I began writing the Lifesaving Poems series of blog posts in May 2010. The idea was to celebrate the poems that I had spent the previous year copying by hand into a notebook. This is a personal anthology of arbitrary tastes and rules: to include a poem I had to be able to remember where I was when I first read or heard it; and I only allowed myself one poem per poet (yes, I know, William Blake got in with two).
Here are the Top Ten most popular poems visited on my site so far:
The connecting of the familiar and everyday to an abstract and real state of terror.
The poem which acted as a kind of gateway for me into the world of poetry.
The apparently unresolvable tension between pressing realities and the call of something other.
Redemption and healing in the art of making, speaking, listening to and reading poems.
‘The smallest things are gifts’
To write poetry, you need to be in relationship with poetry.
How far is an artist ever fully present in their inhabited circumstances and therefore necessarily prey to the guile required to craft poetry from experience?
I hold the poem in my hand, like a pebble turned over repeatedly, searching for solace, even as it grows dark.
Each participating poet had to recite from memory ten minutes of their poetry.
A beautifully paced reading, with proper peaks and troughs, moments of slapstick comedy followed by lyrical grace; towering rage followed by barehanded grief.
You can read the full list of Lifesaving Poems here
You can read the newest entry in the Lifesaving Poems series here
The chances are, more of us are mortal than have multiple orgasms -Violet Weingarten, Intimations of Mortality
When I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, in 2006, one of my first reactions was to try and find some books which described the new experience I found myself living through. These were very hard to find. The only one I had heard of, based on reading his Times columns some years previously, was John Diamond’s C: Because cowards get cancer too.
I was a little bit daunted by it, to be honest. For one thing, I knew how the story ended. For another, its status as a ‘classic’ preceded it, trumpeted by no less a personage than Melvyn Bragg on the front cover.
I needn’t have worried.
If such a thing exists, C is a triumphant account of disease. Ever the journalist, Diamond’s forensic prose pares away the clichés of cancer (the so-called ‘battles’, the offers of help from well-meaning friends), holds them up to the light, and finds them mostly wanting.
He is especially strong on the pitfalls of using war metaphor to describe cancer (‘If anyone can fight this, John can’ etc.) which is often used, unthinkingly in my view, the corollary of which links the patient’s chances of survival to their moral fibre. As I have said here before, this is balls. (If you want to find more on this line of thought, Love for Now, my journal-memoir of cancer is available now.)
John Diamond’s Snake Oil continues in much the same ultra-rational vein as its predecessor.
The first half is an unfinished tract which rails against the science of complementary medicine; the second half is a collection of pieces from the Times detailing the final stages of Diamond’s throat cancer. This contains one of my very favourite passages of English prose anywhere. Published on New Year’s Eve, 2000, ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ ends in a kind of extended prose-poem-list of gratitude hymning the pleasures of ordinary life:
‘It’s about the breakfast you’ve just had and the dinner you’re going to have. It’s about the random acts of kindness which still, magically, preponderate over acts of incivility or nastiness. It’s about rereading Great Expectations and about who’s going to win the 3.30 at Haydock Park. It’s about being able to watch old episodes of Frasier on satellite TV whenever we want, having the choice of three dozen breakfast cereals and seven brands of virgin olive oil at Sainsbury’s. It’s about loving and being loved, about doing the right thing, about one day being missed when we’re gone.’
John Diamond died on March 1, 2001.
In common with the rest of the books on this list, C and Snake Oil outstrip their grim subject matter. Their topic is cancer, but their subject is living.
Written in a different register entirely is Ulla-Carin Lindquist’s Rowing Without Oars. Beautifully translated into limpid English by Margaret Myers, the book tells the story of the final year of life, after diagnosis with ALS (motor neuron disease), of a Swedish TV reporter and ordinary mother-of-four.
It was given to me just as I reached the early stages of my own remission. If memory serves I read it a bit like a thriller, dreading the outcome, but unable to put it down. I read it cover to cover, twice, in back-to-back readings. It’s still the only book I have done this with.
Among the book’s many admirable qualities is its quietness. Although the effects of the disease it describes are never hidden from the reader, it is written with a spare and elegant authority, that at times borders on the aphoristic. ‘Your family is your Hawaii’, reads one memorable line. ‘You are not your disease’, says another.
