A Blessing and a Curse

It used to be that no one talked about cancer. These days we talk about it a lot, and our metaphors are military. The disease is something we battle or fight. Those verbs ennoble and empower us. They disguise the helplessness cancer imposes and the fact that the enemy is inside us, even part of us.

Most people being treated for cancer today are in a double position. To overcome the disease, they undergo trials. These involve difficult, sometimes humiliating medical procedures and painful side effects. To be healed, we must be wounded. To defend ourselves, we submit to attack. The disease locates a potentially fatal otherness in the self. Something alien within must be rooted out.

J. D. McClatchy—a distinguished poet and one of the world’s leading librettists—explores these paradoxes in “Radiation Days” by chronicling his own cancer treatment. Unsparingly frank and surprisingly funny, risking self-exposure in search of moral knowledge, McClatchy seeks to gain in this poem some control over an experience that is all about the loss of control.

The therapy begins with McClatchy lying “Belly down on the hot seat,” while a bed of “liquid Styrofoam” shapes itself around him “as both armor and target.” His behind is exposed, and the spot that will be radiated is outlined in blue ink, describing “A constellation that begs to be dubbed Anus Major.”  Treated like the late Queen Mother by two faithful attendants, he inserts his face in a “rubber crown of office / As if in shame for what I have done / To deserve such fear, such care.” Here, the quality of care is itself frightening—and shaming, though the patient has done nothing to be ashamed of.

What does it feel like, then, to be bombarded by radiation? It’s nothing out of the ordinary; it’s only how a chicken feels when it is shoved in the oven. “If I check an hour later and open the door, / I can hear the skin crackling,” McClatchy notes, somehow both inside and outside the experience, the cook and the cooked.

Pondering the dynamics of the disease, McClatchy proposes metastatic cancer cells as a model for the appetites and anxieties that drive us blindly onward in life. “We all keep moving, restlessly, / Willfully, toward something that will hurt.” But what lesson is there in that? Indeed, “by now what can pain teach any of us?” Is cancer only something to be suffered and, at best, endured? Or, if there is nothing to be learned, is that the lesson?

At intervals in the poem, McClatchy interjects a haiku. These three-line reflections suggest the “three chemo pills” he takes daily. They are “Hard fates,” but by making something out of them, finding in them a simple principle of aesthetic form, the patient turns into a poet and does more than merely “swallow” them.

It may be impossible not to experience cancer as a “curse.” But if so, McClatchy finds a countervailing “blessing” in the man standing beside him “day in, night out.” Love, like disease, is irrational. At its best and purest, when it is “undeserved and unfathomable,” it can be just as fierce and implacable.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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