Tag Archives: Poetry

Living With Cancer: A Quilt of Poetry

A Quilt for Cara

A Quilt for Cara

Susan Gubar is a long time feminist, academic and someone writing loudly about her life with ovarian cancer. She is not the queen of cheer. While accepting the diagnosis of death from the get go, she wrote an entire book about about how hard she found the not dying of the disease in, “Memoir of a Debulked Women”.

Her most recent NYTimes blog post included this poem that she pieced together sharing her love of quilting and words. Each footnote indicates a different writer that she borrowed the line from. She introduces the poem writing, “The chaos of feeling that surrounds disease differs for men and women subjected to quite different cancers. So I used visceral verse by both men and women to convey a chaos of feeling that all of us can share.”

I, too, quilt and love words but after a long week I am too tired to do more than share her most splendid poem of many. (Even the blog title is borrowed from her today.) The quilt photo, though, is taken by me of a quilt I made.

My mouth opens and closes around the word cancer.1
Try saying fear. Now feel
Your tongue as it cleaves to the roof of your mouth.2
Once again I dress in white
paper and climb onto the table.3
Together we explore my inner landscape on the screen.
He plots a course and charts me frame by frame.4
And then there’s the blood tests. How many blood tests?
(Too many to count.)5
Negative = Positive, Positive = Negative = Bad.6

Even the surgeon who puts you to sleep
knows you will wake up robbed.7
What awaits you:
the leg bag, the IVs, the foreskin
looming like a skunk’s tail …8
Each wound speaks
its own language.9
What is the splendor of one breast
on one woman?10
They’ve emptied your body of its enemies,
they’re filling you with sterile juices.11

I return across the darkened ward;
the grunts, coughs, and farts
sound as if I’m billeted on
an active volcano.12
The windows grow dark
and the grim snort
rasping from the next bed
never lets up, makes the night shudder.13
Was it for this, this, become a patient, transformed to a shivering sack of blood to be spilled?14
And the dark night tracing of malevolent lymph tracks, fear scaling the ice-rungs of my spine?

I need to see my tumor dead
A tumor which forgets to die
But plans to murder me instead.15
I don’t know how to die yet. Let me live!16

  1. Joan Halperin, “Injunctions,” in “Her Soul beneath the Bone”
  2. Alicia Suskin Ostriker, “The Mastectomy Poems,” in “The Crack in Everything”
  3. Sandra Steingraber, “Outpatient,” in “Post-Diagnosis”
  4. Pat Borthwick, “Scan,” in “The Poetry Cure”
  5. Lucia Perillo, “Needles,” in “The Body Mutinies”
  6. Susan Deborah King, “Everywoman’s Lexicon of Dread, with Commentary (Minimal),” in “One-Breasted Woman”
  7. Pat Gray, “Cancer in the Breast,” in “Her Soul Beneath the Bone”
  8. Gustavo Pérez Firmat, “Post-Op,” in “Scar Tissue”
  9. Richard M. Berlin, “Wounds,” in “Secret Wounds”
  10. Lucille Clifton, “Consulting the Book of Changes: Radiation,” in “The Terrible Stories”
  11. Sandra M. Gilbert, “For My Aunt in Memorial Hospital,” in “Emily’s Bread”
  12. Ifor Thomas, “Poleaxed,” in “Body Beautiful”
  13. Abba Kovnar, “The Windows Grow Dark,” in “Sloan-Kettering”
  14. C. K. Williams, “Cancer,” in “Writers Writing Dying”
  15. Harold Pinter, “Cancer Cells,” in “Various Voices”
  16. Marilyn Hacker, “Cancer Winter,” in “Winter Numbers”