I initiated a conversation in poetry (and via email) with a friend who was diagnosed with the early stages of breast cancer and who went through some brutal and fast surgery to remove it. The speed of the surgeon’s knife threw me off balance and I found myself struggling to make sense of what I as her friend was feeling as I was also trying to understand not only what she was dealing with, but also what she was thinking and feeling about it. It was clear from the few words spoken that we were thinking very different things. This silence provoked me to resort to poetry and then once written it felt like it could be a link with her, also a poet. I sent off the first poem-in-an-email in a state of fairly high anxiety and then waited; it took a little while, but I got a thrilling reply, and those words enlightened but also challenged, and so I had to think again, and I did and sent that too, and then another reply, also challenging. Once we had got going, it was difficult to tell where the end to the ping pong should be. But I think it came when we were talking again (often about poetry rather than cancer) and the great pressure of what lay between us had diminished.
I asked her to think about why it had worked so well for both of us as writers. She said:
“When Anthea invited me to play poetry tennis via email, I reached for my e-racket immediately. As a friend, I was thrilled that she was refusing to give up trying to communicate with me and had found a way worth trying. As a writer, I was intrigued by her idea and eager to explore a new route to a familiar destination.
“Some of the things the process revealed to me:
- Because email is a prosaic part of life, it presents a lower barrier to thoughts wanting to reach the page
- Because email puts me at a moderate remove from the correspondent (those searching brown eyes are not directly in front of me), I am less inhibited about what I say
- Because I never know when her email is going to land, I don’t have time to get into ‘writing mode’ or ‘thinking mode’ or any mode other than receive-and-respond
- Because the conversation has built-in time lapses, it takes sudden turns which offer a constant source of surprise and therefore of opportunity
“Because of all these things, I had a conversation about my breast cancer that led me to several new places. Not one of them was a familiar destination. What a relief.”
And here’s the writing it generated:
“I have cancer,” she said, clearly, strongly
after a series of Mondays
in which she went from a
mammogram, to a
lumpectomy, to a
mastectomy and then was
I didn’t want to disagree
(knowing it was part of the therapy)
But I wanted to argue:
How can you have cancer
For 3 (or 4) weeks?
You don’t know. You know.
(What do you know?)
They act (like the US laying into Iraq and blasting every sand hill just in case – your words).
It’s done. It’s gone.
The surgeon wipes his hands of the in situ cells.
Is this cancer in 2011?
Or just the cleanest (kindest) sort?
“How are you?” they ask,
not knowing. Or, quite possibly,
knowing very well.
“Fine!” I reply,
not knowing either. Or, very possibly,
knowing all too well.
(For I knew, all along, in that place one knows without knowing, that I knew)
And then I add, for clarity,
“Fine… except for the cancer!”
Which allows us both to laugh,
which allows us both to feel better.
There’s at least one more chapter of Monday
before my story – the public edition of my story – can end.
The next chapter of Monday is
This Monday this
mobile site of violence
with a new commander
whether he does or whether he doesn’t
finger the button
cancer in 2011 amounts to warfare
the sand dune has been flattened
so it’s impossible to say how clean the fight has been
I usually carry around my own two breasts
I wash around and under them
dry around and under them
I put on bras
take off bras
sometimes (often times) readjust bras
often go without bras
Mostly I forget them
They’ve ceased to interest me at all
It’s only when other perkier breasts are around me (as there sometimes often are)
I remember that they peaked
a long time ago
I haven’t done mammograms
(I used to do pap smears)
I don’t know how I got so wilful about denying medical science the right to tell me what to do
And even now when my friend has discovered there’s a terrorist in her tit
I’m hopelessly ambivalent
All flat now
where once (often) wonder rose
so flat that
out of the slaughter
not even a dim outline survives
in eye of mind, memory’s home,
Now, across the flatland
hands untrained in looking
fail to see new beauty
and, unheeding and unfeeling,
Over the bump (in life).
Over the lump (of death).
Death came close and receded
leered and breathed and threatened,
On that day we gathered in the windy garden –
not quite summer, and stormy
huddled against an old stone wall
in the gap before
eating cakes with mammary names (jokingly, provokingly) –
I looked across at you
being casual, being light, being with us
and I saw your death,
or rather your death to us,
the space between the Gill I had had
the Gill I now had
the person walking away from us
the person I couldn’t weigh down with my shock and questions
the person walking into the blinding light, the trust of unconsciousness, the cut and the scarred resurrection.
The drought ends in a squall
Lines land on me –
rain on blind ground
How could I not have seen?
I live in
your lines and out
your lines and so
inside the lines and out –
The resurrection is complete
I live on
I live between the lines
and through them
living’s what I like
Resurrection following insurrection
in the shade cast by silence
resurrection felt its way
reached through my skin
drummed down my blood
and skittled my bones
Then, like a cowboy, it burst out
and spread daisies in my brain