October 12, 2023

Has Poetry Helped?


A great part of being an author and blogger is all of the emails I get from readers who I never would have met otherwise.  Rich Devlin is one of those people.

Rich sent me a riveting poem a few weeks ago called The Price of Survivorship, which you can read below. He recently lost his wife of 38 years to breast cancer, and lost both of his parents to cancer too.  He has two young daughters for whom he is “scared to death.”  I’m curious to hear your response to his poem.

Have you ever written poetry during your or someone else’s illness?  Do you have any favorite poetry or poets that you read to get you through the rough times?  If you have any favorite poems, written by you or another poet, please leave them in the comment section for me and others to read.  Come on Luke, I know YOU do!

The Price of Survivorship

d i s s o l v e
headless, legless torsos
r e c o n s t r u c t i o n
before & after surgery
latest techniques unveiled (proudly)
with clinical precision (emotionless)
silicon or saline (choice)
risk of rupture (real)
possible asymmetrical results (very fine print)
abdominal incision (aka. “tummy tuck”)
Tattooed areolas (optional)
Synthetic nipples (possible)
necrosis (occasionally)
devoid of feeling.

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  1. frank Says:
    October 12th, 2009 at 8:41 PM

    I’m not sure about poetry specifically in my case, but I definitely have found writing in general to be cathartic. Anybody else think the same?

  2. Pat Steer (Gaelen) Says:
    October 13th, 2009 at 7:46 AM

    Rich’s poem about the ‘price’ hit me in the gut. Which is what powerful poetry is supposed to do. Well-done, Rich.
    I’ve always been a writer, and like Frank, writing about my cancer (which is why I started blogging at the end of 2004) has been cathartic. And there’s been poetry, too.
    I wrote this in 2008, and blogged about it here:

    6:00 a.m. to 6:05-
    five minutes, just for me.
    Five minutes to run away, drift away-
    be any place in the world but here.
    Five minutes
    before Madison kisses me awake,
    before Casey brings me the tennis ball.
    My time, alone in my head and my heart,
    gathering myself to face another treatment
    and another day.
    Five minutes
    without work,
    without pressure,
    without Xeloda or Kytril or radiation.
    Five minutes between the first alarm
    and the snooze button-my time.
    At 6:06 a.m.
    I will still have cancer,
    but 6:00 a.m. to 6:05 a.m. are all mine.

  3. anonymous Says:
    October 13th, 2009 at 11:47 AM

    Yes, agreed writing, or art of any kind can be therapeutic. We have two powerful poems here already. I like the use of parenthesis to add a layer of back story to the poem in “The Price of Survivorship.” And “MY TIME” rings so true in those brief moments where we have a small minute of (perceived) control. Italics won’t appear in comments field, but here’s another…

    by Catherine Moore

    There are no wrinkles.
    No crows feet,
    no laugh lines,
    no sun-marked patches,
    just a youthful blemish or two.

    There is no sign of what lies beneath the skin.

    Lips soft and pink.
    A long lean neck.
    Blue eyes washed in sea green.
    Same steady gaze
    I’ve seen all my life.

    I watch her reflection;
    know her mood.
    She is terrified
    of what’s inside
    layered with her flesh and bone.

    Her image becomes a watery blur.
    “How can something so fair, hide the vilest illness?”
    I ask, mirror, mirror on the wall.

    I remove earrings, and rings, and
    shake dress loose from shoulder,
    to puddle on my feet.

    Judgmental eye
    begins the list of flaws.
    I silence the critic
    stand bare of feminine trappings
    in front of the reflecting glass.

    It is difficult to look.
    I see spots, scars, a need for sit-ups.
    I am a weathered female child.
    So this is me.

    But I must prepare to lose more -
    glossy hair,
    womanly curves,
    I meet my own eyes
    the dark brow accenting them from birth.

    Move close to the mirror,
    my flesh touching cool surface,
    breath creates fog on glass,
    pupil to pupil.

    “Then, how will I recognize myself?”
    I ask, mirror, mirror on the wall.

