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THE VISCOSITY OF HONEY
by Lori Tucker-Sullivan
Ann Arbor, Michigan

I have spent the wrong season hibernating
and I'm not yet able to wake
and move.
Though the warm days are growing shorter
and overripe vegetables sag from the plants
in our neglected garden.

I walk in something the viscosity of honey.
Its ability to pull me down into a deep sleep is as sweet.

I will not look at the calendar until September,
and indeed the day planners
on our laundry room wall — usually overflowing
with activities, appointments, special dates —
blare at me with white emptiness.
I will think about life, and take part in its continuity,
when This is Over.
When I am not making daily treks to a hospital,
or striking whispered bargains into thin air.
I will live again when I can look without crying
at an elderly couple holding hands.

I make a deal with this disease, offering up a summer,
one short season: a few months
we should have spent vacationing.
Have it, I say. Take it.
I will spend these sunny days in waiting rooms,
sitting in infusion centers, reading in the ER,

napping with shades drawn to invoke winter twilight.
I cannot seem to speak the words “New Year”
for fear of sounding too self-assured against this threat.
And I fear the retribution crossing that line might bring.
I rub his bald head, try to joke about his lost memory.
I shudder as I feel his thinning frame beside me in bed.
I buy him hats, and together
we watch baseball games on television.
All in an effort to stave off, or give into.
As weeks turn to a month, I’m no longer certain.

In return though, I demand:
I want this disease out of my house (for good this time),
by the days when October’s chill is on my skin.
Only then can I plan for birthdays and holidays,
what we might do for Thanksgiving,
or what will grow in next year’s garden.

I want us to awaken. To see rain turn to snow
and know that this has passed. Though I also know
that there will never again be certainty.
A cough will bring fear at its most abject.
A headache will bring tears that paralyze as they fall.
I know that not all will return as quickly
as hair on his head,
or feeling to his fingertips.

 

Lori Tucker-Sullivan’s husband, Kevin, was diagnosed in 2008 with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma. Writing poetry helped, she says: “It was a release of a lot of anger over why this had been visited on our family. My husband was healthy and took great pains to be healthy. He was a marathon runner, ate the right foods, and didn't smoke. And yet.” He passed away in 2010.

Tucker-Sullivan, forty-nine, earned an MFA from Spalding University. She has had essays published in The Sun, Now & Then: The Magazine of Appalachian Studies, and in local and publishing trade publications. She works for a group of independent bookstores. Her son, Austin, twenty, is pursuing a career in dance; her daughter, Madeleine, fifteen, is a high-school student. They live in Dexter, Michigan, in a one-hundred-year-old farmhouse that she and Kevin renovated in the early years of their marriage.


NIGHT AT THE OPERA
by Marc Straus
New York

Blood gushing, severed limbs flying everywhere.
I am laughing uncontrollably. It’s Chain Saw Massacre
Number IV
, and Lisa is yelling from under the
pillow, Dad, you’re a big sicko. My son, Jason,

won’t ever watch a horror film with me. I had mocked
Alien I. I couldn't help it. The goop dribbling
from the monster’s mouth was hilarious. It’s too late
for my wife to complain. After our first date (we saw

Psycho at the Rialto), she said that Norman Bates
was a modern Oedipus tragedy, and I said that Norman
was the funniest character I had seen in a movie
since the great Groucho in Night at the Opera.

Doesn't anything ever scare you, Daddy? Lisa
recently asked me. Yes, I said. I am frightened
out of my mind each time I see Glioblastoma multiforme,
and for every kid with acute lymphocytic leukemia.

     

Marc Straus is a mostly retired oncologist who has opened a contemporary art gallery, Marc Straus LLC, on New York’s Lower Eastside. He has three collections of poetry from TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University Press. Not God, the most recent book, is a play in verse that has been staged Off Broadway. The two characters are a woman hospitalized with cancer and her oncologist; various poems have since been added to the play, including the poem here.

Straus is the recipient of numerous poetry awards, including a residency at Yaddo and the Robert Penn Warren Award in the Humanities from Yale Medical School. His poems have appeared in many leading journals. He lives with his wife, Livia, whom he met on the first day of ninth grade. They have two children and five grandchildren.

     

I CAN TAKE IT
by Micah Chatterton
Los Angeles

We had a trick for pain.
He would clench one or two of my fingers
when we saw the hot moment coming, whenever
we had the luxury of preparing ourselves,
and as the bandage ripped, as the tube pulled
or the needle dug, he'd crush my fingers
as hard as his small hand could grind.
He'd bend them sideways, rolling
my knuckles like stones in a backflow.
We imagined the pain passing from its source
like gleaming dye, up through the estuaries
of his body, through his stronger arm
and back into the rock of my fist.
He truly wanted to hurt me, not to punish
me for letting the doctors claw at him,
but to keep from being alone
in the dry white spotlight of suffering.
I always lied a little, exaggerated
his strength, wincing and sweating, setting
my jaw to let him believe he could break me,
to show him he was not alone, to show him
how to let these things happen and go on.