Written with a passionate eye for detail, there are marvellous descriptions of all of life: children’s birthday parties, picnics, the changing seasons. Not least among these are the unflinching and unsentimental depictions of small differences in the way the author’s children begin to treat her, knowing she will soon die. I defy you not to be moved.
It is almost a commonplace to find in reviewers’ comments of books such as these that ‘they should change the way you live’.
Journalist Tom Lubbock worked as the art critic for the Independent. In the case of his extraordinary Until Further Notice, I am Alive the statement above is actually true. Like Rowing Without Oars it is written in real time, a journal account of living with an aggressive brain tumour. The tone throughout is wry, bemused, optimistic, reflective. This is a direct book, living in the circle of the final questions. It opens:
‘The news was death. And it wasn’t going to be maybe good luck and getting through it. It was definitely death, and quite soon, meaning a few years. And at first, it didn’t seem too bad.’
This is not an account of anger with cancer, or even with its metaphors. (In one passage Lubbock glides past the use of war metaphor as though it was the most obvious thing in the world to object it. Obviously I am against it, he says, ‘for Susan Sontag reasons’.)
You do not have to know Illness as Metaphor to appreciate the depth of Lubbock’s point. He is more interested in mounting a sustained metaphysical enquiry into what it means to live dependent upon language, not only in terms of making a living, but also for communicating the most basic of needs, including interacting with his young son.
While there are descriptions of hospitals and conversations with consultants and nurses this is an essentially interior book, spare, knowing, vulnerable and honest: ‘Remember: stay open to weakness. Be open to fear and humiliation and dependency. Be open to helplessness and help. Be prepared for the story to be long and indefinite’.
Mitch Albom’s bestselling Tuesdays With Morrie is the one book I have chosen not to have been written by the person who is doing the dying. It tells the story of the visits made by Albom to the house of his old college professor, Morrie Schwartz, in the final year of his life:
‘The last class of my old college professor’s life took place one a week in his house, by a window in the study where he could watch a small hibiscus place shed its pink leaves. The class met on Tuesdays. It began after breakfast. The subject was The Meaning of Life. It was taught from experience’.
Everything you need to know about the book’s procedures is contained in that short paragraph: the precise, conversational and apparently artless prose; the details from nature; the way these are used to show (not tell) the reader that time is short; the slightly serious tone undercut by knowing self-mockery.
As Morrie’s ALS progresses his conversations with the author become ever more focussed on the big questions: how do you live a good life? What can you do to gain happiness? What happens to us when we die?
In my view this is the book’s great contribution. Written with the lightest of touches it spirals around these essential themes with humour, wit and compassion. It’s message remains no less urgent for being told with such warmth: ‘The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy into it’.
I will always be in the debt of my friend Babs Short for introducing me to the poetry of Julia Darling. Six months before I was diagnosed with cancer she recommended her classic Sudden Collapses in Public Places. I read it cover to cover, a rarity for me in any case, and with poetry completely unheard of.
Among the book’s many qualities is the no-nonsense directness of the metaphors Darling uses, so much more creative than those of war and battles, to describe the effects on her body of her breast cancer and the methods used to treat it.
Thus, the speaker’s body becomes a house with a temporary extension, sleep is described as a friend she has fallen out with, the hospital a puzzled goddess. These are startling, fresh and not a little humorous.
As she says in her Introduction to The Poetry Cure poetry, through metaphor, can help us ‘step out of the difficult present …[and] establish a sense of control over the body’.
Quietly but never less than powerfully she challenges the status quo. ‘We know cancer is terrible,’ she seems to be saying, ‘but not enough to stop us talking.’ Thus, in the poem ‘Chemotherapy‘, she is able to say ‘the smallest things are gifts’. This was a revelation to me, in that it opened up the possibility of positive thinking on the subject, of change, even.
When my treatment for cancer had finished and I was told by doctors I had reached remission, I made a beeline for this and Julia Darling’s other book of poems on the topic of cancer, Apology for Absence. It is slightly wider in scope than its predecessor, a tad more mournful, the smile more wry and disconcerting.
The territory is the same, but the ground is suffused with the sadness of needing to savour every last detail. As before there are poems of hospitals, treatment rooms and nurses; but also surreal flights of fancy (‘My Thumb in Leeds’, ‘When I Was Healthy Things Were Often Yellow’); and great tenderness (‘Listening to Jack Listening to Music’, ‘My Daughters Reading in May’).
