Writing Poetry Saved my Life: Prose & Poetry by Nancy Levinson


I began my writing journey penciling adolescent musings on a “Big Red Notebook” purchased for a nickel at Woolworth’s Five and Dime. In time I went on to reporting for newspapers and magazines, then researched and wrote nonfiction books for young readers.

Never once, throughout those years, did I ever attempt to pen a poem. 

I neither mimicked A.A. Milne, despite having put Wheezles and Sneezles to memory, nor scribbled words rhythmically like Robert Louis Stevenson’s swing soaring up in the air so blue.  I had not even tried to write a poem as short as William Carlos Williams’ poignant plum-eating twelve lines.

When I reached my mid-sixties, my husband, a decade older, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.  He had been a loving husband, devoted father, and “by trade” an internist and cardiologist.

I, a loving wife, also became a devoted caregiver over an inordinately long time. Accepting and adjusting to new normalcy meant continual new normals with his increasing decline.

 Limited time and energy robbed my writing life.  How could I awaken and breathe the morning air each day without going into my home office and sitting down to write?

“Are you journaling?” friends asked about our situation. “Are you taking notes? Keeping a diary?”

A diary?  Like – Monday: hard day; went to neurologist this morning; husband refused to speak to him.  Tuesday: he lost the car at the mall. Wednesday:  Thinking of attending a support group. 

NO!  The tedium of such would have crushed me further.  Along with the daily and nightly dealings with dementia, I was unable to research and work on a book, leaving me to feel empty and anxious.  I had nothing to hold onto for myself. 

I don’t recall ever having had serious “writer’s block.”  But I’d heard teachers advise the stymied to sit down and just start writing.  Anything.  Are you hungry?  Thirsty?  What do you see out your window?  Even if you repeatedly type, “I don’t know what to write,”  that sentence can begin to morph into something else.

So, I sat down and started typing.  Anything.  But how I surprised myself! Suddenly I was in the present tense, second person.  I was speaking to my husband. I had no instruction, no guide other than poetry I’d read in literature classes. Moreover, I could never have imagined that “pouring my heart out” eventually would become a book of prose poetry.

I wrote as I lived our heartbreaking lives, the story as we stumbled and struggled, wept, laughed, loved, and kept going.  I didn’t write daily, and I didn’t blather the mundane, but selected events, incidents, and feelings, and the manuscript grew, becoming a meaningful ongoing project.

Swept up in my new-found prose/poetry, this writing helped keep me breathing for more than a decade. Truly, it helped keep me alive!

Oft revised and edited, of course ---here is the beginning :

I (2004)

I love you with a passion and respect
as I never imagined to exist in my adolescent
reveries long ago:
your keen mind,
your intelligence, wit,
your curiosity
about the immense
and the microscopic
your compassion
and sensitivity,
the curve of your crooked smile,
your touch, your embrace —
endear me so that I am often breathless
at the thought of you,
as every evening when you came home
I stirred at the sound of your key.


Once you were a physician,
mending the lives of others,
but there are no cures for you.
Once you were a teacher,
sharing your knowledge,
but you are the small student again
needing the most rudimentary of lessons.
Once you were a sailor,
adept with a boat and its tangled riggings;
you knew the warning signs of a storm,
how to take shelter in a cove.
There is no lifesaving float to be tossed,
no inlet to tie up to.
Denial is your marina for a while.


You are dying a slow, awful death
and you do not know it.
You are losing your memory, your being,
all that makes you who you are.
You are becoming less—
less my lover,
less an individual,
less the man I have known.


I whisper, oh, please remember
always my love for you.
But you will not remember.
You will forget my name, my face.
Will you puzzle at me,
as a stranger? Recoil in confusion and fear?
Or might an apparition appear momentarily
or a perfumed scent of my body drift by to remind?
and I will excite you again.


You awaken, cheerful; pause at the window,
a Bronx boy admiring your California garden,
suffused in early morning sunlight,
the lush grass,
graceful lemon tree,
white roses lining the low cinderblock wall.
In the kitchen you pour coffee in a mug
as always, fill milk to the brim
and open the newspaper to devour the news.
It’s demanding for you to concentrate,
you confuse political figures with one another,
you remain long with one photo and caption – or small ad.
I stand at the doorway, viewing the kitchen
drawers and cupboard doors opened wide,
bills, advertisements, empty envelopes,
strewn right-side up and upside-down,
duplicate notes to yourself adhered to the refrigerator door . . .
You do not see the same disturbing picture that I do.


I grieve for the many years I have left
preparing to live without you;
your death while you still breathe!
I mourn all that I have taken for granted, the loss
of our everyday occurrences, the mundane
and blissful; disagreements, frustrations, ire’s fisticuffs.
I admit to having felt ever deserving; now bolts of reality—
who of us is prepared for such an end?

The book, MOMENTS OF DAWN: A Poetic Memoir of Love & Family, Affliction and Affirmation, was published in early 2013.

My husband died in May that year. 

Currently,  I am attending poetry classes and workshops and writing stand-alone prose poems.  I am pleased and honoured to have many published in a wide range of literary journals.


About the Author

Among Nancy's children's books are fiction, biography, historical fiction, and easy-readers.

Award-winning titles include Christopher Columbus: Voyager to the Unknown; and Clara and the Bookwagon.  Her prose poems have appeared in literary journals such as Poetica; Blood and Thunder; and Touch: A Journal of Healing.  

A nonfiction piece, "Online Dating in the Golden Years," is scheduled for publication in an anthology, Getting Old.  Nancy lives in Los Angeles.