Review | The Triumph of Cancer by Chris McCabe

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The scientific language used by doctors to describe cancer—the uncontrollable growth of a single cell—is often mystifying and alienating. Can the experience of cancer better be expressed through poetry? McCabe’s latest poetry collection The Triumph of Cancer, a work searching for ways to articulate his father’s brain cancer, and in turn his own grief, attempts to deal with this question.

Pain is often thought of as a unique experience that cannot be communicated or shared through language in a way that does justice to the feelings of the sufferer. The same can be said of cancer. The longest poem in the collection, ‘Cancer’, begins to work through the ineffability of the illness:

The mind says : I will fight this to the last of my
………enzymes
but what is it, exactly, that I’m fighting? The doctor blinks.
If he was a theorist, he would answer : cancer is rhizomatic, the
………root stalk
like the surface of a body of water, spreads towards all available
space, eroding what’s in its way.

McCabe’s elegies for his father, and for famous poets struck down by cancer, push poetic language to map and mirror what happens to the body when cancer invades it. The poet explores the connection between poetry and science, writing the body in a way that we can all understand. In ‘Hodgkins’, the growth of cells ‘disperse like salmon up spinal fluid, stake out the brain’, and in ‘Snooker’, they’re a bunch of balls which ‘mutate into reds & the white/ swallowed in reds endless reds’. In ‘Worm’, the image of an injured and regenerating worm merges with the medical image of growing cells: the worm, ‘cut by boys into tapas rings’, ‘divided & multiplied/divided & multiplied/divided & multiplied.’ Here, form mirrors the mutation and growth of cells, and the text like body becomes a living, breathing and growing organism. In one particularly ugly poem, in which ‘an unaccepted pint is a cubed kestrel’, McCabe mutates Hopkins’ sonnet ‘The Windhover’ and makes a tumour out of it.

The effect of blurring science and poetry is not to reassure the sufferer, as we might expect, or to destigmatize the language of illness from metaphors of battle and invasion, but instead to unsettle the reader. For McCabe, cancers are ‘concealers of threat’ and ‘terrorists’. The collection feeds this atmosphere of terror with poems revealing cancerous global politics— images of shattered snow globes drift in and out between flashes of scattered bodies and bombs. The triumph of cancer is the triumph of terror—the fear arising from knowing ‘you can get it anywhere’, that it can take people before their time, and that it can attack anyone:

We must think of cells, in the
………end,
as the novice on the ice rink, life as the lines left in the surface,     
after the dance. This is cancer’s triumph.

The collection is an uncomfortable read. But if McCabe explores the role of poetic language in expressing the experience of cancer and pain, he also tests the role of art in helping overcome trauma for the sufferer and the bereaved. Varying linguistic registers in the collection face cancer head-on with dark humour. In ‘Cinema’, an elegy for his father’s voice lost to cancer, memories of conversations with his father on the way to watch a film are pitted against medical voices: ‘What exactly is the treatment here going to be then? Quite simple really: we’re just going to show you some film.’ McCabe uses broken images, layered allusions and references to other literary texts to confront cancer with a darkly comic tone, like the darkly ironic end to ‘Cinema’:

Anecdotes on Joyce & Sterne. Stein at breakfast. Unasked for Hopkins. Cancer, in the end, was more avant-garde.

The collection’s relationship to elegy, cancer and the role of art in helping overcome trauma is complex, but certainly not unrewarding to unpick. Moments of terror and pessimism are frequently undercut by linguistic experimentation and sarcasm. The collection becomes a medium for the poet to find the right language to feel in control of cancer, and to begin to come to terms with his father’s death. Poetry becomes a way not only to express pain, but also to overcome that pain— as the hopeful end of ‘Body’ articulates:

With each death a desire for body. For witness. For song.

Words by Molly Moss.

For more on Chris McCabe, visit Penned in the Margins.


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