Crabbit Old Woman
"Crabbit Old Woman", also variously titled "Look Closer", "Look Closer Nurse", "Kate", "Open Your Eyes" or "What Do You See?", is a poem written in 1966 by Phyllis McCormack, then working as a nurse in Sunnyside Hospital, Montrose. The poem is written in the voice of an old woman in a nursing home who is reflecting upon her life. Crabbit is Scots for "bad-tempered" or "grumpy".
The poem appeared in the Nursing Mirror in December 1972 without attribution. Phyllis McCormack explained in a letter to the journal that she wrote the poem in 1966 for her hospital newsletter.
This story was corroborated by an article from the Daily Mail on 12 March 1998, where Phyllis McCormack's son wrote that his mother composed it in the 1960s, when she submitted it anonymously with the title "Look Closer Nurse" to a small magazine intended just for Sunnyside.
The next year, the poem was published in Chris Searle's poetry anthology Elders (Reality Press, 1973), without title or attribution. Subsequently, a wealth of urban legend has sprung up surrounding this humble work. Most of the legend associated with this poem attributes it to a senile elderly woman in a Dundee nursing home (or sometimes an Irish nursing home), where a nurse found it while packing her belongings following her death. Searle himself was quoted in 1998 as saying of the poem's authorship: "I don't think we'll ever know. I accepted it as authentic." (i.e. as the authentic writing of an infirm old woman).
The poem, which paints a rather sad picture of a decrepit woman's final days in care, has been quoted in various works written for and about the caring professions in order to highlight the importance of maintaining the dignity of the lives of elderly patients. It is also included in the Edexcel IGCSE English Literature poetry anthology.
There has also "A Nurse's Response" that has been published on numerous sites, which has been attributed to an unnamed ward nurse and starts:
What do we see, you ask, what do we see? Yes we are thinking when we look at thee. We may seem to be hard when we hurry and fuss but there's many of you and too few of us. We would like far more time to sit by you and talk, To hear of your lives and the things you have done, your childhood, your husband, your daughter, your son.
This poem was written by Phyllis Mabel McCormack 30/06/1913--10/01/1994. Originally entitled "Look Closer" she wrote it in the early 1960s for publication in the Sunnyside Chronicle, which was a magazine produced by the staff of Sunnyside Royal Hospital for circulation within the hospital. She submitted it anonymously as she felt it was critical of some of her colleagues. A copy of the magazine was loaned to a patient in a nearby hospital, Ashludie near Dundee. Before returning the magazine, the old lady copied the poem out in her own handwriting and kept this copy in her bedside cabinet. When she died and the staff cleared her belongings, it was found and, as it was in her handwriting, it was assumed that she was the author. It was then given to the Sunday Post, a Dundee Sunday newspaper who then published it with the legend that still persists today. Thomson Press did very quickly post a correction but to no avail.
- Phyllis McCormack, "Look Closer".
- Joanna Bornat, "Empathy and stereotype: the work of a popular poem". "Perspectives on Dementia Care", 5th Annual Conference on Mental Health and Older People, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK, 3 November 2005.
- Foundations in Caring for Children
- "The easy wty with reritttrics". Nursing mirror and midwives journal (IPC Specialist and Professional Press) 136 (1-13): 9. 1973.
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