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A Poet Patient Shares the Prose of Her Life

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Editor’s Note: This article was written by Elizabeth Vander Kamp, an artist-in-residence with the UAB Institute for Arts in Medicine.

When Terri Middlebrooks, clinical care coordinator for the Acute Care for Elders (ACE) Unit at UAB Hospital-Highlands, asked me to visit a patient who likes to write poetry, I thought, “Oh good, I occasionally write poetry, too.” I gathered paper and pen, thinking I was going to meet someone who dabbled in the art form and might appreciate some prompts I’ve learned from my colleague, the poet Salaam Green.

It turned out that the patient, Joanne Ramey Cage, 84, does not “dabble” in poetry and was in no need of my prompts. She is a poet! When I asked about her poems, her son, James, pulled out his iPad and showed me a book of her poetry called, “The Lightness of the Dark.” In this lovely collection of over 70 poems, Ms. Cage covers a wide range of subjects, including occultation (when a planet blocks our view of another planet or star), love, death, Watergate, Alzheimer’s disease, and the clock at Loveman’s. (Loveman’s was a popular Alabama department store chain, and the large clock on the corner of its flagship location in downtown Birmingham was a well-established landmark and meeting place in the mid-1900s.)

Ms. Cage read one of her poems to me, “A Pear Year, A Bare Year”. We’ve included it below:

The third year that the pear trees didn’t bear,
She cursed them, and poured salt around their roots.

“If you won’t bear fruit,” she said, “then, damn you, die.
I hope I never see another pear.”

Of course, you know what happened: the next year
There were so many pears that limbs broke off;
Some of them weighed a pound and a half or more,

Those big hard sweet ones that make good preserves.

She claimed she had known exactly what they needed,
Something in salt that worked like lime or potash.
The orchard had the last word, though; next spring
Every pear tree was dead as four o’clock.


We laughed heartily at the end of the poem. Ms. Cage then read her favorite poem of the collection, “Lost Roads”. An excerpt follows:

Nature seems to hate all kinds of roads;
It wants them bent and folded, strewn with rocks,
Then quickly covered up with undergrowth,
And makes the sweet gum and pine shoots spring up bigger,
Faster, where there used to be a road.

                                                                                                                                                           

Ms. Cage’s poetry cast a spell of memories and touchstones to things once forgotten. I asked her if I could buy the book of poems. James said, “I think we can find you a copy.”

When I walked into Ms. Cage’s hospital room the next day, she said “Perfect timing!” and finished signing her book for me. I thanked her and asked if we could meet again for an interview/oral history gathering session. She and her son agreed!

Ms. Cage moved into the St. Martin’s in the Pines senior living community the following week, and this is where I found her with James. Her room was filled with paintings and drawings that she and her younger sisters had created. Her bright blue eyes and big smile welcomed me, and we got right to it.

“What do you want to know?” she asked. “Well,” I said, “let’s start at the beginning: Where did you grow up?” Ms. Cage grew up mostly in Leeds, Ala. She was born at home just before World War II, and her two younger sisters were born after the war. “They seemed like my baby dolls,” she said. “They were so much younger than I was, and I helped take care of them.”

The first poem Ms. Cage remembers writing was in the third grade, a composition about Halloween. She said she did not remember the poem anymore, but she knew that she wrote poetry even before then. Growing up, she spent a lot of time playing outdoors and still has a great love of nature. “I think that may be why so many of my poems are about nature,” she reflected.

After graduating from high school, Ms. Cage attended the University of Alabama. Following two-and-a-half years at Alabama, she married a junior partner at a law firm, and they had three children in the 10 years they were together. As a single mother, Ms. Cage worked for law firms as well as the Social Security Administration, which sent her all over Alabama each time she received a promotion. The family lived in Montgomery, Huntsville, and Selma before finally returning to Birmingham. She also worked for UAB.

“When did you find time to write?” I asked. “At night!” Ms. Cage replied. She has written over 600 poems. “Did your children appreciate your poetry?” I inquired. “Well, you know, sometimes a person’s family is not the most appreciative audience,” Ms. Cage answered with a pause that was followed by a great laugh. “I’m joking. They were very kind.”

“Would you like me to read some of the poems?” she asked. “Yes!” I exclaimed. She read each of the following compositions:

Under the Clock at Loveman’s

A Pear Year, A Bare Year (at my request)

Lost Roads (her favorite)

Jane Austen Never Married

A Letter of Sympathy to the House Judiciary Committee on Watergate, July, 1974

People Watching (one of her son’s favorites)

Occultation 1982

 

The gorgeous imagery of Ms. Cage’s poetry rumbled around in my mind, and I supposed she might be ready for the interview to conclude. So I said, “Thank you so much for your time today. I could listen to you for hours and hours. I just don’t want you to get tired.”

Ms. Cage, the poet who once was a patient, replied with a giggle, “Oh, I never get tired reading my poetry!”

Sadly, Ms. Cage passed away on Nov. 4, 2019, just as this article was being published. Her book, “The Lightness of the Dark: Poems by Joanne Ramey Cage”, was published by Rowan Wood Press in 2014.