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. Jo Shapcott’s Of Mutability is one of these books.
The book’s achievement is to transform the vocabulary of discussions of cancer without ever using the word itself, whilst paying scrupulous attention to its effects on both mind and body. Of Mutability does not describe an event so much as offer the reader an experience, on a cellular level almost, without ever forgetting the primary concerns of art-making. It is wild and forensic, controlled and dreamlike, angry and celebratory.
Shapcott has gone on record as saying that she has not used the book to ‘chase her own ambulance’. This is true. I counted one mention of a doctor and only one of a surgery slab. Of Mutability is not a book about hospitals but is instead overwhelmingly one which celebrates the body. Readers of Shapcott’s previous work will not be surprised to discover mention of the following in its pages: hands, feet, cheeks, tear ducts, belly button, nipples, breasts, fists, ankles, wrists, hips, fingernails, lungs, brain, heart, mouth, ears, nose, eyes, tongue, skin and hair. It is also about ‘cellular madness’ and ‘proliferating cells’ and the weird experience of sensing physical change in microcospic detail:
I could feel the membranes
in my body tremble with the fluid
they contain, and the stately flow of lymph,
the faster pulse of blood. A boat’s engine
vibrated through land, through waves, through my feet
into my torso. Slow – slowly moving, I stepped on. (‘La Serenissima’)
As the above passage indicates, if the chief project of the book is the body, its chief metaphor is water. ‘My body’s / a drop of water’ she says in ‘Deft’. As if to prove it there follow depictions of fountains, bubbles, ‘antibubbles’, sweat, the Gulf Stream, urine and even a demythologised river Thames. The disruptive flow of meaning between these images can be disorienting as the speaker moves between awareness and apprehension in a new provisional reality:
The soap film is my skin:
permeable-for-some-things, membrane, separating-other-things,
this and that, the moving point between, the unsettled
limit, stretching and contracting under the breath
that comes and goes: I am this one, I am that one,
I breathe in and become everything I see. (‘Deft’)
Sometimes this fluid view of life is used for comic effect, as in ‘Tea Death’:
When he passed out into his tea
he expected to wake up with his nose
warm and wet, lungs topped up
with Earl Grey, snorting
tea leaves which would gather
in the distant networks
of his blood. It might be a relief
to drown that way and not
in the fine wine he’d ploughed
an expert front crawl through
all these years. At tea time.
One of the book’s great strengths is that, in spite of its subject matter, its seriousness is undercut with observations of how cancer is perceived by others (‘Everyone around me’s weeping’ says one poem) and how it changes all relationships, including those with the outside world: ‘Anything could be real in a country / where Red Kites were spreading east and now / we had February swallows’ (‘Era’). The most powerful of these comes towards the end of the book, in the poem ‘Composition’:
then eternity trembled
and my fingers smelled of garlic from before
and the window was smeary, the tea cups
wanted washing and the Gulf Stream
was slowing and O my hips
ached from sitting.
There is tacit admission here, absent from much of the literature on cancer, that domestic dishevelment and private pain will always trump World Events, even catastrophic ones such as climate change.
Some of the most memorable poems in the book do not concern the experience of cancer at all, but are about the poet’s ‘poor little auntie tugging / at the twigs of her dementia’. ‘Somewhat Unravelled’ begins ‘Auntie stands by the kettle, looking at the kettle / and says, help me, help me, where is the kettle?’ The poem takes the reader through the experience of ‘furniture-walk[ing] around the house, holding on to it’ and doing ‘the sideboard crawl like no one else’, vividly not sparing the reader’s blushes in its portrayal of the back and forth interplay of panic and clarity: ‘Don’t you ever want to sell your nail-clippings / online? She says, look at you, with all your language, / you never became the flower your mother / wanted but it’s not too late’. Readers familiar with Shapcott’s famous mad cow poems will detect a new note of sadness in the assumed voice of ‘Stargazer’:
I’m trying to keep this simple
in the time left to me:
luckily, it’s a slow
and selective degeneration.
I’m hoping, mainly, to stay present
and straight up despite
the wrong urge that’s taken hold,
to say everything,
all at once.
Of Mutability deserves to become that rare thing, an artwork that is feted, prized and popular in its time. It speaks to us in a moment when those of us touched by cancer will most likely outnumber those that will not, and does so in a manner that is never less than honest and always inventive. It is a book containing many and varied delights, not least the sequence of poems about trees (‘I Go Inside the Tree’, ‘My Oak’, ‘Cedar of Lebanon’, ‘Trasimeno Olive’ and ‘Cypress’). It is also a hymn of praise to London, from Vauxhall Cross to Heathrow, to ‘stalled commuter trains’ to St Bride’s church and the Gherkin. Of Mutability adds to our knowledge of cancer, but is ultimately more about life. As Julia Darling wrote in her poem ‘Chemotherapy’, it is a book which knows ‘the smallest things are gifts’. It acknowledges that life is untidy and that to acknowledge this is sometimes enough, as one would nod at a passing stranger:
all that mess
I don’t want to comb through here because
it seems, honestly, a trifle now that steam
and scent and strength and steep and infusion
say thank you thank you thank you for the then, and now (‘Procedure’).
You can watch Jo Shapcott’s interview about winning the Costa Prize for Of Mutability with Sarah Crown from the Guardian here.