I was married to a woman who got a disastrous cancer. It took her over a year of treatment to know whether she was going to be able to fend it off. It took her a couple of years after that to begin to think that it might stay away. She is, I’m happy to report, still in good health, and the cancer, a particularly aggressive one, has shown no signs of coming back.
Almost everybody invites you to think about your experience in terms that are not helpful. People describe you as the Caregiver or the Helpmeet. None of the categories make any sense.
People aren’t imposing dopey categories on you out of malice; they don’t know better. I wouldn’t have known better in their place. I wouldn’t have known a vocabulary even for talking about the subject.
One of the reasons you wind up writing a poem is not because cancer is such great material for a poem; I think it’s very intractable material for a poem. Material that has a great deal of melodrama built into it—murder, cancer, rape, child molestation—once you mention the subject everybody knows the poem.
The child-molestation poem will have footsteps, for example. The footsteps are like mood music in a horror movie or a gothic novel. The problem is to write a poem on child-molestation in which footsteps don’t occur…That’s hard work.
It’s not easy to write a poem on these subjects. I didn’t write a poem because I thought it would be useful material. On the contrary: I noticed all the way through that neither I nor anybody else has much of a vocabulary for talking about my experience, or talking about Pat’s experience (to the extent that I could guess what that was, or hear her tell me).
Davison: Would you call it an act of witness?
Yes, it’s an act of witness, but I needed to write the poem to invent a vocabulary, because it’s a matter of pride for me not to be linguistically inadequate. We are all rendered mute and stupid by our experience from time to time, but the point of being a poet is that you have redress.
I felt particularly challenged in this instance. It seemed to me a matter of pride—I hope I don’t mean puffed-up pride, but the pride that a good cook takes in knowing how to save a curdling sauce. It was also an act of trying to rescue an important part of human experience from imaginative failures and thinness of vocabulary and failures of empathy. You can’t give up to the forces of silence. They mean us harm.
This interview took place in 1997 shortly before Matthews died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 55.
You can read “Dire Cure” by William Matthews here. (Thanks to Sheri for the poem.)