Poetry Shelf Winter Season: Johanna Emeney off-piste


Shaken Down


In the hospital corridor,

the one two of my shoes

on hard lino,

then something

sounds broken—


a thermometer—


I have left people here

in rooms

and cabinets.

They’ve gone cold

in others’ hands.


The spine of me


into so many

ball bearings…


Orderlies wheel

prone passengers.

Nurses pass

with busy eyes,


until one pauses

to put on gloves,

coveralls, booties.

She sticks up a sign




and calls

for a flashlight,

holds it at an angle

to find beads of me-

rcury lodged in cracks

between wall and floor.


Without a fuss

she gathers masking tape,

an eyedropper,

index cards,

and uses them to

corral what is herdable

into new glass tubing.

Her cards say:




What miracle

to approach

naked breakage,

to chase it unafraid,

gather it up

and talk it back down

to something

resembling normal.


©Johanna Emeney,  Family History, Mākaro Press, 2017


Author note: “Shaken down” grew from two ideas rattling about—a fresh one and a memory:

1) A friend told me that one of the first jobs nurses learn is to shake down a thermometer.

2) I kept thinking of a nurse who had been exceptionally kind to me on the night my mother was killed. This nurse, probably about twenty years my senior, told me about losing her own mother, and how it had affected her.

This is the first poem I wrote that departs from naturalism, moving towards a very minor kind of magical realism. To start with, I was just trying to recapture the experience of walking alone down a hospital corridor, having lost my mother in a car accident, my father still in the ICU. The huge loneliness and disbelief still felt such that they called for more than a realist presentation. The broken thermometer, leaking its apparently irretrievable, noxious mercury, the I-speaker, her spine turning liquid and draining out of her body—together, they were what it was like.

The nurse in the poem who executes practical measures in tidying up the mess (I had to google “how to clean up a small Mercury spill”) is supposed to symbolise that beautiful truth about good nurses—their ability to balance the medical and the personal so adeptly.

Had I not ventured into territory more fantastical than my norm, I think the poem would have been sentimental and lacked emotional verisimilitude. That would have been a shame, because to express gratitude genuinely, you can’t sound mawkish or trite—in real life or in a poem.


Johanna Emeney’s two books of poetry are Apple & Tree (Cape Catley, 2011) and Family History (Mākaro Press, 2017). In 2018, Ibidem Press will publish her academic textbook The Rise of Autobiographical Medical Poetry and The Medical Humanities, based on her doctoral study, and she is currently working a chapter on poetry for Routledge’s Companion to Literature and Disability. Jo has a background in English Literature, Japanese and Education—subjects she read at Pembroke College, Cambridge. She works as a tutor at Massey University, Auckland, and co-facilitates the Michael King Young Writers Programme with Rosalind Ali.


From Paula: For Poetry Shelf’s Winter Season, I invited 12 poets to pick one of their own poems that marks a shift in direction, that is outside the usual tracks of their poetry, that moves out of character, that nudges comfort zones of writing. It might be subject matter, style, form, approach, tone, effect, motivation, borrowings, revelation, invention, experimentation, exclusions, inclusions, melody …. anything!

1 thought on “Poetry Shelf Winter Season: Johanna Emeney off-piste

  1. Pingback: International Poetry Competition 2020 – Open Judge’s Poem | New Zealand Poetry Society

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