“More truths than cancer creep beneath our speech.”
I thought it was rather smart of me when
I said oncologists talk in poetry. It was a bit of wit:
Some sense, little feeling. It was meant
As a put-down for the obvious poetic. I was
Thinking–but does it matter what I thought?
At any rate, it’s true. Their words brush,
Skim, the surfaces of peril, the deep unknown:
Their care, precision, every choice, sounds
Above the kinds of silence few others plumb.
What they deal in is something marvelous.
That’s a word they mightn’t use, but it’ll do
For my attack. It’s not my wish, my role,
To follow on the given tracks. What I like
Is to strike out–hit it running–see what comes.
It’s a sort of care, perhaps no less than theirs.
And poetry? Does it come close? Can it compare
With seeing life and death in convergent focus?
How many poems have I read–or you–
That catch you in the heart? Pretty few.
Yet they verbalize the silent too, when they work.
And surely there’s occasion for this attempt,
With news of you–while you start chemo–
While another relation’s dying, while the woman
Who swims has it still, or thinks she may–all these,
And God knows how many others have it too.
My first thoughts were useless. The words I formed
Were ‘Fuck, you’ve got it’. A pitiful response:
What use is there in drying up, avoiding fight,
Faced with the ominous? Would you want me to?
The hell you would. Your world is fighting now.
And it’s a fight I want to join. While you–at home,
Elsewhere, walk, sleep–wrestle with imparted
Doubt and certainty–let me reach for what arms
There are in this other art of thought, feeling,
Speech. Can it be more than personal release?
True, I’m nowhere near the heart of this: while I think
And write, you–every other victim, relation, friend–
Press all spirit, all living quantity, and face it to
The realities of illness and its interventions, pushing
Hope, feeling, thought, to unimagined ends.
Does it matter that I’m not touched by it? Or is
That even true? We share in the mystery of things
As surely as in our words, and trust enough
In the reach of these not to fear their inadequacy:
More truths than cancer creep beneath our speech.
So I call it marvellous, though in no admiration –
Yet it is some strange achievement, a kind of
Procession in the bounds of body. Does the athlete,
Model–whoever is beautiful in feature, stature,
Speed, strength–share in similar incidence?
There was no will involved in the beginning
However the body is formed, perfected. In this
Disease, is there will within the cell, some necessity
For perfection–will beneath will–driving
Creation, expression, liberation, of what’s cancerous?
Perhaps here there’s a useful truth, in liberation–
I love this word. I know the pressure of release
As I allow what’s forced into my stanzas,
As they add one to the other, liberating energy
Into structures, now loose, now tight as bodily cells.
And the force that drives my lines, adding this
To those before, is it any different to that
Which drives a cell to freedom, to multiply,
Loosen, travel, flood its encompassment? If so,
How is it? Are they not both life in its revelation?
True, my activity infiltrates, alters, no fact of being,
Shatters no wished for, supposed, continuance,
Brings with it no tears, no cause of them, no pain,
But can the object, the effect, belong to living
Cells? I have no known end in mind, nor they.
Is it not the same force that pulses here? But there
Is purpose, desire, in this expression–to find, create,
Form, meaning, where there’s none. And is this
A kind of cancer too? I stopped at that point, mid–
Way through a line, and left it the last two days.
I got on with normal life. And now that I’m back
I merely add verse to verse. I know I’m fortunate–
But what consequence did poetry ever claim?
How far does it reach beneath a surface?
How far? Does it compete with radiography?
Are there no more than the vaguest of truths
In poetry? What comparison to science when
It comes to cancer? I play with the idea while
You face it whole, while others too, frantic, fearful
Look not into words, but distraught into their lives.
Beneath the skin, beneath the days that seemed
Inconsequential, beneath the same routines
Of work, sleeping, talking, thinking, something
Was growing – something only visible once
It had taken hold, and only to others’ instruments.
And the force that does take hold is a tide
That sweeps body, mind, from all suppositions,
Hopes, certainties, from all balance–drowning
Understanding, filling the lungs with grief:
Has any poem, any, ever moved a reader so?
And how should this? I penetrate no further
Than appearances. There are no words like isotopes,
That carry in the blood, that glow and shine
In bone. How should I travel within, leave these
Surfaces, how dive to where it’s fully dark?
It is within us, this dark, invisible world, one we
Cannot term or picture–call it soul–the word
Will serve–and at a depth beneath all seeming,
A place where it hurts to plunge–where self
Collapses, leaves nothing but its vanishing.
It is here, where I am not myself, where I am
Dissolved, disintegrated, where there is neither
One nor another, old nor young, not you nor me,
Not my sex nor yours, no certain thoughts or
Feelings, where language does not penetrate–
It is here–in the teeming core of being, a place
Beyond representing–that the person begins,
The cancer starts. It cannot be seen, described,
But it is where you and I are one, and you and you–
You I know and don’t know–where none is other.
And here, we say, the ultimate of beauty lies:
In the inexpressible, in the whole that cannot be
Conceived, or is at the very heart, centre, essence
Of what is, and what it is to be. But no, the beauty is
Mere projection: a choice of something over another.
