In 2003 I organized a reading titled “Women, Interrupted: An Evening of Poetry and Music in Honor of Cancer Survivors and Loved Ones Lost.” The research I did inspired this page.
~ LOSS & ACCEPTANCE ~
by Denise Larrabee
You are in my thoughts
are with you are part of
the prayer chain at our
church will say a mass
for you accept all
prayers on your behalf we
will say a rosary for you
tonight lots of people
are calmly, psychically
cheering you on Sunday
will light a candle for
you are in our thoughts
and prayers are being
said for you need all the
health karma there is a
candle lit for you in
front of my Madonna has a
special place for young
women in trouble require
positive and healthy
energy to kiss someone
you love when you get
this letter and make
~ ~ ~
The Comfort of Wood
By Naomi Shihab Nye
I come to this table tired
I come empty as a cup
a fruit bowl with no bananas
I come with my various resources
dragging behind me
a cat’s wet tail
I come to this table with no song
no definite opinion like garlic or onion
flavoring the stew
The table is sitting where it always sits
in front of each chair
I found the table at a store called
“The Hand and the Heart”
I was not looking for tables
The table sat in the center of the room
leaves like wings folded at its sides
a single drawer with a runner that stuck
Now I am learning the comfort of wood
as I place my head on the table
as I fold my hands over the scars
~ ~ ~
At the Cancer Clinic
by Ted Kooser
She is being helped toward the open door
that leads to the examining rooms
by two young women I take to be her sisters.
Each bends to the weight of an arm
and steps with the straight, tough bearing
of courage. At what must seem to be
a great distance, a nurse holds the door,
smiling and calling encouragement.
How patient she is in the crisp white sails
of her clothes. The sick woman
peers from under her funny knit cap
to watch each foot swing scuffing forward
and take its turn under her weight.
There is no restlessness or impatience
or anger anywhere in sight. Grace
fills the clean mold of this moment
and all the shuffling magazines grow still.
~ ~ ~
by Inta Ezergailis
Under the snows
and the years
they all lie,
in the earth
but heavier in me
until I feel a pull
a sudden change
gentle but demonstrable
in time and mode,
as the scale drops
and they fill out
with a life, a flush
that drains from me
and my affairs
they do not claim me yet
but I know, somehow,
the weight has shifted.
~ ~ ~
Handmaiden of All I Survey
by breast-cancer survivor Debbie C.
I am in charge of piled papers like towers.
Archaeological digs of
mail, newspapers, circulars.
Rearranged ad infinitum.
Breeding in slippery stacks on the kitchen counter.
I am in charge of molehills
and the corpses of small dead insects
that reside in the cracks of the kitchen floor
rustling like paper when the wind blows.
Of the red paint in the cupboard
and the bowl of fruit that stands on the kitchen table
sweating honey-flavored dew.
I am in charge of the photos
hanging on the wall
in the darkness of the hallway
of dead relatives and old dogs.
And the one of a girl child
dressed in a white sailor suit and a pout.
Bought from the junk man
because I coveted the oxblood frame
and her butter soft curls.
I am in charge of shoes with black buttons
and blue glass bottles
old holders of vile medicine
now sitting triumphantly on the window ledge
gloating at their good fortune.
I am in charge of the plant in the corner
with the name I forget.
Arrow shaped leaves
brown and curling at the tips.
It is slowly dying
for reasons I can not fathom.
~ ~ ~
by Katrina Vandenberg
Late night July, Minnesota,
John asleep on the glassed-in porch,
Bob Dylan quiet on a cassette
you made from an album
I got rid of soon after
you died. Years later,
I regret giving up
your two boxes of vinyl,
which I loved. Surely
they were too awkward,
too easily broken
for people who loved music
the way we did. But tonight
I’m in the mood for ghosts,
for sounds we hated: pop,
scratch, hiss, the occasional
skip. The curtains balloon;
I’ve got a beer; I’m struck
by guilt, watching you
from a place ten years away,
kneeling and cleaning each
with a velvet brush before
and after, tucking them in
their sleeves. Understand,
I was still moving then.
The boxes were heavy.
