I have written before that there are a wide range of reasons for including the poems I have in my Lifesaving Poems series.
Some of the poems I came across at school, and acted as a kind of gateway to the world of poetry and what it could do. Some I came across on recommendation of others, in reviews, or by word of mouth. Some of the poems remind me of friends to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for immeasurably improving my life, through their friendship and writing.
Some of the poems I came across entirely on my own.
My hunch is that the social contract we forge with each other when sharing poems, whether in person, or on email, or on blogs, is vastly underrated as a mechanism for cultural transformation, in this country at least (as a working academic I should really back up this kind of thinking with at least one reference to a recent research survey giving chapter and verse). There’s a lovely description of the kind of thing I am talking about in Seamus Heaney’s essay ‘The Impact of Translation’. In it he describes being shown a translation of a Czeslaw Milosz poem for the first time by Robert Pinsky.
There is a kind of religious, ‘conspiratorial’ hush about it, at once private and communal, and it seems to reach into spaces we all carry that are non-verbal, or pretty much that way for most of the time.
All of this came back to me last weekend as I prepared for my Poetry School course by typing out Galway Kinnell’s marvellous poem ‘St Francis and the Sow’. I was first shown it in much the way Heaney describes, by Jean Sprackland, at the Arvon Foundation’s writing centre at Totleigh Barton.
That week we had given our group a pre-course task, of bringing to the course one book of poems they felt passionate about, to share and discuss with others. Jean brought Kinnell’s Bloodaxe Selected. I had not seen it or the poem before.
My initial reaction to it was one of surprise and great fondness. I loved that it dared to hymn unlovely subject matter. I loved its complete self-absorption in the living moment of description. I loved that it did not seem to care a hoot what I thought about it.
Reading it again now, I think daring is not far from the mark. It seems to take two very distinct strains of American poetry, beginning in didacticism and ending with tender praise, and blends them without one overshadowing the other. That is both risky and skillful. Poems that do that usually fall flat on their backsides, while this one achieves liftoff and in plain sight.
But it is in more than admiration that I come to this poem. It is ‘about’ a sow, and the sowiness of sows, returning us the earthy facts of the matter with both precision and exultation. I happen to think it is just as much about teaching and suffering, and the counter-cultural energy that is released when we choose to utter praise. As one of my Poetry School group remarked last night when I shared it with them, the poem enacts its own meaning, flowering into ‘self-blessing’ like the ‘bud’ it describes, in spite of its ‘broken heart’ and ‘creased forehead’.
If that is not a miracle, I don’t know what is.
Saint Francis and the Sow
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and
blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
Galway Kinnell, from Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2001)
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.
I fell in love with the poetry of Mark Strand via the enthusiasm of Rupert Loydell sometime in the late 90′s. Every time I bumped into him, it seemed, he would impress upon me why I needed to buy Strand’s Selected Poems and right now, what the hell was I thinking of not owning it? (This is consistent with much of what Rupert used to say to me in that a) it would often come in the form of a bollocking and b) it contained much wisdom, had I ears to hear it). As I understand young people are given to say, good times.
I owe Rupert a great deal for his championing, not least for the gift, from one of his trips to the US, of Strand’s Dark Harbor, as mesmerising and beautiful a book-length sequence of poems as you will find. Not that I would have known it: ‘It’s no good really,’ he told me, as he handed it to me, ‘but you should still have it.’
So I gave in and bought the Selected and fell in love again and the rest is history.
What I love about Strand’s work is its immersion of the reader in both the everyday and the mysterious. His poems are populated by speakers who are suddenly knocked sideways by the ineffable. Perching on thresholds of grief, separation, restlessness and solitude his characters seem to plunge into new layers of understanding about their lives in dreamy voices audible as whispers.
This is true of ‘A Morning’, I think, bringing to us that ‘deep down sense of things’, to borrow from Hopkins, both at the conscious level of thinking and experience, and that ‘drowned other half of the world’. There is a clotted Hopkinsian relish in the watery plash of syllable and sibilance in the lines:
Small waves splashed against the hull
and the hollow creak of oarlock and oar
rose into the woods of black pine crusted with lichen.
The brilliant transparency of the lines that follow it remind me of Seamus Heaney’s fishing boat poem of ‘seeable-down-into-water’, ‘Seeing Things’. They also bring to mind that other great poet of submergence and emergence, Tomas Tranströmer: ‘I moved like a dark star, drifting over the drowned/other half of the world’.
The poem’s final line is also worthy of Tranströmer at his best, recalling his famous poem of solitude, ‘Alone‘. I wonder if this is not the secret desire of every poet, to answer the call of ‘distant promptings’ where we arrive at and capture places stripped clean of both language and experience, and which hint at our pre-verbal and inmost selves, without fully revealing them.
I have carried it with me each day: that morning I took
my uncle’s boat from the brown water cover
and headed for Mosher Island.
Small waves splashed against the hull
and the hollow creak of oarlock and oar
rose into the woods of black pine crusted with lichen.
I moved like a dark star, drifting over the drowned
other half of the world until, by a distant prompting,
I looked over the gunwale and saw beneath the surface
a luminous room, a light-filled grave, saw for the first time
the one clear place given to us when we are alone.
Mark Strand, from Selected Poems (1995)
Lifesaving Poems: Tomas Tranströmer’s ‘Alone’
I absolutely love this poem by Andy Brown. I am not sure when I read or heard it first. Possibly at one of Andy’s readings in Exeter. Possibly in draft form at the writers’ group we used to belong to.
To paraphrase what Kenneth Koch said on hearing Frank O’Hara’s poems for the first time, there is nothing in it I do not like. Plus, I am a sucker for a good list poem.
There is so much pleasure in this poem. It makes me glad to be alive and to want to continue being so. I think I am secretly jealous of the line ‘birch trees/like Elizabethan ladies/painted white’. I see pallid skin, fragility, the effort of keeping up appearances. Most of all it makes me see both objects in a fresh way. Brilliant.
It conjures for me perfect these liminal not-quite-here days of sunshine, warmth, sudden cold and increasing daylight.
If you do not know Goose Music (Salt, 2008), from which this poem comes, you should get your hands on it now.
There is nothing here which does not read completely freshly. Nothing that does not feel minutely observed, felt and processed from a core of complete respect for the world.
Prayer/Why I am Happy to be in the City this Spring
for creepers etched
across a wall
like the marble veins
on David’s hands;
for the lichen, moss
and granite blocks
of the city’s ancient
for the empty paint pots,
loose blue string
and slightly sparkling
discarded in the bushes,
its dregs -quite still-
we’re only passing through;
for a builder’s skip
of silver crucifixes;
for sunlight on
the golden rooster
of a weathervane;
for a metal dragon
to tingling cash
outside the new cafe;
for students drinking coffee -
their notes taking off
in the wind;
for bird song
when a door slams;
for birch trees
like Elizabethan ladies
for the burgeoning stems
of Aloe Vera
in municipal gardens
like chubby children
for water in a concrete pond;
for buttercups emerging
through drain holes;
for garden planters
standing bare all winter,
for distant hills;
for the balm of a snail’s track
on galvanised railings
for this ongoing twilight
over our new home
and through it
the relief of seeing
from Goose Music (Salt, 2008)
Image courtesy of Spacex Gallery