Ruth Padel has said the book ‘crackles with joy in living and loving’. I would say this is true of both of Darling’s books. I cannot underestimate the influence they had on me. Without them I would not have begun to find and use a language to describe my own experience of cancer in Riddance. In gratitude, if I ever win the lottery, I intend to ensure there copies of each will be placed in waiting rooms across the land.
Not as well known as it ought to be, on this side of the Atlantic at least, this is the only other book, with John Diamond’s C that stood up to being read while I was having my chemotherapy infusions. (Similar to banning war metaphor, I am beginning to think about mounting a campaign to do away with the phrase ‘chemotherapy infusions’: it makes it sound like a cup of herbal tea, when it is anything but).
I first read about Intimations of Mortality in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Lamott rightly holds it up as an example of telling the truth under duress. I do not think this can be overestimated. Written in 1975, at a time when treatment for breast cancer was not as advanced as it is today, Weingarten presents a day-by-day account of her ‘two-year battle with cancer’ as the blurb puts it. She died in the summer of 1976, just after the publication of her fourth novel, Half a Marriage. Intimations of Mortality was published in 1978, two years later.
Chief among the book’s qualities is Weingarten’s sardonic self-awareness. This is what prevents the harrowing material from descending into mawkishness or sentimentality:
‘This is the jerkiest journal of all time. Meanwhile Vietnam falls.’
This awareness permeates the writing on another level. ‘It is time to stop proving things’ Weingarten says as her treatment starts. This hard-won wisdom mirrors to the reader what happens when the self and all its attendant ambitions, neuroses and obsessions is brutally stripped away of the comforts of the energy they bring. This unlooked-for paring back is common to all of these books, but I think Weingarten did it first. In her honour I have used the quote at the top of this page as an epigraph to Love for Now.
Riddance is published today.
It is my fourth full-length collection of poems and my third with Worple Press. You can buy it direct from me by using the large Paypal button on the front of this site.
Here is an edited version of the Introduction at the front of the book.
I was formally diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, on Valentine’s Day, 2006. I was 42.
The poems in Riddance concern my experience of diagnosis, treatment, misdiagnosis of relapse and remission of and from this increasingly common disease.
I did not begin writing the poems in this book until my treatment for it was nearly complete, in September 2006. It is no accident that this coincided with being able to concentrate again on previously taken-for-granted tasks, such as reading.
Any number of books explain from scientific and personal perspectives what happens when an individual is diagnosed with cancer, but this is not the same thing as describing the truth for the individual who is experiencing it. This is often found in more unexpected places: a nurse’s joke as she begins to inject you; a tin of brownies left on the doorstep by a friend; the offer of a lift by a neighbour. Not all of these things appeared in the accounts of cancer that I read before my course of chemotherapy removed my ability to concentrate.
I vowed when my treatment ended not to write but to read again.
Among my favourite books as I rediscovered the pleasure of reading were Julia Darling’s two collections of poetry, Sudden Collapses in Public Places (2003), and Apology for Absence (2004) (both published by Arc). Here at last was a voice I could trust, speaking directly with warmth, wit and a wry mordant humour. Here were poems – yes – about waiting rooms and treatment tables, but also about the joys of listening to Joni Mitchell and sitting in cafés. (Cancer can include these things too).
As I began to recover from my treatment and gain some kind of distance from my experience I felt compelled, emboldened by Darling’s example, to seek out metaphors which challenged and subverted the everyday discourse used to describe the disease. Some, the (to me, unhelpful) idea of cancer as a battle (‘I am Fighting’, ‘Probably Nothing’), I had heard used, and used myself, before I was ill. Others, such as the idea of winning and losing (‘More Chelsea Than Sunderland’, ‘Acceptance’), I came across serendipitously as it were, in the stories of friends. Other aspects of cancer are explored in the metaphors of transmutation (‘Heads’, ‘Man in a Fleece’); a doomed relationship (‘The End of the Affair’); and reincarnation (‘I am Becoming My Grandmother’).
Part Two of Riddance is a long poem in memory of my friend Lucy Mason. Lucy was a designer and maker of textile wall-hangings. She was diagnosed with lung cancer a few weeks before I was informed of my own remission. ‘All Lives, All Dances, All is Loud’ is the title of one of Lucy’s final pieces, and takes its title from a forager’s song from the part of Devon where Lucy lived.