If I had known
I would stop here
with a husband to help me
carry, and room — too late,
the college kids pick over
your black bones on Mass. Ave.,
we’ll meet again some day
on the avenue but still,
I want to hear it,
the needle hitting the end
of a side and playing silence
until the arm gives up,
~ ~ ~
The Rapid River
by Lisa Flaxman
Ambivalent hues of muddy flow interrupted by rusted cans,
Moldy sticks and an occasional boot.
Sometimes, when the sky blues after rain
You can see a hint of transparency.
Light squares bounce on the gentle flow,
Rising and falling in a silent boat’s wake.
Tales of nighttime rowdiness,
Silent kisses and historic crossings,
Rich loam and homelessness,
Golden sludge that remembers.
Constant waters keep great stories
Of crossings, spring times and drowning.
It leaves me at the door of infinity,
For I know it will take me
Down time’s road
Even if I try to swim back.
~ ~ ~
by Kathryn Kirkpatrick
Whoever built this machine
couldn’t love breasts.
I am between glass plates
and no one has performed the ritual
of asking the body’s forgiveness:
For the pain you are about to receive
Instead, it’s like the way
we slaughter animals.
When the nurse says they’ve found
a mass, my knees buckle.
We are strangers beneath bright lights.
Sonogram. Ultrasound. This room is darker
but I’m not convinced it’s for me
the lights are dimmed. Then I wait
for another stranger, a man
who has seen inside the soft tissue:
probably a scar in only 1% of such cases
does it turn out to be I am safe for the time
being as I’ll ever be unless it changes
in six months we’ll see you again
I might have told him
this is where the belt buckle
marked me when I was fourteen
or I know a man is dangerous
when I dream a woman with
a scar on her chest, female Parzival
in a wasteland.
But no one here wants to hear
and I don’t remember myself
until later, with my clothes on
when I recall my young breast
with the sear like a brand
my father made
I had not thought so deep.
~ ~ ~
To Do List
by John Fiore
It’s a lot of work,
getting ready to die.
I don’t want to leave a big mess
for my loved ones to clean up.
Sorry enough the troubles I left
in their minds, all those bad memories,
like stacks of 33s and videotapes that
got wet in the flood, warped and
smelling of rot and earwigs.
They have digital copies but can’t shed the
old records, just in case.
I go through my things and fill the boxes –
Goodwill, Give Away, Garbage.
My buddy gets this pile,
sell the gym, who wants this desk,
get tires on the car,
write a maintenance schedule,
fix the refrigerator,
where is the living will,
where is the last will and testament,
are the bank records straight,
is the bill-paying routine clear?
And then I think, ‘What about
my remains, my funeral, I don’t want
to add a gritty pile of ash and bone
to the soggy messes
in the basements of those I love,
to the warped vinyl and the moldy papers.
Will I need special handling
because of all the chemo?
What can I do to save my love
from all the damage I’ve wrought?
I don’t have time,
I need more time,
please let me pile up
a little more time.
~ ~ ~
you wait, seated
sterile snippets of life
chaired, orderly you wait, seated
faces conform to guidelines
scheduling your future you wait, seated
a smile to those who know
how unimportant today is you wait, seated
~ ~ ~
by Lucille Clifton
i was leaving my fifty-eighth year
when a thumb of ice
stamped itself hard near my heart
you have your own story
you know about the fears the tears
the scar of disbelief
you know that the saddest lies
are the ones we tell ourselves
you know how dangerous it is
to be born with breasts
you know how dangerous it is
to wear dark skin
i was leaving my fifty-eighth year
when i woke into the winter
of a cold and mortal body
thin icicles hanging off
the one mad nipple weeping
have we not been good children
did we not inherit the earth
but you must know all about this
from your own shivering life
~ ANGER, FEAR & HUMOR ~
by Anne Silver
a finger crooked:
there’s a table set for one.
~ ~ ~
It’s a Stick-Up
by Anne Silver
Imagine you’re held up,
a gun grinds its hollow dowel
into your spinal rack,
Now start handing over.
Hand over your rings for starts.
