Being cured of cancer last year gave me a powerful sense of priorities. It seems that keeping up with this blog wasn’t one of them . . . Instead, in between a short course of radiotherapy and an unexpected return to hospital to treat a broken ankle (!), I’ve thrown myself into book production mode. Currently I’m finishing the final volume of The Gaia Chronicles for Jo Fletcher Books and editing an anthology of Palestinian poetry in translation for Smokestack Books, both of which will appear at the end of the year. In the spring I spent six weeks editing two collections for Waterloo Press, Disappearance without absence/Desapariencia no engaña by the Argentine poet Néstor Ponce, translated by Max Ubelaker Andrade, and Gratitude on the Coast of Death, David Swann’s long-awaited second collection, which were published along with No Enemy but Time, my new pamphlet which I launched at the Belfast Book Festival in June. Launches for the two collections are being planned for the autumn, so I’ll save that fanfare, and for now just officially introduce my own new title.
No Enemy but Time is my tribute to my close friend, the Northern Irish poet, journalist and cultural activist Mairtín Crawford (1967-2004), and his quietly remarkable mother Flo (1939-2011). The pamphlet contains a sequence of poems in memory of Mairtín, most written in the wake of his sudden death; and what I have called ‘Some Loose Aislingi’ or ‘vision poems’ – a traditional genre in which a woman symbolises a dream of Ireland. The title of the pamphlet is a phrase from the W.B. Yeats poem ‘In Memory of Eva Gore Booth and Con Markiewicz’, and my aislingi include a lyrical response from the famous sisters, rebuking his denigration of their political work; as well as an homage to the linnet, a reflection on the Belfast peace process, and an oral history of the Falls Rd and the Troubles, as told to me by Flo.
The pamphlet was clearly many years in the brewing, and time did seem set against it for a while – I’d initially hoped to publish the poems for the tenth anniversary of Mairtín’s death, but the then-Irish publisher got sold, the poems languished, the momentum was lost, and then I got sick. Although I wrote a sequence of cancer poems during my treatment, as I recovered I felt an urgent need to bring these old poems into the light. My faithful collaborator John Luke Chapman – with whom I’d once co-authored a literary manifesto Mairtín published in his legendary magazine The Big Spoon – created a stunning cover photograph, and some more poems flowed. Then lo, just as I was preparing to ask Northern Irish poet Moyra Donaldson for a back cover quote, she emailed to tell me that the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast had just established the Mairtín Crawford Award, a prize designed to do what he did in his teaching, editing and festival directorships – encourage new poets. Although I was on crutches from my broken ankle, with the help of EasyJet special assistance, and time my friend again at last, I was honoured to launch No Enemy but Time at the prize-giving ceremony, where Mairtín’s friends read his own tender, playful and exuberant work, and the worthy winner, Rosamund Taylor, debuted her exquisite poems.
I hadn’t been to Belfast since 2010, and it was my first time back since Flo’s death. It was an emotional visit, that stirred some painful memories, but also deepened my connection to the city that Mairtín had first guided me through in 1994, the summer that my mother died. The poems about our relationship excavate layers of personal and political history, cross the ocean to Canada and New York, and ultimately look to the stars – Mairtín was an idealist and a futurist, an agitator and rebel who pushed every boundary out into the cosmos. It was heartening to hear from his friends that my poems brought them some closure and comfort, and I hope they also convey something of his magic to those who didn’t know him.
You were known for being obsessed
scored an arts grant to visit NASA,
sat in the cockpits of rockets;
wrote poems about Jupiter
and UFOs, Moonmen and Mir;
worried about asteroids
falling on our heads.
I read your cover story
― ‘Belfast Astronomers on Red Alert’ ―
foolishly believed myself
a little safer on the Earth.
No Enemy but Time (Waterloo Press) is available at The Crescent Arts Centre, on Amazon, or email me (email@example.com) to arrange postal or hand delivery.
What a year. When it comes to traumas we’re spoiled for choice, but as Amnesty International and Greenpeace remind us, 2016 also brought many victories for humanity and the planet. Here at home, I’ve been celebrating the official All Clear, which clear as a bell, arrived with impeccable timing on Dec 23rd. I’ve still got follow-treatments to come, but to bid farewell to cancer, I’m looking back on ten books that have enriched my journey thus far through the ‘kingdom of the sick’. What should you read during chemotherapy? I like to laugh, sure, but in my frail state I also wanted to see my suffering and that of the world reflected with compassion and insight. Thus the themes of illness, migration and climate change flow through this list of poetry, essays and fiction.
Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott (Faber and Faber, 2011). Spending five months on the strongest drugs Western medicine has to offer, it was hard to concentrate sometimes, but I took as my motto a line from Julia Darling’s poem ‘Chemotherapy’: ‘I have learned to drift and sip’. And thus in the stark nights of chemic insomnia I read poetry, sipping of its beauty and truth. This Costa Award-winning collection treats subjects ranging through breast cancer, war and modern architecture, Shapcott’s deft allusive touch encompassing the world with airy room for the imagination to fly. The wonderful extended metaphor of ‘Uncertainty is a Not a Good Dog’ – no, it rushes ahead and rolls in the mud! – helped me accept the new psychological terrain I had just entered. I can get a little frustrated (understatement!) with English understatement, but sometimes the problem is with readers, not the poet. The Guardian reviewer didn’t get the answer to Shapcott’s ‘Riddle’, which you didn’t need to have had chemotherapy to solve – it was placed opposite a poem called ‘Bald’.
Excisions by Clare Best (Waterloo Press, 2011). Aware she was carrying the gene for breast cancer, Clare Best had an elective double mastectomy in her forties and declined reconstruction. Instead, tracing her journey in graceful, lucid poems, while fully acknowledging her grief at losing her ‘sentenced flesh’, she embraced the opportunity to lie closer to the earth, and feel her heart beat closer to her husband’s. I helped edit this book for Waterloo Press, and had seen photographs of Clare’s serene new shape. Having the imprint of her experience in my mind helped me to accept the possibility of mastectomy, and I turned again to the book immediately after my diagnosis. I can’t quote more because I recently gave my copy away to another woman contemplating elective surgery, but writing this blog reminds me to reorder it for myself – an essential title for my library.
Writing My Way Through Cancer by Myra Schneider (Jessica Kingsley, 2003). Combining a journal of the author’s experience with breast cancer with her own poems and writing exercises, this sensitive and rakingly honest book helped calm my own struggles with anxiety, and encouraged me to move between experience and vision in my own poems about the illness. Although I didn’t in the end need a mastectomy, it was encouraging to read of Schneider’s journey to acceptance of her new ‘Amazon’ shape. And I loved her poem ‘Choosing Yellow’, which in ranging the spectrum of this colour of sunshine and jaundice, gloriously evokes the paradox of coping with cancer: ‘a bittersweet colour / which feeds emptiness in the middle of the night, / a state of mind that refuses fear.’
The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde (Aunt Lute Books, 2007) This collection of essays by the late African-American poet Audre Lorde, who died of breast cancer in 1992 fourteen years after her diagnosis, was invigorating, bracing and sobering to read. Lorde, like my late mother (who died of colon cancer in 1992) had a mastectomy but refused chemotherapy: while I respect everyone’s right to choose their own treatment, as someone who was helped far more than harmed by chemo I can’t help but wonder if, even though far more arduous in the nineties, it might have helped them both survive. But cancer is a personal journey, and seeking alternative treatment in Germany, Lorde trod her path with famous dignity, eloquence and leadership. Refusing reconstruction because she didn’t want to deny her encounter with mortality, or conform to cultural norms of female beauty she didn’t, as a Black Lesbian identify with, Lorde challenged the medical establishment in important ways. When being prepped for a possible mastectomy, I’d been told that silicon implants can impede the effectiveness of breast cancer drugs, and when I read that Lorde was told by a nurse to wear a softie next time she came to the clinic because the sight of her asymmetry was ‘bad for morale’, I completely felt her rage. I also fully understood how her decision to own her scar empowered her: “Yet once I face death as a life process,’ she wrote, ‘what is there possibly left for me to fear? Who can ever really have power over me again?”
Becoming Earth by Eva Saulitis (Boreal Books, 2016). These autobiographical essays by a marine biologist about breast cancer and nature were another difficult read at times: knowing that the book didn’t have a happy ending, and being unsure what direction my own treatment was taking me in, I had to take long breaks between sections. But I was always drawn back to Saulitis’s fiercely delicate reflections, ranging from her youth in her home state of Michigan, where she grew up feasting on pesticide-coated fruit; and her work in Alaska, where she and husband observed a pod of orcas that hasn’t calved since the Exxon Valdez oil spill; to her own body in its state of rapid decay. Thanks perhaps to Saulitis’s involvement with Buddhism, the dominant mood is not anger, though, but elegy and acceptance. Whatever its cause, cancer, an overgrowth of cells, is not itself a pollutant but an entirely natural process – an insight Saulitis evokes in the image of a glut of dead salmon. “We have no dominion over what the world will do to us,” she wrote. “We have no dominion over the wild darkness that surrounds us.… Death is nature. Nature is far from over . . . In the end—I must believe it—just like a salmon, I will know how to die, and though I die, though I lose my life, nature wins. Nature endures. It is strange, and it is hard, but it’s comfort, and I’ll take it.”
Mood Indigo by Wendy Klein (Oversteps Books, 2016). As you can imagine, I quite often wanted an escape from cancer stories, and this collection beguiled me with its tender family truths, and restful long lines. In its careful respect for a temperamentally sensitive father, there is a touch of Robert Lowell about Klein’s sequence ‘Seen From Below’. Her highly regarded political poetry is well-represented here, but poems rooted in personal history also have a global reach: ‘Tisch’ unpacks a word that will keep a family ‘. . . stuck together / when the bombs begin to fall.’ As a writer of the long poem myself, I also much admire the way Klein summons mystery from her wealth of well-orchestrated detail – keeping up a rhythmic soft-shoe between her lyric and narrative impulses.
Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen (Penguin, 2007). I wasn’t grief-stricken by Cohen’s death – he achieved a great age and had lived a charmed life. But in paying my respects and expressing my affection, I turned to his poems as well as his songs. Sometimes this book annoyed me – with his obsessive pen-and-ink self-portraits and endless lamentations over unattainable young women Cohen seemed too content to milk the myth of the solitary male genius, refusing his Muse greater empathy with a wider humanity. But then he rises to the summits of ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’, a song that always makes me think of my mother, or attains the simplicity of ‘Mission’, a poem that could be his own eulogy. Cohen being the first to ruefully acknowledge his own flaws, this book ultimately makes loneliness, baldness and poetry seem worthwhile endeavours – all very reassuring for a single writer on chemo. Plus ‘Something from the Early Seventies’ was hilarious!
White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, translated by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (Peirene Press, 2015). Emily Jeremiah, a friend from my MA I worked with at Waterloo Press on her Finnish poetry translations, achieved great success with this short novel, which was long-listed for the Man Booker International this year. It deserved it. A spare translation of a historical novel about the 1867 famine in Finland, in its harrowing portrayal of starving peasants trudging through winter toward the mirage of St Petersburg, the book evokes the determination of today’s refugees into Europe from the South – and their pain. Just when you think the agony in this book can’t get any worse, it does. Like the futuristic novel it resembles, The Road, there is redemption of sorts in the end, but no glimpse of hope can erase the ghosts of those who did not survive. Reading White Hunger, like watching the news from Syria or Calais, was a humbling experience: what was my suffering in comparison? The book was also inspiring, though: by bringing the anonymous dead to life, literature can indeed connect the reader with all of humanity.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fourth Estate, 2014). For those lucky enough to have homes, long novels and chemo go together like sofas and snow, and this absorbing, informative, lyrical epic gave my side-effects an enormous sense of purpose. I learned a huge amount from Nigerian protagonist Ifemelu’s reflections on race in America, and was riveted by Adichie’s sharp yet compassionate eye for complexity. As plot devices Ifemelu’s pursuit of the perfect rich feminist husband, and celebrity status as a blogger had a slightly fairy-tale quality, but at the same time these dreams come under lucid scrutiny in the book. The narrative, and Ifemelu’s achievements, are also driven by trauma, and being an African woman in an individualist, racist and sexist country both gives her depression and allows her to acknowledge that mental health is not just a white Westerner’s concern. Her own well-being – and her desire to win back her remarkably patient (and married) heart-throb Obinze – demands that she return to Nigeria and create a successful life there on her own terms. Meanwhile Obinze’s sudden launch into the country’s wealthy upper echelons is shadowed by his failed attempt to live in Britain – a chapter in which Adichie makes a powerful case for emotional migration: the freedom to move where we please.
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (Penguin, orig 1924). God, I loved this book! As I faded into skin and bones, it was such an pleasure to sink into a seven-hundred and fifty page novel in which illness is the norm and self-enwrapment in blankets an art-form, or at least a Winter Olympic sport. Amused at first by young Hans Castorp’s self-regarding priggishness, I was ultimately moved by his long journey to become a sensitive mediator between his passionate friends, history and art, life and death. Like my cancer, the TB sanatorium became, for Hans, a spiritual retreat. The book also charts the build up to the first world war and although in my chemo fog I couldn’t follow all the arguments of the novel’s two voluble scholars (who between them trample the supposed differences between East and West into a bitter frenzy of intellectual envy), Mann’s nuanced portrayals of Hans’s milieu – the ‘East’ represented here by Russian and Jewish characters – throws rope bridges of humanity across politically engineered fault-lines. Finally, as a new inhabitant of the Kingdom of the Sick, I found Mann’s insights into illness still ring true; as one character opines, the awe people hold for sick people is misplaced:
For the sick was precisely that; a sick man: with the nature and modified reactions of his state. Illness so adjusted its man that it and he could come to terms; there were sensory appeasements, short circuits, a merciful narcosis; nature came to the rescue with measures of spiritual and moral adaptation and relief, which the sound person naively failed to take into account.
Cancer and chemo became my new normal in 2016, and I accepted my condition because I had to. I honestly don’t mind people telling me I am ‘inspirational’, but to end this list, and 2016, on a note of traditional resolve, I would be best pleased if that took the form of quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption or eating more vegetables! Happy New Year, everyone – and may more and more people tread the path of health, love and peace in 2017.
Posted in Book Reviews, Cancer Journey, Environmentalism, Poetry
Tagged Aki Ollikainen, Audre Lorde, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Clare Best, Emily Jeremiah, Eva Saulitis, Fleur Jeremiah, Jo Shapcott, Leonard Cohen, Myra Schneider, Thomas Mann, Wendy Klein