J. D. McClatchy, who died on April 10, 2018 at his home in Manhattan, wrote “Radiation Days” in the SCHOLAR’s Spring 2018 issue. He was 72. Langdon Hammer’s introduction to the poem, “A Blessing and a Curse,” is included below:
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.
Belly down on the hot seat, I can feel the liquid Styrofoam
Shape itself around me as both armor and target.
What I can’t feel is the bull’s-eye BB delicately placed
Dead center on the wrinkled sphincter, as the tattooist
Inks five blue beads around my pelvis, mapping
A constellation that begs to be dubbed Anus Major.
The three chemo pills
There on the kitchen counter—
Hard fates to swallow.
My nurses, Kamal and Caesar, behave
Like courtiers to the late QM,
Steadying me by the elbows on the stepladder,
Discreetly hiking up my gown, guiding
My knees as if onto a pew where a kind soul
Has ballpointed X’s on the sheet for my knees.
Now I am aligned with the routine, and lower
My face into the rubber crown of office
As if in shame for what I have done
To deserve such fear, such care.
It is less the procedure itself that is painful
Than the getting to and from it—the constant
Motion: the long subway ride and extra blocks
To the hospital, the waiting room delays,
The bowlegged trip home, getting into and out of bed,
Sitting, walking, chafing, squirming.
Only by lying perfectly still most of the day later
Does the pain recede, even nearly vanish.
If pain is caused by motion, the necessity
To move from one thing to another—
Not unlike metastasizing cancer cells—
Will that explain why, say, the furtive appointments
Adultery mandates are exhausting and finally
Cause an anguish nothing can soothe,
Or why dining with a rival who sees right through me
Or sitting in on a meeting that denies him a prize
Prompts an ache I irritate until the doctor is puzzled?
Probably not. We all keep moving, restlessly,
Willfully, toward something that will hurt.
But by now what can pain teach any of us?
When I’m shown the inserted scope’s view of things,
The tumor itself looks like a hard candy,
Lemon chiffon with thin bands of red and white stripes,
Almost the pattern of the parlor’s wallpaper
In a Jane Austen novel. As the weeks go on,
I can see in the bowl the sloughed cells
The beam has killed, shreds of gray mucus,
Just as winters in Bath would have blistered the top edges
Of the wallpaper Mother keeps meaning to mend
But never does. You get used to anything.
My arms are folded and tucked beside my head
Like the legs of a rotisserie chicken,
Before I am slid into the oven.
If I check an hour later and open the door,
I can hear the skin crackling,
The juices running down the thigh.
At the back of the oven a phone is ringing.
The Linear Accelerator I lie under each day
Looks like throwback sci-fi, sleek metallic
Compartments a bank of computers rotate.
The electro-magnetic force surges up
Through the klystron amplifier,
Through the waveguide to the bending magnet
Which sets the fluence of x-ray photons
Into the gantry’s hovering circle of metallic lights,
Blinking red signals and vents that control
The radio-biological effect aimed at my alpha cradle,
And then deep inside to the already smouldering tissue.
And alcohol, how do I
Goose or soothe an hour?
Yanking down my pants—in time or not—
I think how each day’s scorching diarrhea
Disrupts the fatuous idea that my body is
Under my control. But why am I—spent,
Soiled, acid-stung—so exhilarated
By my own helplessness, possessed
By a lower power bent on humiliating me?
I spread my legs and bend over the bowl.
There is the mess of pottage I stare at,
Wondering how the inside of me has come
To hate the rest of me which has done nothing,
Nothing to aggravate it but be a body.
My first day at the hospital, I was given a PET scan
And injected intravenously with a thick sugar syrup.
Cancer cells—as who does not?—love sweets
And light up when the syrup oozes near them—
Allowing the scan to track where they have clustered,
Where they are heading. For that one moment only
They are still, grateful, joyous.
Or is it me they like? Short-tempered, blunt,
Vain, miserly, revengeful, diabetic me?
They may not light up but they do return.
This is the second time they have taken up residence
In the same part of my body, the one that oversees
Reproduction and elimination, the minimalist’s
Methods, though my cancers seem blowsy.
And why me again? Is that “right”?
I mean, morally, morally right—the wrong question
I ask because I was brought up to believe everything
Is either right or wrong. So is cancer “wrong”?
Cells are behaving unnaturally but only because we do
Not know why. In their own way, they are like the man
Who stands beside me day in, night out, his love
And patience undeserved and unfathomable,
Which may, in this instance, be how best to understand
Right and wrong, or join the blessing with the curse.
The doctors pronounce themselves pleased
At the start of what will be months more
Of surgeries, ileostomies, long chemo drips.
But for now, that is next, and they are pleased.
The young Vietnamese radiologist wants a last look.
Already naked, I lie sidelong on the examining table,
And he gingerly spreads my now withered buttocks.
I cannot see what he is looking at
But I can hear his smile. “Wonderful!”
He assures me. “It looks just like Dresden.”
The last chemo pills—
Gulped in anticipation
Of the end of things.
The final sessions are two Cone Down days.
All the charts are rejiggered. New stars
Are taped to my pelvis. The collateral damage
Of occasional lethal leakage—the scrotum molt,
The festering ulcers at the tip of my penis—
Is ignored. The ordinance map of my insides
Is erased: the lymphatic suburbs,
The malignant hedgerows, the bladder’s white cliffs,
Everything is erased, so that whatever is left of the tumor
Is the only target, and for two days Big Bertha is dropped
There, only there, as if through the imagined Cone
The photon chorus is crooning Die, oh die.
When it is over, I cannot walk or sit,
So I lie across the backseat of a taxi.
I tell the driver to hightail it, and we skid away
From the cure.
I can smell the tire rubber burning.