The ubiquitous reality of cancer had persuaded me the world did not need another cancer poem. It had all been said. Could there be a subject more distressing and dreary? But having lived the roles of caregiver, patient, and survivor, I remained puzzled as to how to understand the ten years of my life that had been overtaken by this empress of all maladies, to play on a phrase from Siddhartha Mukherjee.
In June 2009, my beloved older brother died from multiple myeloma. Two weeks before his exit, his life partner began a ten-year wrestling match with breast cancer. By fall 2010, we had also buried our father and baby sister. My dear fifteen-year-old standard poodle followed shortly thereafter. Then I got the phone call, in spring 2011. One year later, my husband launched into treatment for stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. My best friend’s five-year engagement with ovarian cancer came to an end, taking our forty-five-year relationship with it. What do you do while sitting in grief’s debris?
A recent New Yorker profile of Peter Sacks captures what may be the best answer for someone like me. You turn to your art:
An elegiac poem doesn’t merely describe loss. Instead, like a funeral ceremony, the writing of an elegy is “a symbolic action,” a ritual, with two aims: remembering the dead and helping the living return to the stream of life. The work of elegiac writing memorializes and revitalizes. It helps poets accept the continued existence of their own creativity. Paralyzed by loss, they are inclined to grieve in silence. They must learn to speak again.
Like the fire-bellied toad that deploys thanatosis to stay safe from predators, I lay still, hoping to be overlooked by cancer’s wandering eye. To no avail. I rose only to sit at my desk and let grief spill: from heart to fingertip, some days a flood, other days a raging river. Sometimes a grocery list or the monthly budget was all that was left to record. As notebooks piled up, unrelenting insomnia overtook me. My startle reflex refused to shut down after years of late-night calls and emergency room runs, and sleep became a series of two-hour naps. Zopiclone offered four hours and a hangover.
The compulsion to write did not abate. It was my refuge. Most scribbles are not art, but I doubt there is much art created without them. The really good stuff is usually found in the margins. Love and loss are central to the lyric tradition, but these threads were tangled in a complex story. How was I to find the concentrated solitude that I needed to reconcile myself to this tsunami of loss while family members were still ill? Where would I find the energy to revive my flagging spirit? What literary anchors might hold me steady and give the particulars of our family story universal reach?
I did not pursue the creative process in any kind of linear fashion. Indeed, I was far more like a hungry lioness on the prowl — searching, smelling, waiting in the tall grass for prey. When I spotted an intuitive hunch, I would pursue it quietly, carefully — so as to not scare it off. I would not lose it once it was sighted.
I began with rereading my own diaries, searching for moments that stood out and metaphors that had promise. Those piles of notebooks became a sheaf of papers with a few lines or scribbles on each. I struck out on solo expeditions, including Banff’s five-week writers’ studio. Cruising to the Panama Canal brought awe as the sun rose over the jungle and the call of howler monkeys echoed across the water from the treetops. The poet Danna Ephland, a lifelong friend and fellow dancer, introduced me to the GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers, Michigan. A long weekend to Stratford proved mesmerizing, as Lucy Peacock and Seana McKenna headlined Mary Stuart. While there, I visited a shaman, who took me outside my comfort zone and opened my imagination in ways I could not have predicted. The warmth of a beaver pelt, the whiff of gardenia oil — my senses were revitalized.
Online later that evening, I happened upon Anne Carson’s play Antigonick and laughed with delight! Suddenly, I caught a thread: Sophocles’ young, defiant character had been so much a part of my years at university, alongside my older brother, Bruce. Here Antigone was again, unexpectedly, but now I was mourning the loss of a beloved brother, his ashes buried illegally, among the tall grasses of a city park. What would I tell dear Antigone? What would I want to tell Bruce? Ahhhh. There it was: he and I had shared an intellectual sojourn that led us far from our father, whose own spiritual quest had so shaped the arc of our lives. Bruce died knowing our baby sister was terminally ill, our father faltering, and his partner diagnosed. I followed the thread to the heart of the matter: Could I write a book and tell my brother what unfolded in the wake of his death? Answering this question evolved into the warp and weft of the manuscript.
Carson’s work challenged, comforted, and inspired, as did the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, Alice Oswald, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, and Don McKay. Atul Gawande, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Adam Phillips, and Virginia Woolf, especially On Being Ill, provided both medical and psychological insight.
I sat at the loom of my desk in the after hours, weaving the various strands of the story. Lunch breaks at work became coffee klatches with the poet Don Coles. On early pages, he marked black circles around words he believed were knots in the way of a good line. Coffee after coffee, line after line, in between conversations about Wimbledon, our shared history at York University and the Banff Centre, and our families who summered by Lake Huron, he would laugh gently as the pile of tangled words began to resemble a flock of sheep. Watching and listening to him as he worked, I learned to edit a line.
As we made our way through the individual poems, I began to wonder if the story could be told in a long poem so my reader could follow the narrative arc. Could shorter, lyrical outtakes show where I had paused? Could I make it all align visually?
Finally, I thought the manuscript ready for publishers. Rejections all round, and feedback suggested it needed more work. As I sat on Pelee Island, reflecting on what now, an acceptance note from Pedlar Press arrived. You’d assume I did happy dances up and down the shores of Lake Erie, snake phobias aside. I didn’t. Instead, a large breaker of profound ambivalence rolled up on shore. I paused, acknowledging I had a choice. Then I dove in and began a six-month editing process with the Griffin finalist John Glenday. The press’s acquisitions editor, Monica Kidd, was relentless in her efforts to ensure my vision might be realized. And once the revisions were finished, the dead memorialized, I had to learn to speak again.
Memorizing my own poems and addressing my older brother as if he were sitting with me by the fire created a level of embodiment I had never known. A voice coach taught me how not to panic as lines unpredictably raised the waterline in my vision. (That she had lost her twin brother to cancer had sealed our bond.) Inspired by the recent restaging of Molly Peacock’s play in poems The Shimmering Verge, I launched Vanishing Acts — not just reading, but performing it to a roomful of friends. Relieved, exhausted, I took my final bow and resurfaced to a standing ovation. A soft wave of deep elation enveloped me. Not only had I learned to speak again after ten years, I knew love among the living.
Moira MacDougall is the magazine’s poetry editor. Her latest collection is Vanishing Acts.