The poems in Part Three of Riddance were written mostly in 2007, as ‘normal’ life returned. Some were started during the intense period of writing that yielded ‘The Year of Drinking Water’. Looking at these poems again, I am struck by how many of them deal with the borderlands between different landscapes. Again, I do not think this is surprising: it is quite common to read in the accounts of former cancer patients descriptions of it as a terrain or territory with its own rules and customs which are just as fixed as those found in the so-called ‘real’ world. The changes in the body, reflected in the natural world, become a space where symbol and reality meet, merge and finally dissolve.
When I began writing these poems the experience I had was one of surprise: I had thought that I had finished writing about my cancer, that there was nothing left to say on the subject.
This is also what I felt while writing the poems in the fourth section of the book, which begins on ‘estuary sands’ in that uncertain space connecting land, sea and sky. These poems share similar features in that they are very short, do not have titles and recursively explore the liminal terrain between waking and dreaming, work and family, light and dark. They were not written with any particular objective in mind, least of all to plot a linear narrative. Written (again at great speed) during a period of intense pressure at my place of work, I had no sense as I began writing them of the oblique map they make of the tentative territory of remission. Indeed, I thought they formed the start of a new collection of work altogether. I am indebted to Peter Carpenter for his patience as he helped me realise the potential contribution of this section to the book as a whole.
Some of the poems contained in the final section of the book were started in note-form before I was ill. These include ‘At Villars’, ‘Golf at Hawick’, ‘Against Realism’, ‘On His Last Ever Drop of Teacher’s’ and ‘Reasons for Life’. Reacquainting myself with them once I was better became a debt of honour to the vocation of writing poetry; I had no real ambitions for them other than to ‘finish’ them to the best of my ability. They have been placed at the end of this collection because, alongside some newer poems, they are an attempt to recover and celebrate all that seems most essential and affirming about the act of living.
You can read some early reviews of Riddance here.
I was astonished to find in an old diary today that by 8 March 2006, less than one month after I was diagnosed with cancer, I had already been given two infusions of chemotherapy. The speed of the cycles of my particular treatment was due to my successful volunteering to take part in a randomised control trial testing the efficacy of a cycle of 14 days against 21 days, or, in the jargon, ‘CHOP-R 14 vs 21′.
It is odd what you remember. The twenty tiny cherry-red pills I had to swallow with milk during for five days after each infusion. (These were steroids. They were deeply un-fun, let me tell you). The Piriton chaser injection just ahead of the main infusion, ‘to send you away with the fairies, my lover’, as one nurse put it. She wasn’t wrong.
Most of all I remember the swathes of bright blue clothing every nurse had to wrap themselves in each time they began the course of injections. When I asked why this was necessary I was told it was because the chemicals were so poisonous they would burn through ordinary clothing if spilt. ‘And to clean it up we would have to shut the whole ward down. For a day.’
Mostly I looked forward to being away with the fairies.
I had come across Julia Darling’s marvellous poem ‘Chemotherapy’ nearly a year before I fully understood what she was talking about. There is not much I need to add to it, except to say I think ‘the smallest things are gifts’ sums up for me the entire universe of pain, gratitude, suffering, relief, anxiety and humour which the word ‘cancer’ registers in me.
I did not imagine being bald
at forty four. I didn’t have a plan.
Perhaps a scar or two from growing old,
hot flushes. I’d sit fluttering a fan.
But I am bald, and hardly ever walk
by day, I’m the invalid of these rooms.
stirring soups, awake in the half dark,
not answering the phone when it rings.
I never thought that life could get this small,
that I would care so much about a cup,
the taste of tea, the texture of a shawl,
and whether or not I should get up.
I’m not unhappy. I have learnt to drift
and sip. The smallest things are gifts.
from Sudden Collapses in Public Places (Arc, 2003)
I did not come across Psalm 102 (‘A prayer of an afflicted man. When he is faint and pours out his lament before the Lord’) until some after my treatment had ended. Again, I do not think it needs much explication. My first reaction to it was -how did the psalmist know how to describe the bodily reaction to chemotherapy thousands of years before it was invented?
Hear my prayer, O Lord;
let my cry for help come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me;
when I call, answer me quickly.
For my days vanish like smoke;
my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
I forget to eat my food.
Because of my loud groaning
I am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a housetop.
With grateful thanks and acknowledgement to the family and estate of Julia Darling.