Watch, tobacco, Ben Franklins,
overcoat and loafers – hand them
over like a housewife on Hallowe’en
tosses Tootsie Rolls into a sack.
Now open a vein and drain
your river of red into the whiskey glass.
Crow bar your ribs, rip and hand over
whatever heart you have left
after this lifetime of love’s petty crimes.
Now you’re ready to hand over
your hands — those tools that had you
breaking into the wrong doors
your whole life — for livelihood,
for kisses, for dry crusts to gnaw,
and when you get to heaven or
wherever, don’t be surprised
at the gatekeeper’s bored expression:
everybody says they’ve just been robbed.
~ ~ ~
I’m Becoming More Forgetful
by Jane Levin
I am becoming more forgetful.
tell stories about
A few gently ask if chemo did this to me.
My doctor refers me for an MRI.
You don’t understand.
For just one moment
I forgot that I
I have become a magician
watching in amazement
as fear disappears.
Sounds of audible delight escape
as the faint outline
and as hope takes shape
~ ~ ~
by Kim Robinson
Our records indicate
Your right breast needs
A second look, an ultra
Sound, a biopsy, perhaps
A hook to hang it on
At night. After all, the damn
Thing is nearly fifty years old,
Cold, not what it used to be.
The dark shadows on the X-ray
Reveal abnormal cells, and we
Can’t tell if you’ll be breathing
To see the leaves turn color this
Year, or watch your son walk
Down the aisle for graduation,
Or finish Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
We are still researching tumors
Like this, the kinds with fists, the
Kinds with black teeth only born to
Give pain, the kinds that require
Your vein, your dreams, your life.
Please call to schedule an appointment,
A mastectomy, a chemotherapy session,
And we recommend if you have a priest,
You make a last confession, because
The leaves are already in flames, and
Nothing will ever be the same, because
Your right breast is already gone
~ ~ ~
How to Stay Alive
by Judith Strasser
Trash your cigarettes. Shun restaurants and bars
that traffic in second-hand smoke. Eat organic
and low on the food chain. Steam vegetables;
don’t grill meat. Just say “no” to marijuana, Jack
Daniels, and cocaine. Stay home: do not rent cars
at Miami’s airport, or ride the New York subways,
or dig potshards in the Negev after massacres
in Hebron. Don’t drive vans older than you are
to places you’ve never been. Always buckle your
seat belt. Have someone else strip the asbestos
from your furnace and heating pipes. Test for radon
in the basement, lead in the drinking water, cracks
in the microwave shield. Avoid electric blankets.
Use condoms, or don’t have sex. Walk to work.
Remember your sunblock. Don’t go jogging after dark.
Keep off the neighbors’ grass after they’ve sprayed
the yard. Wear a helmet when you bike. Take
a buddy to the lake. Don’t lie about your weight
to the man who adjusts your skis. Lower stress
with yoga; divorce your husband if you must. Cross
your fingers, say “Star Bright” to Venus, avoid
black cats, spit three times over your shoulder
on your thirteenth annual visit to the oncologist.
~ ~ ~
by Darla McBryde
When he tells her the news,
the woman without language
struggles to speak.
Her poisoned tongue is a prisoner
plotting to escape
so she clamps her jaws,
plays that sugar rich
syrupy Southern drawl
that is not her voice.
Her black words are spiders
spinning a web around the moon.
Powerless, she babbles away
at the insidious silk
covering her light,
her speech foreign and faint,
incoherent as the sun
drowning in darkness.
~ ~ ~
by Sandra Lovegrove
Hurtling unprepared through frozen air,
Propelled in unrestrained and undirected flight,
The ice-rope slithers through the hand,
A momentary grasp,
No crampons to give grip.
No way to know if it is going to be
A gentle slope or headlong slippery slide;
No way to know how long it lasts
Nor how it all will end,
The only certainty that once begun
There can be no return
To that clear and firm plateau
Where others walk, unknowing
The ravening crevasse beckoning below.
Some find the precipice and peer
To watch the downward feared career,
And wonder how it feels to fall so far.
They cannot hear the falling calls,
The breath choked in the throat,
Nor feel the loss of ground beneath the feet.