This place–if place it is–is beneath knowing,
Characterization of any sort. We choose to see
In it, or know it as, our wished-for self and world,
But wishes fall far short of, have no purchase on,
What motivates the voyaging of living cells.
So then marvellous in its mystery it is: here, where
Cancer begins, where the father beats the youngster
Into death, where the knives are drawn and
Faces peeled, where the needed leave, never
To return, where the family is shattered with a laugh.
We know this place, know such horrors, know
The face that appears at night, that grips the child
To pumping thighs, that threatens worse, unknowns,
Worse to come, should there ever be a sound,
A word to another, of the secret hard event.
Yes, we know this in ourselves–in the things
That can never be told, that could only force
Themselves into noise, a wrenching wail,
Should they ever get free, find some way out.
There is such within us, though we don’t own it.
My attempt, my biopsy, is to press at this for
Opening: where what is living, as it were,
Is other than, is beyond, the body, but is
Still within–a turmoil in the vessel. It is where
I prime the fertilizer, pack it round with nails.
It’s here I don the mask I wear when I go out
To kill. When I go out? No, I bring this place:
It’s where I hear your cries and why they mean
Nothing to me, why and where my patrol has come
To get the girl when I name the place Iraq.
And it need not be Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Ukraine–
Any other distant disorder we can name–we can
Call it home, amidst cared-for houses, gardens,
Streets where children walk, cycle, to and
From their schools, in noisy, playful company.
It is here too where cancer strikes. In a moment
The cells explode in the watching man, and he
Shifts from neutral into drive, accelerates
At the bicycle, throws the door, stretches,
Grabs, forces the speechless child into his disease.
But this is merely the visible, the part that captures
All attention–Can it be true? Not her–not him–
How can it happen? But it’s not the start of the story:
Before it makes the news, shows in the mammogram,
The colonoscopy, the story is underway.
The known event–registered as cancer on a screen,
A smear–begins where no instrument travels.
It has no words–no use for words–it is merely
Another growth, thrown up where all things grow,
In depths beneath the woman or the man.
The crime on the street, the outburst in the body,
May or may not end in death–leave that
To other chances, other interventions–but,
With chance at the beginning, chance at the end,
My subject is illness, the period of pain.
But surely, before the man strikes, before the tumor
Is confirmed, some tracks towards them both are set:
Once known, we can look back along them–see,
Perhaps, the choice of going wrong. Maybe
Cigarettes for her, pornography for him, took hold.
But what facts are here are tangled in the moralistic,
Ignorant of the vacancy, the impartiality,
In individual cause. There is no deserving
Can be placed in truth, for you, for the many
Caught in this disease. The answers do not hold.
There is a corner of our garden, where the earth
Is under matting, spread artfully with river stones,
Planted with equal care. A clump of lilies–tall,
Yellow-headed–were growing there before
The work was done. I thought they’d been dug out.
But I’ve been surprised–no, angered–to see
New shoots appear, pushing out between
The overlaps of matting, lifting the stones,
Unfolding into full green leaves, growing
Where they’re not wanted and in number.
I’ve lifted edges of the matting, pushed
My hand beneath, into their beginnings, felt
The soft, wet mush of future growth, grabbed
At shapeless fistfuls, pulled out the living yellow,
White, greasy, strands, lumps, threads of life.
They’re reactions, not pre-emptive, my attacks.
I work where the shoots return, where
They register existence. My hope is to contain
The spread of the stuff, maybe kill it at origin–
Pick out the heart somehow–frustrate the will.
Some hope. When I look beneath the trees, see
The pebbles, larger stones, the chosen grasses
Where they were placed, the designed pattern
To the garden–a loose resemblance of the natural–
All beauty, all pleasure, in the patch is gone.
Would I get rid of the plants? Who knows?
There’s oxalis showing elsewhere, and the lilies
Were in several patches, not just this one.
Beneath the garden–the stones strewn
As in a tide line–is a host of the unwelcome.
I am not incompetent. I could shift the pebbles,
Lift the matting, dig the whole place over, tear out
Every thread of lily that remains–every strand,
Bulb, cell of flesh. If I were truly purposeful
In this, I would root out every unwanted thing.
Am I lazy? My strategy is containment. Sometimes
Now I pull out a leaf that shows, on occasions mix
Weedkiller and drench the leaves, spatter stones,
Where anything unwanted is. And plenty dies.
You are lilies now, or weeds, in others’ hands.
There’s no lasting effect where the lilies lie. I live
With a feeling, the company, of unsettlement–
The invisible shift of hidden soil, grain by grain,
And lily fingers pushing, wet, upwards, out–
Fresh eruptions coming into sight. I fear for you.
And is such generation a fact in the healthy too?
What bulbs were left in, pushed into, any
Of our earths? What hidden tendrils, filaments,
Wait on some change in temperature, shift
In light, to edge closer and closer to discovery?
At this, I know, we reach to the sins of ancestors
Seeping in their issue–ancient, unresolved pain
Ever needing outing. The thought is always
Of deserving, retribution: I met a woman once
Who had been told she must have had it coming.
