View from
Poetry

Oncology

“More truths than cancer creep beneath our speech.”

1

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.

 

2

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.

 

3

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.

 

4

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?

 

5

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.

 

6

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.

 

7

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.

 

8

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.

 

10

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.

 

11

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.

 

12

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.

 

13

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.

 

14

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.

 

15

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.

 

16

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.

 

17

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.

 

18

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.

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