As I say in my full length review of Jo Shapcott’s Of Mutability, really good books about cancer are rare. Really great books about cancer, the ones that offer new perspectives and change the language with which we discuss the disease, are even rarer.
Of Mutability is one of these books.
I came across ‘Era’ in reviewing Of Mutability for The North magazine in 2010. I began reading the book as news about it was beginning to spread. By the time my review was published it had won the Costa Book of the year.
What struck me about the book, and why it will go on being so special, is the deliberate and cool detachment with which it is written. In one of the interviews she gave on winning the Costa, Shapcott was at pains to remind readers she was not an autobiographical writer ‘to a point’. I think this helps explain why the Costa judges prized Of Mutability as a ‘paean to creativity’, over and above its deft handling of the difficult subject matter of cancer, a word the book never uses.
Readers will be aware, therefore, that Shapcott has never been a poet who bursts into the waiting room shouting about her issues and drawing attention to herself. And yet it is impossible not to talk about Of Mutability in the context of cancer, even though the book, like all great books, finally outstrips its subject matter.
‘Era’ is the closest the book comes to putting on record what Thom Gunn called ‘the sniff of the real’ of what it is like to be treated for cancer. And yet the poem is not really ‘about’ that at all. The date in the first line and the ‘frontiers’ in the last refer to Iraq: 2003 may have been a monumental year in the life of the speaker, but we are not allowed to forget that those ‘jet trails’, like those ‘not far enough overhead’ in London, brought and continue to bring dire consequences.
The ‘squabbling’ magpies, chemical fountains and traffic ‘like crazy fish, with teeth’ all presage more intimate transformations in the body. The speaker is admirably clear-eyed about this: it is a poem of ‘goodbye’ to things as they are. The implication is there will be no return to normal.
This tender-yet-tough tone runs throughout the collection as a whole. If you do not own a copy, I urge you to get your hands on one now. It takes a special kind of sensibility to link unasked-for changes in the body to global issues of the kind we find here, not least that of climate change, with ‘red kites’ ‘spreading east’ and ‘February swallows’. The poem closes with a question but does not answer it. We leave the speaker poised on the edge of a new frontier, heading towards ‘those other places’, determined yet fragile, about to shed everything, ‘over there’.
The twenty-second day of March two thousand and three
I left home shortly after eight thirty
on foot towards the City. I said goodbye
to the outside of my body: I was going in.
The magpies were squabbling in the park.
The little fountain splashed chemical bubbles
over its lip. Traffic swarmed and swam
round Vauxhall Cross, like crazy fish, with teeth.
And anything could be real in a country
where red kites were spreading east and now
we had February swallows. Planes for Heathrow
roared not far enough overhead, shedding
jet trails which pointed over there: those other
places where all the frontiers end with a question.
Jo Shapcott, from Of Mutability