There’s no exhilaration in the slide,
The slick and sickening helter-skelter ride:
The waking sleeper’s horror finding nightmare real
Only knows the terror of the fall.
~ ~ ~
by Harold Pinter
“Cancer cells are those which have forgotten how
to die” – nurse, Royal Marsden hospital
They have forgotten how to die
And so extend their killing life.
I and my tumour dearly fight.
Let’s hope a double death is out.
I need to see my tumour dead
A tumour which forgets to die
But plans to murder me instead.
But I remember how to die
Though all my witnesses are dead.
But I remember what they said
Of tumours which would render them
As blind and dumb as they had been
Before the birth of that disease
Which brought the tumour into play.
The black cells will dry up and die
Or sing with joy and have their way.
They breed so quietly night and day,
You never know, they never say.
~ ~ ~
by Sandra Steingraber
I am often unsure
how to begin
as a bird who
holds in her mouth
the first twigs
of a new nest
and not far below
the gray cat
in the full sun
~ ~ ~
A Busy Day for Life and Death
by Jeff McCallum
It was a busy day for life and death
two pages behind
one on the phone
the two of us in the tiny office
the beeper calling insistently
a monitor malfunctioning
wondering if we should leave the room
wondering if this moment reminded my medical oncologist
wondering how much we should hear
There were snippets of strategy
tiny forebears of tragedy
medial static caking
something growing almost as rapidly as the Big Bang
a condition radiation would not help
a cut in chemo dosage
then he turned
and gave us his full attention
Explained every nuance of the CT scan
each possibility for the future
it was as though the rest were behind him
~ HOPE ~
by Jane Levin
hope is a dangling participle
You have cancer
hope is a comma,
another day, more
hope is a semi-colon;
~ ~ ~
by Mandy Blumenshine
Sixteen, driving, friends, fun, life guarding, swim team, prom, limp, ouch, physical therapy, x-ray, leg, tumor, brace, crutches, Denver, life threatening, limb salvage, amputation, death, life, what, scared, biopsy, pathology doctors, nurses, Broviac, blood, drugs, bone scan, CAT scan, MRI, stop, enough, fear family, support, waiting, results, why, oncologist, osteogenicsarcoma, protocol, photographer, Katy, pictures, chemotherapy, Adriamyacin, Cisplatin, vomit, sick, blonde, hair loss, bald, cry, attitude, hats, scarves, pediatrics, third floor, new friends, Jason, Marco, Jovannah, surgery, four hours, 100% tumor kill, wake up, pain, good news, save leg, total knee replacement, scar, recovery, healing, no crutches, no brace, two legs, two feet, standing, walking, chemo finished, alive, growing hair, high school, graduation, college, pre-med, doctor, me, healthy, life guarding, friends, fun, eighteen. I am a survivor of cancer.
~ ~ ~
A Dark Thing Inside the Day
by Linda Gregg
So many want to be lifted by song and dancing,
and this morning it is easy to understand.
I write in the sound of chirping birds hidden
in the almond trees, the almonds still green
and thriving in the foliage. Up the street,
a man is hammering to make a new house as doves
continue their cooing forever. Bees humming
and high above that a brilliant clear sky.
The roses are blooming and I smell the sweetness.
Everything desirable is here already in abundance.
And the sea. The dark thing is hardly visible
in the leaves, under the sheen. We sleep easily.
So I bring no sad stories to warn the heart.
All the flowers are adult this year. The good
world gives and the white doves praise all of it.
