Merryn Williams is moved and impressed by Rosie Garland’s poetic memoir of recovery from cancer
I was once judging a competition for a medical charity and came across a memorable poem called ‘Stripper’ (whose author, sadly, I forget). The protagonist was not a nightclub performer but a woman with cancer who is forced to strip off clothes, make-up, jewellery, until she is reduced to a bare forked animal. The medical workers said, yes, they had seen this happen many times.
Rosie Garland, who has had throat cancer, evidently had this experience:
Remove your shoes and other cruel objects –
belt buckle, wedding ring, neck chains hung
with crosses – and kneel. Dust off the night’s dirt
crusting the hollows between rib and rib,
and where the sockets of the eyes are dark
with decades of soot. Secure the body to the slab
She tells us how the disease sneaked up on her, from behind my back / while I’m washing the dishes. She goes through various stages, at first, denial – ‘Camouflage’, Why you did not pick up the phone after Tuesday. Then there is the hanging around in waiting-rooms, eying the other patients. After that come weight loss, hair loss, and painkillers – as in a striking poem ‘Incubus’:
You come in the wee hours; time so small
I measure it in minutes;
increments of how long I can endure
before surrender to the need, the crave.
04.21. 04.23. 04.27.
I paw the glow-worm blur of the call button.
At the foot of the bed you separate
yourself from the ward’s half-night, offer
a virtuous 2.5 ml, then tempt with a sluttish 5.
You bring an apprentice to the sorcery who double-checks
the measured dose on a clipboard, totting up
another column in the register of sins committed.
Your hand guides, sheathes the needle’s
little prick in flesh, plunges the calm flood.
The ward she inhabits is full of women as men seldom see them, bald-headed and deprived of dignity. Medical staff are not always considerate. People who she thought were close friends disappear.
But what a tough character Rosie is, like the fellow-patient, probably dying of lung cancer, who goes out to smoke in the hospital car park ‘to get some fresh air’. She is now back in circulation. Many of us are ostriches, and will shrink from reading her poems because we know it can’t happen to us, but those who are fighting a serious illness may get great comfort from them.