Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Poetry of Illness

This post was originally published at The Master’s Artist. I’m periodically reposting some of the articles here.

Can poetry speak to illness? Can poetry speak to something as personal, terrifying and life-changing as breast cancer? Poet Anya Krugovoy Silver says yes.

Silver is an associate professor of English at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. Her poetry has been published in such journals as Image, New Ohio Review, Witness, Prairie Schooner, Christian Century, Christianity and Literature and Anglican Theological Review. And it’s also been published in a collection entitled The Ninety-Third Name of God: Poems.

The heart of this volume is a series of extraordinary poems about breast cancer, from biopsy and diagnosis through mastectomy and recovery. These poems are about shock and fear, heartbreak and hope, and all the clinical trials and details in between. Like the illness they describe, these poems find their own discoveries, their own processes and flows, as the mind and the heart tries to make sense of what is happening.

After the biopsy and confirmation of diagnosis, Silver begins with a blessing that is simultaneously a kind of mourning.

Blessing for My Left Breast

Your skin slit round with a scalpel:
be brave.
Rise to the aluminum tray, the biopsy needle.
Go, nipple, go, milk ducts, go, veins.
Take with you my lymph nodes,
canaries of illness, blood cells’ puff balls.

Blessed be my chest wall for surrendering.

Now you will never shrink and wrinkle with age,
clove-studded orange, bittersweet.

Taken in your beauty, let the last hands
that hold you
be gentle.

She survives the surgery, but now comes the follow-up – the procedures like radiation and chemotherapy which sound so “medical” and yet are personal, invasive and themselves destructive. Yet even here she finds a dignity and even an unexpected intimacy, a pouring of grace upon the terrible.
Everything is Perfect

If my cancer recurs,
if I vomit from chemo,

help me follow the one who knew
she was dying, who turned
to the man wiping clean her face

and said, Everything is perfect.

Scrape me like a nutmeg, Lord.
Release my fragrance.

And then later, post-recovery, a kind of normalcy resumes, but it is only a kind of normalcy, because what was cannot be recovered; only what is can be grasped, and only what will be can be hoped for.

Ash Wednesday

How comforting, the smudge one ach forehead:
I’m not to be singled out after all.
From dust you came. To dust you will return.
my mastectomy, a memento mori,
prosthesis smooth as a polished skull.
I like the solidity of this prayer,
the ointment thumbed into my forehead,
my knees pressing hard on the velvet rail.
If God won’t give me His body to clutch,
I’ll grind this soot in my skin instead.
If I can’t hold the flame that burned my breast,
I’ll char my brow; I’ll blacken my pores; I’ll flaunt
with ash this flaw in His creation.

She finds comfort in the familiar Ash Wednesday ritual of the forehead smudge, simply because it is familiar and she’s alive to recognize the familiar. And while the last five lines of this poem seem almost jarring, like a fist being shook in God’s face, they are also a declaration of survival, in spite of the “flaw in His creation.”

These poems are a journey from despair to hope. Poetry does speak to illness, in profound and yet very human ways.

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