~ ~ ~
God Is a Cat
by Karla K. Morton
This will end this will end
this will end
The cat knows, sweet baby,
climbs on the bed
curling next to me
purrs through my silent agony
The doc said pain was good,
meant that my bones were strong
tell that to my bones
This is pain
and kidney stones
body in a vise
bone crushing crushing crushing
then again again again
The cat knows
lies close to me
lies on the mascara stains on the sheets
She looks me in the eye
Here alone, I can curse
I can tell her how much it hurts
and she reaches out
and pats my bare head
sweaty with pain
has been here all along
shedding on my pillow
in the calico
and the soft pink
of padded paw
~ ~ ~
The Transformation of Water
by Johanna Shapiro
In the beginning was the Word
Across a great body of water
a Japanese scientist
fills beakers with
then affixes labels to each:
joy, rage, peace, despair
when next he analyses
the beakers’ contents,
each contains a radically
of molecules —
Outside the Cancer Center
I pause, watching translucent
beads and rivulets of water
a decorative stone wall,
to change the
or at least transform
the fear of death
~ ~ ~
To Those I Love
by Isla Richardson
If I should ever leave you
To go along the silent way,
Grieve not, nor speak of me with tears,
But laugh and talk of me
As if I were beside you. I’d come,
I’d come if I could find a way,
But would not tears and grief
When you hear a song, or see a bird I loved,
Do not be sad. I am loving you
Just as I always have.
You were so good to me.
So many things I wanted still to do,
still to say.
Remember that I did not fear.
It’s just leaving you that was hard to face.
We cannot see beyond
But this I know:
I loved you so
‘twas heaven here with you.
~ LIVING WITH CANCER ~
Living With Cancer
by Johanna Shapiro
in memoriam, Marcia Weinstein
What I wonder about
What I worry about
Is that we really didn’t talk about it
Or really at all
The way light bounces off a mirror
At an angle
The way eyes inadvertently
Slant from an ugly face
All our conversations on the subject
“Let’s wait and see”
“I just don’t know”
We told each other
We’d been friends
For more than fifteen years
So of course we talked about everything
Why our children
Didn’t get married
Or were they going to marry
The wrong people
Would they ever find themselves?
Were we ever going to find ourselves?
How sex was with our husbands
And how sex was without our husbands
Was it too late to start a new career
Was it too late to be a different person?
And of course we did talk
About the big C
Since her husband was a doctor
She a Ph.D., and I a professor
We were very mature
About the whole thing
Oh yes, we definitely talked cancer
First breast, then ovarian,
Later still lung mets, liver mets,
We learned the lingo of chemo
Wordsmiths both, we grew to love the sound
Of words that really are horrible
Although they did good for awhile
Bought time, postponed the inevitable
But we never really talked about
The big D
Yes, that big D —
The grim reaper, the bogeyman,
The ultimate emptiness,
Death, death, death
And because I’d read about
Women with cancer
And talked to other friends who had cancer
And even taught Adrienne Rich’s poem
About the guilt she felt
For never having talked to her lover about
Her cancer, I knew we should talk not only about
Cancer, I knew we should talk about… death
At least once,
Just to show we could do it
Give us credit — we tried
Once or twice, half-heartedly
We’d sidle up to it
The path greased with chemo and platitudes
Slippery with anxiety and dread
And all at once we’d bump up against
A mountain so mighty, so fearsome
It’d make our teeth shake
It was one thing to live with cancer —
We’d grown used to that —
But dying with cancer
Well, that was a different story
We couldn’t find our way into it
Up it, over it, through it
In the end, we never did talk about the big D
Death never entered our lexicon
In any guise — cruel hatchetman
No, he just didn’t show up
Although we both sensed him
Lurking on the premises
Oh well — we never let him in
Maybe we weren’t brave enough
Or maybe we just didn’t have time enough
For Mr. Death
We did a lot of laughing though
Planned jail-break escapes from her hospital room
That we never quite pulled off
But that would have made us famous
Bought funny hats when her hair fell out
That looked a lot better on her
Than they did on me
Wrote each other letters about
How much suffering sucks
And where are the big answers
The answers you can count on
When you really need them?
We cried a lot too — pretty much about
The same things
When she fell into a coma
We still hadn’t had the big D conversation
And I knew Adrienne Rich would be
Disappointed in me
So after she’d been in a coma about
A month, and I knew we’d never talk anymore about
Our children, or which type of bagel
We liked best with black coffee
Whether our husbands cried in the same
Kinds of movies
And how to travel to Nepal when you’re old
We ended up talking about death
It was kind of a one-sided conversation
But that’s how she wanted it
I didn’t say much and
She didn’t say anything at all
I told her what a great friend she’d been
What a cherished wife and beloved mother
A woman valued above rubies
Was how I put it, finally finding a
Big answer that seemed to serve
I told her it was time to go, time to let go
Without fear, uncertainty, recrimination
Nothing left here that needed to be done
Time to move on.
