John Mark Eberhart :: Kansas City Star books editor

tore me screaming from his arms?"

"It took me 35 years to write that poem because it took me 35 years to reach that place where I could consider him a human being to talk to him," John says.

So he continues:

"I've come to realize

that you and I

have more in common

than we did with the men who sent us to kill each other."

John started writing poetry while he was in hospitals recovering from his wounds, but a decade passed before he was able to write intimately about his combat experiences.

He did his first poetry reading at the Kansas Union in January of 1991, at the start of Desert Storm. Kansas University poetry professor Brian Daldorph heard him and was "immediately struck by the power and directness of his poems." He's been speaking to Daldorph's poetry classes ever since. In fact, he and Shannon are the subject of a class Daldorph is teaching this spring at KU.

Shannon has been urging John to partner with her for their next book. She's written military poems of her own, grappling with the roller coaster of living with a combat veteran. John suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and still wakes regularly with night terrors.

"I call it a combat marriage, which is a little misleading because it makes it sound like we're at combat," Shannon says. "His combat experience is so enormous that you can't ignore it."

'At the crossroads'

Shannon feels the same way about her 25 years in nursing. Daldorph once asked her why she started writing poetry. Her initial response was that when she quit working full time as a nurse, she had time to write. But then she realized the truth: that her work had distracted her from fully experiencing her emotions.

When she cut back her hours, the hundreds of monumental moments she's spent with patients during her career came flooding back in vivid detail.

"They're a part of me," she says. "When I begin to think about them, I'm there. I'm transported right back to that moment in time."

This is clear from the outset of Shannon's debut poetry collection, "Touch" (219 Press, 2004). In "Arabella," she recounts the quiet death of a Spanish infant.

"In your mama's arms your blue lips turn indigo,

and your skin, already translucent, becomes cellophane.

Mama murmurs, "Muerta?," and I whisper, "Si,"

before tears take our voices."

Shannon only began to write five years ago and has had poems published in several issues of Coal City Review and I-70 Review. She says her poems have been warmly received by the families of her patients.

"One wife called it a little bit of immortality," she says.

For the past seven or eight years, Shannon has been working with hospice to provide end-of-life care to patients. The night before her grandmother died in a nursing home last year, Shannon crawled into bed with her, held her close and sang all the songs her Nana had sung to her as a child. She felt her Nana's body becoming more frail, her breathing growing more shallow.

"It was just amazing," Shannon recalls.

She memorializes her grandmother in "Nana's Choice":

"It looked good on her, this choice,

and we sat with her awhile,

stroking her arm,

kissing her forehead,

admiring her grace,

congratulating her on her fine work

of dying her own death

and not one arranged for her

by strangers."

"Health care professionals, we live at the crossroads of people's lives," Shannon says. "All the momentous decisions, all the unbelievable events, the tragedies, the joys -- we get to be a part of all of that. They become our stories as well.

"My life is so enriched because I've been allowed to be present at these momentous times."


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