  4. anonymous Says:
    October 13th, 2009 at 4:25 PM

    You want my honest opinion on cancer poetry, and all other cancer art, really? I think creating it can be very therapeutic for the creator. It can be extraordinarily healing to get these feelings out on paper or canvas or whatever. That said, such poetry and art is quite honestly not usually very good. It’s generally of the very self-absorbed type, which is understandable, considering, but it tends to come off as rather adolescent. I don’t mean to offend anyone, because as I said, I do believe in the therapeutic value of the creative process, but most “cancer art” just doesn’t do it for me as art or poetry in its own right. That said, I find real comfort and solace in reading other poetry - reminds me of the beauty in the world, the depths of the human mind, and the truths that art can uncover.

  5. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    October 13th, 2009 at 4:48 PM

    I really appreciate anonymous’ comment just posted above about the quality of therapeutic art. In most ways I agree. This is why the 12 journals I wrote in for cathartic purposes during treatment are on my closet shelf instead of on the Barnes and Noble shelf. As a writer (and formerly in my choreography) I try to use a sharp editorial eye in distinguishing what is personal venting and what is worth sharing with an audience. Sometimes I shape and mold personal vents into something that is meant for others to see. In the end, I always ask does this serve just me or does it serve an audience? There is a ton of my creative life that I keep private.
    I said I agree with this in most circumstances, because I think of all the art work I have seen born out of suffering, which has effectively rocked my world: Bill T. Jones’ exquisite choreography about his lover dying of AIDS, William Kentridge’s gorgeous films about Apartheid in South Africa, and Sharon Olds’ raw poetry about domestic violence.
    I also think that in forums, like this blog, it can be really useful to share writing that was therapeutic for the creator, because chances are it might also touch another person who is currently facing the same issues. Think Rich, Pat, and Carolyn’s poems are pretty damn amazing and I welcome more of them. I say Bring ‘em on!

  6. Jim Ellars Says:
    October 13th, 2009 at 9:37 PM

    Written when my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001..She’s now an eight year survivor.

    It came upon
    It came upon
    Not black night
    But clear day that
    May have well been
    Night before
    It came upon that
    Clear day

    She did not welcome
    But knew it well
    All to well whether
    Black night or clear day

    It came upon her
    And all that was her
    With or without
    With and without
    Brevity and permanence
    It came
    It came upon
    Upon and within

  7. Grace Says:
    October 14th, 2009 at 1:40 PM

    I really enjoyed the poems here, but at the same time I do agree (as someone who is not a fan of poetry but trying to cultivate an an appreciation) that many of them written by patients or caregivers are meant for the author not for the general public. Sometimes in those quiet moments shared and re-read they have the greatest impact because no one person can explain everything they have been through to provide the proper context…

    That said, I am often moved by some verses talking mostly about thins like the human condition or death which help me in some way. Most recently the work of Patricia Smith whom I heard read her own work while she participated in the National Book Festival in DC recently. She read from her latest book of poetry focused on Hurricane Katrina, its called Blood Dazzler. Here’s an example:

    Ethel Freeman’s body sat for days in her wheelchair outside the New Orleans Convention Center. Her son Herbert, who had assured his mother that help was on the way, was forced to leave her there once she died.

    Gon’ be obedient in this here chair,
    gon’ bide my time, fanning against this sun.
    I ask my boy, and all he says is Wait.
    He wipes my brow with steam, says I should sleep.
    I trust his every word. Herbert my son.
    I believe him when he says help gon’ come.

    Been so long since all these suffrin’ folks come
    to this place. Now on the ground ’round my chair,
    they sweat in my shade, keep asking my son
    could that be a bus they see. It’s the sun
    foolin’ them, shining much too loud for sleep,
    making us hear engines, wheels. Not yet. Wait.

    Lawd, some folks prayin’ for rain while they wait,
    forgetting what rain can do. When it come,
    it smashes living flat, wakes you from sleep,
    eats streets, washes you clean out of the chair
    you be sittin’ in. Best to praise this sun,
    shinin’ its dry shine. Lawd have mercy, son,

    is it coming? Such a strong man, my son.
    Can’t help but believe when he tells us, Wait.
    Wait some more. Wish some trees would block this sun.
    We wait. Ain’t no white men or buses come,
    but look — see that there? Get me out this chair,
    help me stand on up. No time for sleepin’,

    cause look what’s rumbling this way. If you sleep
    you gon’ miss it. Look there, I tell my son.
    He don’t hear. I’m ’bout to get out this chair,
    but the ghost in my legs tells me to wait,
    wait for the salvation that’s sho to come.
    I see my savior’s face ‘longside that sun.

