Judith Montgomery has a PhD in American Literature from Syracuse University. Originally from Torrington, Connecticut, she now lives in Oregon, in a suburb of Portland. She has won Fellowships from the Oregon Arts Commission and Literary Arts, has taught poetry workshops throughout Oregon, and has been a resident at Caldera, Playa, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods.
Montgomery is the author of five books of poetry. Her first book, Passion, was chosen by Mark Doty for Defined Providence Press, and won the Oregon Book Award for Poetry in 2000. Her fifth book, Mercy, was published last year; it chronicles Montgomery’s experience with her husband’s cancer. Her other books are Red Jess (Cherry Grove), Pulse & Constellation (Finishing Line Press), and Litany for Wound and Bloom (Uttered Chaos Press).
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my interview with her was a purely online activity: I emailed her questions and, after she welcomed a grandchild into her life, she sent back answers. We discussed her aforementioned collection, Mercy, which was published by Wolf Ridge Press in March of 2019 as the recipient of the first Wolf Ridge Narrative/Poetic Medicine Award.
The Rumpus: Why did you name this book Mercy rather than another poem’s title, or something else?
Judith Montgomery: For once, the title seemed obvious: that poem showed both the tenderness that characterizes so many medical personnel, and it illuminates the need for pity and action in situations of extreme suffering. Note that the Old French definition—“from Old French mercit, merci (9c.) ‘reward, gift; kindness, grace, pity’”—encompasses both of these. In part, it was my way of showing deep appreciation for the work medical personnel devote to relieving suffering and healing to the extent possible, and that was an important part of this chapbook.
Rumpus: This book is about your journey with your husband’s cancer. We are currently living during a health crisis. What do poets do when writing about disease that helps to illuminate health issues, especially the ways that are different from the news?
Montgomery: I can’t speak (of course) for other poets, though I’m drawn to reading others’ work on illness/medicine… I’m thinking at the moment of Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda, with its long searing poem about her daughter, and Alan Shapiro’s song & dance, tracking the journey of his brother’s life and death from cancer (not to mention nonfiction works such as When Breath Becomes Air, or Learning to Fall).
What we see on the news are flashes of medical workers’ dedication and exhaustion, of grieving families, of triumphant emergence from the hospital after seventy or eighty or ninety days on a respirator. And the numbers, the graphs, the charts. The newscasters’ ominous voices reporting on the latest statistics. It all flickers by so fast.
The poet opens a slower door, as though ushering the reader into a room or a garden where (in a terrific poem) everything is presented slowly, seeping into the mind and eye, illuminating a crisis or a detail or image or a slow devolution without hurry. The poem slows time, even stops it, while the reader enters and soaks in the intimate details, the mood, and the particulars of one moment. It’s more like an infusion than a strobe light. It is personal. The reader almost participates in the experience. And so (ideally) the poem enters the reader to stay, holds a certain ongoing weight in the reader’s mind/heart/ear. A poem may generate thought of one’s own ending or illness; may offer comfort that the reader is not alone in his/her/their own world of illness and injury.
Rumpus: Although cancer is the main “character” in Mercy, time is also present throughout, a constant that also changes. People are currently experiencing weird relationships with time. Why do you think time is such a major factor in dealing with disease?
Montgomery: Hmm, this is a new line of thought for me. With discovery of a disease or life-threatening condition, life—which seemed to be running along indefinitely into a future we don’t think about (especially the younger we are)—suddenly has not only end-stops, but often ones measurable by doctors. In so many months, this will happen. In so many years. Or weeks, or days. I remember vividly our trip to MD Anderson’s famed cancer center in Houston, after our doctors in Bend thought Phil’s liposarcoma has spread to his lungs (a really bad sign) and had given him six months to a year (just five months after he was first diagnosed and underwent a seven-hour surgery). My friend Loretta asked me “What are you going to do?” and I said “I guess I am going to help him die.”
Then we headed for Houston, where they told us our doctors were doing the right thing. The specialist there said, “You have a few good years,” and we were so excited and pleased. But at the end of our session with him, he said “A good year.” How our spirits fell! How much that changed what we had heard. We looked at each other, and quailed. [Of course, we have been unusually lucky—it has been sixteen years since then, and though that has involved some very major surgeries and awful chemo (plus chemo brain and other side effects), he is still here.]
