Earlier this year I ran a Poetry School course about poetry and health called Written on the Body. It was an attempt to connect my lifelong interest in poetry and my more recently acquired obsession with the language of cancer in our culture, specifically the clichés of ‘battles’ and ‘fighting’ the disease.
Towards the end of the course I thought it was important to look at some poems that tackled this issue by offering alternatives to this martial discourse. One of these was Alison Mosquera’s ‘Tamoxifen’ (from The Poetry Cure, eds. Julia Darling and Cynthia Fuller, Bloodaxe, 2005).
Uniquely in my experience of workshopping poems, it provoked an immediate cry of ‘Oh God!’ while I was still handing copies of the poem round the group. It is one of the unwritten rules of workshops that I conduct that no one is required at any point to discuss their personal lives or history: we discuss the poetry, not the biography. Nevertheless, I was intrigued.
The force and unmediated nature of this comment reminded me of a comment I once heard a preacher make about another, very different ‘Oh God’ moment in literature. The speaker chose as his text chapter 17 of John’s Gospel, with a concentrated focus on verse 1. The Last Supper now complete, Jesus starts to pray, beginning with the words ‘Oh God…’.
Normally, he said, we skate over this to get to the content, but he went at great lengths to say how this gutteral utterance was the main content of the prayer. The extraordinary tone of this moment, largely missing in translation, is one of grief and exhaustion. It was, he said, the poem we all pray in extremis: when we are lonely or diagnosed; when we come home to an empty house; when we have been abused or denied justice, whether we believe in God or not. He called it the ur-prayer of all humanity, recognised across religions and races and ethnicities. He said it was as near to pre-verbal utterance as prayer or poetry could get, a whole universe of suffering summed up in two syllables.
This is what I thought of as we discussed ‘Tamoxifen’ that evening. We had many brilliant things to say about it, not least its deadpan humour, controlled handling of natural speech, plus that amazing metaphor of the elephant. But in a way the main job of critiquing the poem, and speaking honestly about it, had already been done.
My doctor’s given me a massive can
of elephant repellent. I’m to spray
it, after washing, on my skin. It will
substantially reduce the risk, he says
of being trampled by an elephant
in Saville Row, The Side or Grainger Street.
I’m terrified of elephants, of course
but never have I seen one roam the streets
of Tyneside. That’s the point, my doctor says
as if their absence proves the potency
of elephant repellent. Problem is,
the spray’s a vivid blue and permanent
so I’d be branded like some miscreant –
my only crime, susceptibility
to elephant advances. Worst of all
I won’t be able to forget my plight.
And how can I be sure the spray will work?
And how long must I use the wretched stuff?
Five years…that long? What choices do I have?
I spray, and hope, and bear the mark, or risk
the onslaught of an errant elephant
one unsuspecting day. Well, thank you, doc
but no, I won’t be cowed: my life’s too short
to waste in fear. Five years is far too long,
the benefit does not outweigh the risk.
Instead I’ll stride out blithely every day
and if by chance I meet an elephant
perhaps I’ll have some peanuts in my bag
and as it’s said that they cannot resist
the taste of nuts, well, maybe I’ll survive.
From The Poetry Cure (eds. Julia Darling and Cynthia Fuller, Bloodaxe, 2005)