Hopeful Hat cover

Giving Voice to Illness: A Comparative Review of Three Recent Cancer-themed Collections

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“After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” Emily Dickinson stated, leaving its sufferer feeling “ceremonious,” “mechanical,” and “Freezing”—vocabulary that simultaneously implies the numbness of disbelief and a desire to wrangle the intensity of experience into a meaningful structure. In extremis, poetry may offer that desired organizing principle, as in these three recent collections arising from cancer diagnoses. In two of the cases, breast cancer treatment coincided with the fear and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. All three poets contemplate the female body and the voice both literally and metaphorically, appealing to outside powers as they ponder how much a person can bear.

Nicole Callihan’s fourth full-length collection, This Strange Garment (Terrapin Books), is framed by images of migrating birds and tossed-aside clothing. Both metaphors reflect an impulse to shed the unnecessary—including that strangest of garments itself, the body—and escape in flight. The work opens with “Everything Is Temporary,” which served as her mantra during uncomfortable medical procedures. As she lies on her front in an MRI machine, arms extended, she marvels that a crane “can stay aloft for up to ten hours. / It barely needs to flap its wings” and remembers how “I / used to zip or unzip my mother” from a dress on evenings out. The final, title poem returns to that conjunction of the ornithological and sartorial, finding consolation as “Morning. Absent of sound / but for the winter wren, / […] Skein of geese” cedes to “An evening rush. What comes / after the after? A blouse / on a doorknob. The hush.”

Callihan alternates matter-of-fact accounts of imaging appointments or people’s offhand comments about what causes cancer with references to art and myth. The poet imagines her disfigured body as a Picasso painting and takes up the language of metamorphosis: “I am not the same woman who began this story.” In “Amazon” she contrasts her online shopping coping mechanism with the bravery of those legendary self-mutilators: she finds herself a “woman without breasts but with many boxes.” There are multiple approaches here—prose paragraphs or blunt phrases in stanzas, end or internal rhymes, etymological enquiry or ironic observation—to exploring the relative nature of experience, as in “The Pain Scale,” which poses bitter rhetorical questions:

is that pain, is that discomfort, is the crying
into the sink, is the nipple falling off in the shower,
[. . .] I’d say, yes, somewhere
between a five and a six, I think, but maybe
a two or so, maybe an eight, but god, I’m ready
for a pleasure scale

Standing in the Forest of Being Alive (Alice James Books), Katie Farris’s debut collection, is explicitly subtitled “A Memoir in Poems.” Like Callihan, Farris addresses the symptoms and side effects of breast cancer treatment, but often in oblique or cheeky ways; it’s no mistake that “assistance” appears two lines before a mention of hemorrhoids, for instance, even though it closes an epithalamium, a type of poem that celebrates marriage, distinguished by its gentle sibilance (“my sans / serif self” is another memorable example of that technique later on). Here marriage is portrayed as

a series
of increasing
intimacies, a slow
sweet collapse into

(Farris’s husband is Ukrainian American poet Ilya Kaminsky.)

Farris crafts sensual love poems, such as “Eros Haiku,” that at first glance might seem at odds with the illness theme of the work but in fact affirm sensuality despite physical scars. She again pairs longing and the Japanese influence in recurring lines that recall a famous saying by eighteenth-century poet Kobayashi Issa. “One must train oneself to find, in the midst of hell, / what isn’t hell,” Farris writes; Issa’s proverb is often translated as “In the midst of this world / we stroll along the roof of hell / gazing at flowers.” The questions Farris asks can be interpreted as straightforward or rhetorical: “How much more can one body take?” In the fragmentary photographs that bookend the text, the poet’s cut-off braid is wielded like a knife, transforming a potential symbol of defeminization into one of power. Elsewhere, she likens the body to a precious painting or an urn in a museum.

Both Callihan and Farris employ slant rhymes and apostrophe, with the former invoking the “god of the sun / on my face” and the latter addressing a whole poem “To the God of Radiation,” pleading for this invented deity to “Light every deadly cell like a wick / burning in the paper lantern of my chest.” The two poets also make reference to Emily Dickinson, in addition to writing in her lyric tradition. Callihan’s “There Is No Happiness” echoes Dickinson’s poem 372 (cited above) in commemorating the relief of “the week after a toothache, / when the halo of pain fades.” Farris twice alludes to Dickinson, and a third time via the title of “Tell It Slant,” which eschews the elliptical to disclose the bare truth of her cancer diagnosis at age thirty-six.

In 2019, Carole Satyamurti, a British translator and sociologist with an interest in psychoanalysis, died at age eighty of laryngeal cancer, which had necessitated the removal of her voice-box and part of her tongue. In The Hopeful Hat (Bloodaxe Books), her posthumous ninth collection, she treats the loss of voice literally as well as figuratively. The alliteration in the anatomically oriented “Glossal” is almost onomatopoeic: “Tongue is truncated, thickened” but still a “truth-teller.” In “Voicing the Void,” the poet faces up to the loss of oral utterance:

I can no longer
play the recorder
shout to save my life.

However, written speech persists and offers her the power to advocate for others. Motivated by social justice, then, Satyamurti devotes pieces to the climate crisis as well as to the homeless and refugees, those without a political voice. The title poem, indeed, refers to a homeless woman’s choice of begging bowl. Where Callihan and Farris petition invented gods, Satyamurti summons those of the Asian religions she studied, referring to an episode from the Bhagavad Gita in “Voicing the Void” and another from the Mahabharata (“Vyasa’s Gift”), for which she produced a modern retelling in 2015.

Both Farris and Satyamurti latch onto the idea of the grave as a door, which provided the overarching metaphor for Margaret Atwood’s 2007 collection The Door. When Farris visits her mother-in-law’s burial place, she makes this koan-like phrase the first stanza and repeats it in the last: “A grave is / a door / we open.” The remainder of the poem is animated by images of consumption: love, and the past, as ravenous forces; the dead, “all of us, . . .  fodder.” For Satyamurti, death is a door closed off by fate, preventing further experience:

You hardly notice the sealed doors

but, look, you’re in a cul-de-sac, it’s dark,
and all the happening has already happened.

There is, inevitably, an air of finality to the closing poems in Satyamurti’s collection: these are her last words. For Callihan and Farris, on the other hand, current good health, however shaky, is implied. Still, transience versus solidity remains a major dichotomy for all three poets. When writing of cancer, a life’s mutability might be foregrounded or displaced by wider collective struggles. Satyamurti quotes Karl Marx with the title of her poem “All that Is Solid Melts into Air,” proof of her more social focus, whereas Callihan and Farris write in the confessional vein. All three poets, though, look beyond the fragile, convalescent female body in hopes that their voices, as recorded in these luminous collections, will live on.




Rebecca Foster is an American freelance writer and proofreader based in the UK. Her book reviews and articles have featured in Literary Hub, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement. An associate editor with Bookmarks magazine, she has twice served as a judge for the McKitterick Prize. She regularly reviews poetry for Shelf Awareness and has had poetry reviews and essays published by Foreword Reviews, Kirkus, [PANK], PN Review, and Wasafiri. More from this author →