And she did
End of conversation.
~ POETRY PROJECT & ONCOLINK ~
A great resource for “Women, Interrupted” was an anthology The Cancer Poetry Project, edited by Karin B. Miller. Thanks also go to Oncolink, sponsored by the Abramson Center of the University of Pennsylvania. A whole page of breast cancer poems are posted here along with an introduction by Oncolink’s poet-in-residence, the phenomenal Alysa Cummings. Cummings wrote the sharp-edged Breast Cancer Support Meeting Tonight & Refreshments Will Be Served and That Lucky Guy Sonnet. While you’re at it, check out Alysa’s essay Seeing Red: Cancer and Anger, in Poems and Pictures. And buy her book Greetings From Cancerland: Writing the Journey to Recovery.
~ MORE CANCER POEMS ~
Pulling the Trigger by oncologist Frank L. Meyskens, Jr.
Writing Through Cancer by Sharon Bray
Two poems of mine, “The Oncologists and Her Ghosts” and “Madame Monet: Woman With a Parasol.”
~ BIOS & SOURCES ~
All poems posted with kind permission of the authors except as noted.
“Peak Performance” by Mandy Blumenshine won first prize over thousands of entries in a Seventeen magazine contest.*
“Handmaiden of All I Survey” by Debbie C. was posted on a public breast cancer discussion board.*
Inta Ezergailis was a professor of German Studies at Cornell University. She died in 2005.*
John Fiore posted “To Do List” on Writing Through Cancer.*
The Dark Thing Inside the Day by Linda Gregg was first published in American Poetry Review and was later reprinted in Gregg’s book The Sacraments of Desire. Though not specifically about cancer, for me this poem was a signpost in the fog.*
“Letters Received” by Denise Larrabee was published in The Cancer Poetry Project, edited by Karin B. Miller.*
Jane Levin is a retired psychologist and a long-term survivor of ovarian cancer. “Fully Puncutated” first appeared in Flutter Poetry Journal. “I’m Becoming More Forgetful” was published in Coping With Cancer Sept./Oct. 2006 and in Levin’s chapbook Legacy. She lives in Minnesota.
Sandra Lovegrove wrote “Freefall” a few weeks before she died of breast cancer in 2006. Her husband read the poem at her funeral.
Darla McBryde wrote “Stranglehold” after a male friend was diagnosed with advanced head-and-neck cancer.
Jeff McCallum is the author of Somebody’s Bright Balloon, a collection of poems about and for cancer patients, caregivers and health professionals. McCallum lives in Minneapolis, where he works as a commercial building contractor. In his free time he’s involved in theater, activism and writing as therapy.
Karla K. Morton is a breast cancer survivor and the 2010 Texas Poet Laureate.
“The Comfort of Wood” by San Antonio writer Naomi Shihab Nye appeared in her first collection of poetry. The poem is not about cancer, but I read this poem at my father’s funeral in 2000, and someday someone will read it at mine.
“Cancer Cells” by British playwright Harold Pinter was first published in The Guardian in 2002.*
Johanna Shapiro, author of “The Transformation of Water” and “Living With Cancer,” is director of the Program in Medical Humanities & Arts at the University of California at Irvine.
Anne Silver was a handwriting expert who often testified in courtrooms. She died of breast cancer in 2005 at the age of 54.*
“Prefatory” by Sandra Steingraber was first published in Post-diagnosis in 1995. She holds a doctorate in biology.*
“How to Stay Alive” by Judith Strasser was first published in Prairie Schooner in 1995. She died in 2009.
“Record” by Katrina Vandenberg is not about cancer, but rather another fatal disease. “Record” was first published in Greensboro Review and was included in Vandenberg’s collection Atlas from Milkweed Editions.
*These poems were online. I try to get permission to post them, but I don’t always get a reply. I intend only to call attention to poetry I admire. If any poet featured here would like to be removed, please email me at donnatrussell at gmail dot com.