Revising, re-seeing, re-living with metastatic breast cancer
When I was sixteen, I fell in love with my high school English teacher, who introduced me to poetry. We read Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, Lucille Clifton and Sylvia Plath, and every time we discussed a poem’s language, line breaks, or metaphors, I felt a fluttering in my belly and a tingling in my senses. I was hooked! Since that 11th-grade American Literature class, I have spent my life being close to poetry, which so eloquently translates life’s many complexities.
So, when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I dove into poetry, where I could process the many emotions surrounding my diagnosis. The poem-writing process invites me to hold space for my sadness and grief while simultaneously offering freedom and a sense of control. Writing poems is like standing in a doorway. It’s a space of infinite possibility, and I get to choose which way to go, which image to use, or how to fill the blank space. Images ground the moment, opening a safe way into my murky subconscious. Then I choose specific language and use line breaks and stanzas to process, translate, and shape difficult emotions.
Over the years, I’ve realized that I cannot wait for the muse to bless me with the perfect metaphor, so I write every day. I picked up a new way of writing poems from U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón. She talks about writing poems in “batches.” Sometimes these “batches” of poems are borne from sounds, sometimes images. I often start a poem with an image, a picture with words.
In a poem about the time before my radical right-breast mastectomy, I have been exploring the moment when the surgeon—doused in heavy cologne—took out a black Sharpie and started to carelessly draw all over my body. Meanwhile, on the other side of a curtain, another surgeon talked to a man about his loose, wobbly teeth. In my poem, I envision a world for both of us. While under anesthetic, we meet and hold hands to let each other know that we understand and recognize each other. At the end of the poem, however, there is no map for life after surgery.
Writing poetry helps me to cope and process. A poem’s placement on the page and its use of line breaks and stanzas mirrors how the psyche works. A line starts and then breaks in the middle of a thought which is a bit like how grief and even joy work. And a poem uses breath, especially in the cadence of language, and space, in and around a poem. In my recent work, I am experimenting with new ways to place words on the page to create meaning and offer space for silence. In a new poem, I join words together to reflect how we subconsciously harm each other and how suffocating that feels (walkonsomethingwithoutpermissiontramplesomeoneelse’slonelyplowforwardwithout asking). Notice, what comes up for you after you read this line.
It’s a tightrope walk;
a roller coaster;
a path through the wilderness that I once used to backpack – at times steep, exhausting, muddy, slippery, stormy, unrelenting – at times the surroundings are so beautiful and precious that it simply takes my breath away.
A metaphor is a figure of speech in which you compare two unlike things: A is B. The transformative power of the metaphor is the mind’s ability to create C, a new way of seeing. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Metastatic Breast Cancer” uses the metaphor to radically transform how I live with MBC.
As a poet, I am constantly revising. Even the poem featured here has been revised. Revision is crucial because it invites me to re-see a poem, which also translates into my own life. I constantly prune and mold, cut and add, revisit, and listen deeply. This practice invites me to intentionally connect with the language, notice the beauty and wonder of the world around me, and open me up to more than I thought possible.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Metastatic Breast Cancer (Revised)
|I.||Occupied country, ragged from war.|
|II.||Patched and painted ceiling|
|repair, starting to leak again,
|III.||Sealed but never sent|
|IV.||Teenager’s messy bedroom|
|floor, covered with candy wrappers,
dirty t-shirts, paintbrushes,
and half-read books.
|V.||Avenue of unfixed potholes.|
|Shambles of echoes.|
|VI.||Two open cupped hands.|
|VII.||Rough, calloused fingers|
|rubbing a child’s small smooth
|VIII.||White square Post-It Note|
|folded into an origami heart.|
|IX.||Empty summer hammock.|
|with only 19 of 25 clues found.|
|XI.||Perfectly fitted taffeta|
|dress with deep side pockets.|
|XII.||Mourning dove’s goodbye or hello song|
|sounding through its skin.|
|XIII.||5:00 am: bird scuttle outside.|
|5:33 am: silence, gratitude, dawn.|
Jenny's current reading list
If you want to read more poetry, Jenny shares her recommendations of recent releases from contemporary artists:
The views and opinions of our bloggers represent the views and opinions of the bloggers alone and not those of Living Beyond Breast Cancer. Also understand that Living Beyond Breast Cancer does not medically review any information or content contained on, or distributed through, its blog and therefore does not endorse the accuracy or reliability of any such information or content. Through our blog, we merely seek to give individuals creative freedom to tell their stories. It is not a substitute for professional counseling or medical advice.
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