The hope of time is this: that one will last long enough to see a new breakthrough to address one’s disease, a new drug or bio remedy coming on the market. It gives new weight to the term “in the nick of time.” This time-hope is also mine: my mom died of Alzheimer’s, something she feared all her adult life. She suffered badly, and so did we as her family. Fifteen years ago, her doctor said that we as her daughters didn’t have to worry, as by the time we reached the age of her onset, there would be a cure/drug/treatment. I am still waiting…
Rumpus: One of my favorite phrases in this book is in the poem “Anger.” The phrase is the last two lines: “You’re not the only / One who can break things.”
The “you” in this poem is not named. Is it cancer? Your husband, Phil? The universe? Your own inability to cure Phil? Anger is such a common reaction to disease, and this poem so perfectly captures that free-floating feeling.
Montgomery: When Phil was diagnosed, we had been married only fifteen years, and so it was a shock when the cancer turned out to be both rare and very serious. Just a few months after the surgery, they thought they found signs that it had spread to his lungs, and gave him six months to a year. He had just turned sixty-five. It seemed so unfair. Every time we went in for a medical appointment, the news was worse than I could even imagine. And I am a practically professional catastrophist.
At the same time, I was a primary caregiver in charge of looking after my elderly parents who had moved to be near us the year before—my mom with creeping Alzheimer’s, and my dad with congestive heart failure, colon cancer, macular degeneration… the list goes on.
That seeming unfairness (was I supposed to be a poet or a caregiver? It seemed as though either one took all my energy) made me pay attention to the things I did to cope. I cherished hair appointments or massages because no one could call me with bad news or a request or with something I was supposed to manage. I thought of these appointments as times where “no one could get at me.” For perspective on the burden: I was once so tired grocery shopping, after taking care of family all day, that I actually considered lying down in the tomato sauce aisle in the supermarket and taking a nap, thinking that, well, folks could steer around me.
But then I found myself taking a broom to the ice sheet that had formed on the top of the hot tub cover—it was a bad winter—and whacking the heck out of it. And splitting wood. And doing the recycle run where cardboard and cans and, yes, glass could be taken to smash. There were four poems, all about how to release/express that anger in acts of apparent violence that were also domestically acceptable. (Don’t let me get started on how the expression of anger by women is perceived as shocking and inappropriate!!)
So, the You in the poem is deliberate. And so is “You’re not the only /One…” It’s God, or my version of a being-in-charge, my “take that, take that,” as though I had some power, as though I could challenge what was happening, as though I could point out to that being how unfair my husband’s cancer was/is, to him, to me, to whatever I thought I was supposed to be in my interrupted life.
I would do it all again, of course. But that anger—that resentment—my perception of why us? When other people were living apparently ordinary unchallenged lives compared to ours. Yes, anger. Why were we being broken? There are, of course, no answers to this. But that did not stop me from breaking out in anger.
Rumpus: Cancer is mentioned in the first poem, but Phil is not named until the fifth poem. As far as ordering the poems, why did you decide on this order for these two?
Montgomery: These poems were part of a larger manuscript called Mutable Flame. My friend, the poet Carol Barrett, persuaded me that I ought to put a chapbook together, out of the large array of “medical poems,” and send it out. It seemed obvious to me that there were enough poems about Phil and his cancer path, enough to make a chapbook, so I pulled most of those out (yup, there are more!), and began to think about order. That is a big job, as you know, because one is looking to establish a poem made out of poems, with that necessary arc. The first poem was obvious to me—it begins before treatment has started, but after diagnosis, and has Cancer hovering casually like Death on the doorstep. Also, it fit on one page, which I prefer for starting a book.
The others moved around a good bit as I went on; some were excised. Some made it back in, but this is true for assembling any collection, as I am sure you know. As far as the fifth poem, it seemed as though at the beginning there needed to be a continuum of observations from the caregiver’s point of view, my job in being the case manager (which at times I resented having to do—he was so gobsmacked by the diagnosis that he kind of retreated, leaving it all to me). And in the fifth poem, the pain for which he had to be hospitalized was a way to establish a deep and intimate connection after poems that were “cooler.”
