Department of English, College of LAS, University of Illinois

Illinois Department of English Blog


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My name is Vicki Mahaffey and I took over as
head of the department on July 1, 2016. I'll be using this site to post updates and information of interest to our faculty, students, and alumni,
along with reflections about our discipline(s) in particular and the humanities in general. As anyone who has ever worked or studied here knows, the Department of English is a vibrant place. If you have something you'd like to see posted here, or if you want to contact me about the content of this blog, drop me an email at

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Hands of Strangers

Though the publication date is supposedly October, I happen to know that advance copies of Janice Harrington's new book, The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home have arrived. That's because I've just finished reading it, and it is terrific--sometimes quite harrowing, always thoughtful, plain-spoken but formal and artful, moving, and even in places playful.

The book is published by BOA Editions, an interesting and successful not-for-profit publishing house dedicated (as their mission statement says) to fostering "readership and appreciation of contemporary literature. By identifying, cultivating, and publishing both new and established poets and selecting authors of unique literary talent, BOA brings high quality literature to the public." The Hands of Strangers is being published as part of their "American Poets Continuum Series," a prestigious publication series which has in the past published Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning volumes as well as the works of a great many prominent poets (including our own Brigit Pegeen Kelly).

Here is a description of the book, pasted in from the BOA Editions website:

"Janice N. Harrington's debut collection, Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone, won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize Contest and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Now she returns with a tightly focused collection that never veers away from its subject matter: the inner-workings of a nursing home.

The Hands of Strangers portrays the tensions and moments of grace between aged nursing home residents and their healthcare workers. What does it mean to be a nurses’ aide in a nursing home, the lowest of the low, the typically-female worker who provides physical care for the devalued bodies of the elderly? What is it to live one’s remaining life on a county ward as an indigent elder? The poems show women in motion: they lift bodies, push wheelchairs, give treatments, and perform the myriad tasks of caretaking. The poems show aides as anonymous figures laboring under routines, time clocks, and a distant medical hierarchy. They tell also tell the stories of how the nursing home industry reshapes lives, bodies, and identities of both aides and the aged.

Janice N. Harrington's first job was working as a nurses’ aide while still in high school in the seventies. She says, 'Like many of the 'girls' I worked with, I was young and inexperienced in a workplace that demanded empathy, skill, and compassion for the needs and stories of the elderly. I worked my way through college as a nurses’ aide. I wrote The Hands of Strangers because I cannot forget the 'girls' I worked with or the 'residents' under my care. I haven’t forgotten what I saw, heard, felt, or learned. Human stories hide behind the walls, the national statistics, and the isolations of institutionalized aging. I wanted to share some of those stories.'"

Congratulations, Janice!

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