When I was a child, I don’t think the word
Was ever uttered willingly. Yet unnamed, unsleeping,
Cancer penetrated roofs, walls, homes, families,
With distinguished ease. It was the most feared,
Least betrayed, most silent, of household gods.
Now it’s in the open. It has joined the once
Invisible – the repudiated kin, the regretted
In covert continuance–all that went unmentioned
Or never happened. It has become family,
And when we dine, we lay a place for cancer.
And is such continuing emergence, discovery,
Not the drift of human progress–neither good
Nor bad except in its effects? The joy that bubbles
Over in accepting or admitting, in embracing,
What was hidden, might exist, arise, in rampant cells.
Joy? Always seen as movement out of darkness
Into light: the essence of growth, progress, liberation,
The expansion of what is human, the arrival
In being of what was not. Who can blame
The least of cells for joining in the game?
I don’t like rhymes unless I see them first.
My whole working mind goes blank
While I accustom myself to that discovery.
I was pressing on with what I felt, thought,
And up pops crass, unwanted duplication.
In my own self-examination, in this activity
Here and now, the more I seek knowledge,
The more I find I know little or nothing
Of what moves my mind. I am compounded
With the unwilled, composed of what is cancerous.
And is then all human generation–generation
Altogether–the same wayward progression
Of cell after cell in repetition? And when they
Break these bounds, burst their placid continuance–
Is this other than a new impulse of life?
Our possibility was here long before the human:
Some continuity of cells forming this or
That living thing–pressing forward, generation
After generation, responding, inventing,
Discarding–resulted in our strange parenting.
And then the spread throughout the local whole,
Breaking the bounds of desert, marsh, mountain–
Wherever else–by foot, boat, horseback, wheel–
Our cells have marched, drifted, floated, carried
Their being, their need, in constant reinvention:
Neither good nor bad but in their effects. And so
We too–parents, children–bequeath our inheritance
To new cells in their growing. And these, independent,
Have passports for the world. Yours are just
As free–as free as you have ever been to travel.
How is this different–this disordered, chanced-on,
Grasped at, adventuring in humankind? How is it
Other than the fertility, the propagating enterprise
In the life of cancer? Who’s to say humanity
Differs from any other unknown, unchecked end?
Our practices load the whole with the unsupportable:
With all that is, or may be, fairly reckoned good,
We despoil, destroy the unfeeling, mutilate
In countless ways the living–actions all with
Expert explanation–and the body sickens in its parts.
There may be no will to doing ill involved–but
Need there be? There is none we recognise
In cellular industry, production, and the result
Is little different. We carry these effects with us
Wherever we fasten on opportunity, chance, intention.
These thoughts are bleak. Or are they? Do they
Warrant this addition, any characterization. I aim
At truth, a state beyond qualification: I work–
Or try to–in passionate impartiality, alive in its
Momentary arrest, unanticipated metamorphosis.
Am I, are we, each of us, all of us together, then
Involved in this disease? We may, in concurrence,
Indifferently, sicken our host, undermine
The whole. The burst that brought us into world–
Dividing us and chimpanzees–was just as blind.
I come back to this idea – of neither good nor
Bad, except in their effects. Yet who can predict
Either of effect? And is it better to absent one’s self–
Be mere instrument, equipment, the medical lens
That–used to look–shows, but does not see?
No, there can be no settlement in this. Bound as
We are to body, to its fragility, transience,
Its unconcern, we have conceived, possess,
Another growth–sorry as any in the mortal–
That of will, no matter the limits of action.
How easy it is to choose the abstract, to generalize–
And is this any way to reach, to touch, precision?
I’ve had enough of my attempt to universalize
This disease. What matters is your defeating
Its assault, fighting, prevailing, coming through.
If all humanity, all living things, were forms
Of cancer on the earth, it would not change
One bit, one cell, of individual pain. No-one
Asked, was asked, to play any part in this existence–
No-one, but no-one, deserves consequential hurt.
But as I write, I think immediately that sorrow,
Pain, ennobles, enriches–or can ennoble, enrich–
The human, our capacity for love, by their appeal to feel,
Think, act beyond oneself. As if we needed pain
To arrive at this prognosis. This is to dignify futility.
Why go on? All this has been felt and argued
Since heart and brain emerged. I add nothing
To knowledge, emotion, to your needs, your fighting,
By rephrasing human frailty. What matters is this–
Trite as pity–the way that we resist the worse.
And these thoughts too belong here, to the close:
Notes made on an agenda paper during a meeting
Earlier in the day. While others talked, I wrote,
Cancer comes on us–it’s always there–when
We visit it. And when we visit, we can get stuck.
Harold Jones is a New Zealander, educated at Cambridge University, where he was awarded an Exhibition to read English. For 20 years and, more recently, another ten, he sent no work for publication, preferring to work at its development. His work has appeared in major poetry journals in the United Kingdom and New Zealand, and has won the attention of leading critics and poets, among them, Ted Hughes: “I hear a real voice, a real movement of mind cutting through resistances.” Recent work appears in Merion West and VoegelinView.