    Nobody sees me running toward the sun.
    Lawd, they think I done gone and fell asleep.
    They don’t hear Come.

    Ain’t but one power make me leave my son.
    I can’t wait, Herbert. Lawd knows I can’t wait.
    Don’t cry, boy, I ain’t in that chair no more.

    Wish you coulda come on this journey, son,
    seen that ol’ sweet sun lift me out of sleep.
    Didn’t have to wait. And see my golden chair?

  8. Laura Says:
    October 15th, 2009 at 11:23 AM

    While I agree that there are many poems, stories, movies and cultural elements (tv commentary anyone?) that doesn’t merit the capital “A” of Art…I find two ways that poetry has helped my survival process.

    One is to read great poets (Eliot, Li-Young Lee, Kenyon, Hall, Rilke, Basho) and remember that wrestling with the everyday and its juncture with mortality is part of our human/diving duality and searching.

    The other is to write poems. To work them if they merit it into something more than a personal experience of cancer. And even, as all artists do, share something before its time or without regard to someone else’s judgment of artistic merit.

    So here’s one of those poems to share.

    Everyday Things

    I nearly missed it.
    Searching the lot for a parking space,
    grumbling under my breath at the fullness
    of each slot and the distance to travel
    on shaking legs. I was blind
    as I slid into the farthest lane.

    Not so blind as I went up the ramp
    that I didn’t notice the elderly woman,
    resting her arms on her walker as she sat
    waiting. For whom, I don’t know but
    she returned my “good morning” with her own
    bright greeting.

    In the waiting room, a worried couple.
    She’s younger than me
    and thinner and I realize the world is
    truly on its head because my heart squeezes pity
    and a blessing where jealousy used to reign.
    Now I envy old women with walkers. Old men with
    their hats and their evening naps.

    Blood tested, liver prodded, ankles
    examined for swelling—all questions answered
    (except of course the big ones the unanswerable
    queries the mystery), I pass the couple again
    on my way out. We share a smile that is common
    only to those who have seen the scythe sweeping
    toward their throat, who hope they’ve ducked
    in time.

    And then I am outside in the numinous
    air. I walk to the car already thinking of
    the grocery list and
    what daily tasks remain to be accomplished.
    And I could have missed them completely—I nearly did.

    And I won’t tell you that the thousands of massed white blossoms
    opened their white throats and sang to me
    of praise and hope and the unanswered questions. I won’t tell you
    their sweet breath stopped my hand as it reached
    for the key. I won’t tell you these things.
    Not because they aren’t true
    in their way true
    in the way that counts. But you know, don’t you?
    You have been arrested in mid-stride
    by beauty. You’ve lost your train
    of thought, forgotten the punch line to the joke
    you were telling, let your breath come up and out
    in an “O” of startlement and wonder.
    Of joy.

    And if so, because so, you know
    why I sat in my car
    amid the countless cherry blossoms, in the farthest
    parking space, listening. Singing along.

  9. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    October 15th, 2009 at 11:40 AM

    Damn Laura. I love it.

  10. Laura Says:
    October 15th, 2009 at 7:56 PM

    Wow. Thanks!!

  11. Pat Steer (Gaelen) Says:
    October 16th, 2009 at 11:09 AM

    Laura, I agree - your poems have a knack for hitting me right in the gut, as good poetry about the divine ordinary should!

  12. Rich Devlin Says:
    October 29th, 2009 at 7:24 AM

    I stumbled across the following poem that I would like to share:

    Off to the Country of Cancer
    by Liam Rector

    It comes on.
    Comes on with the word,
    A doctor’s word,

    The doctor saying cancer.
    “But do I have cancer?”
    “Yes, cancer.”

    Doctor has to say cancer
    One more time
    Before the cancer

    In me
    Becomes the word
    I give over to it.

    “What then
    Will we
    Do?” (A we

    Quickly, to calm
    The alone

    Setting in
    And then I

    Let go of the we
    “We’ll do

    A regimen of chemo
    And radiation and hope
    For the best.” “Well, that

    Sounds like something. You’re sure
    I have cancer?” “Yes,
    Cancer, that’s it.”

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