The hardest part was deciding what poem to be last. I considered “Remission” for that, with its sending away of the cancer in a boxlike coffin. But remission—at least for Phil’s kind of cancer—is always temporary; you can never cut it all out, and it does not respond well to chemo. So I ended with a door both into the past and into the future, different kinds of unlocking.
Rumpus: Many of the poems in this book are written in couplets, tercets, and quatrains. What makes you like these forms, and how do you decide which poem gets what form, or is this something you decide during revision?
Montgomery: When I began seriously writing, I experimented a good bit with free verse. However, I seem to have the lub-dub of iambs steeping through my head day and night, so meter has become very important to me as I read my work aloud (over and over!). And this has also affected my line lengths and form.
I tend to go to couplets for control and distance, especially with difficult material (Jane Hirshfield once quoted Chekhov, who said, “If you want to move your reader, write more coldly.”); sometimes, though less often, to quatrains for the same reason. Three-line stanzas go in two directions for me: one, if they lean toward a fondness or empathy toward the subject (e.g., children, romance, love poems), and in a second direction, where I want to indicate a certain lessening of control, an instability. A more extreme path to instability or a kind of stuttering expression is found in “Kenosis,” where the speaker is so exhausted and despairing she can hardly put a sentence together. There is a kind of ragged breathing in my mind, here.
Rumpus: That poem begins: “each day I will walk the dog without / sobbing in the dry woods will field / the phone calls abandon ink and pen.”
Montgomery: “Side Effects” is another example: where the reader can hardly believe in retrospect that she treated her dog in this way, and so cannot approach it in linked/coherent sentences or words. It is also a mark of her exhaustion and self-condemnation.
Rumpus: Oh, that poem tears me apart.
Montgomery: As for decisions in revision (oh, my favorite part of writing), I scold myself often for going too quickly to shape form in an initial revision (my mentor, Maxine Scates, has advised me and others to keep writing into the material before stopping too soon or trying to impose or discern its eventual form). Resisting form and closure is a constant struggle for me. Sometimes I have to take out all the line and stanza breaks and put the poem into a paragraph form and practice reading it out loud to give it a greater ease and more natural form and breath, before I return to lineation. I should add that the end word in a given line (and the first word in the line that follows) must for me carry a strategic weight; I try hard to avoid ending a line with “for” or “the,” Sharon Olds notwithstanding. Choices here also tend to shape the form of a poem.
Rumpus: Some of the images that run through the book are everyday household tasks—laundry, baking, needlework, recycling, walking the dog—and words, including the word “word.” Anyone who has dealt with health issues has had that strange relationship between the everyday and disease, which is surreal, so this is very relatable. Poets have a very intense relationship to language—how would you describe your relationship to words?
Montgomery: I am a word junkie, pure and simple. My dad studied both Latin and Greek, and so when he and I (as a child) went to look up how to spell an interesting word, he always took me back to word origins—what the Greek or Latin originally meant. Then on, to Anglo-Saxon etc. How could that not be an endless candy dish for a poet? I love dictionaries for casual reading. And the online etymology site is on my favorites list. I took Latin and French myself, but have learned so much more when I play around with words. And I admire other poets who play as well, who introduce me to a new meaning or context for a familiar word.
Rumpus: Besides thanking other poets and poetry groups for their help to you with these poems, you also thank medical staff. Why was that important to you?
Montgomery: My husband’s cancer is very rare; folks with liposarcoma do not generally live more than a few years. And yet, and yet… sixteen years later, thanks to their skill and tenacity, Phil is still alive and enjoying life, though he is immunocompromised and has chemo brain, peripheral neuropathy, and other side effects. I personally inscribed and delivered copies of the book to each of the primary doctors and surgeons, with my thanks.
I live in awe and admiration for their work, as I do for all those suffering from, and suffering with, a loved one’s cancer. No one should have to walk this path without hope, without the fallback and consolation of others’ experiences, with another’s words offered to say you are not alone, to cast a light on the difficult path forwards.
Photograph of Judith H. Montgomery by Loretta Slepikas.