On the last day, his tumor damming
the nerves from brain to diaphragm,
his body was forgetting how to breathe.
He could not speak, except for hand signals—
a weak thumbs-up, a flipped bird, “eat,” “sleep,” “milk.”
As his chest began to still like sailcloth,
I held a Good Humor bar to his lips, read
Psalms and Dogen. I made up a story
of two heroes who were caught in a storm
and blown to opposite shores of a black ocean.
They never stopped loving each other, always
carrying pictures of the lost one in their minds,
always searching. After many years, they found
each other again on some warm, unmapped
coast, so they knew then they would always
find each other. I tried to prepare him, to comfort
him by being strong enough to let this happen.
I didn't want him to fear for me too.
“Imagine the pain coming from your heart,
up through your shoulder, down through
your arm, into your hand, and then my hand,
because they're the same,” I told him, gasping.
“Give me your pain, Ezra.”
He clasped my fingers as hard as he could.
“I can take it,” I lied.

     

Micah Chatterton’s ten-year-old son, Ezra, was diagnosed with stage-three thallamic astrocytoma in April 2007.

“His doctors expected him to only have three months before the cancer overtook his brain,” says Chatterton, thirty-two. “He lived eighteen months, until October 2008, through chemo and proton radiation, through many losses and setbacks. Yet, despite all of that, many of those months were the happiest of my life, when I got to see how truly impassioned Ezra was for living, and when I got to feel my greatest pride over the strong, resilient, gracious person he'd grown to be.”

Chatterton’s poems and essays have appeared in The Coachella Review, Mosaic, Naranjas y Nopales, and Main Channel Voices.  He lives in Riverside, California, and works as an elementary school librarian, “trying to teach students to love words and paper as much as I do.” He and his wife are “happily expecting our first child together, my second son.”

     

ONLY LIFE
by Don Colburn
Portland

It’s only life, my friend would say
when everydayness leaned in
on him. I knew not to take him lightly,
for Vic was older and had been to war,
had lost a job or two, a wife,
his shirt in the market.
Plus, Vic is from Minneapolis
and rarely overstates things. Not bad, he said,
when Jack Morris pitched 10 shutout innings
in the seventh game of the World Series
or spring showed up with daffodils
after a week of cold rain.
For years, I knew exactly what
Vic was saying about his life
and mine: no biggie, suck it up, don’t think
so much about your own stubbed toe.
Until today, when we met for lunch
at the Chinese place in Vic’s high-rise
so he wouldn’t have to walk outside.
First time I’d seen him since the biopsy
and the start of what’s left.
Vic was wearing an old Twins ballcap,
not wanting to scare me. We hugged
clumsily and sat.
You know what Adam said

to Eve in the Garden, he deadpanned,
and I laughed at his punch line, same
as in the old days. We ordered egg rolls,
asparagus and sweet-and-sour shrimp,
with chopsticks and tea. Like before.
Then, mid-sentence, Vic’s voice
gave out and he held up one hand
to say, don’t worry, this won’t be pretty
but give me a moment — and coughed
from way down, a slurry ruckus.
He gathered himself to finish
his thought, then caught a breath.
It’s only life, I blurted,
hating what I had just said,
except Vic raised his index finger
and smiled and nodded: But life.

     

Don Colburn, sixty-five, is a writer in Portland, Oregon. During a long career as a health reporter for newspapers including The Washington Post and The Oregonian, he interviewed hundreds of people touched by cancer. Among the many fine journalists he worked with at The Washington Post was Victor Cohn, once known as the dean of American newspaper science and medical writers. Cohn helped his colleagues keep things in perspective with wry humor, exemplified by his oft-repeated remark: “It's only life.”

Colburn has published one book of poems, As If Gravity Were a Theory, and two chapbooks: Another Way to Begin and Because You Might Not Remember. His many writing honors include the Discovery/The Nation Award, the Finishing Line Prize and the Cider Press Book Award. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. His latest manuscript is a sequence of poetic monologues called Tomorrow Too: The Brenda Monologues, based on the true story of a woman facing breast cancer and pregnancy at the same time.

     

SECOND CHANCES
by Tracy Rothschild Lynch
Richmond, Virginia

It isn’t enough to be handed your life,
delicate as an encyclopedia page,
for you to protect.
You are expected to make something of it too.
Craft it, fold it, bend it,
shape it.
Shape it up.
You tell yourself that again
and again,
and yet again.
Sometimes it is part of what you pray.
A promise of sorts.
Or sometimes
it’s all you’ve got to say
to God
or to anyone.
Because you do know
it’s good to be here
with your life in your hands,
and there are ways —
there have got to be ways —
to mold it
to shape it
        up
and into something entirely new,
a life you’ve never seen before
and don’t recognize.

Your breasts are gone.
The cancer is gone,
they say.
And you are
        here.
        Still.

Holding this life,
finally looking in the mirror.
In fact,
you look familiar.

     

A creative nonfiction writer and editor, Tracy Rothschild Lynch, forty-three, says she has always written poetry in secret. “A friend gave me The Cancer Poetry Project when I was in the thick of chemo. I couldn’t read it for quite a while — months, actually — because when I picked it up, even the very first poem I opened to spoke such beautiful truth to what I was going through and who I had become: a cancer patient, a cancer survivor. Poetry is a beautiful ‘secret code’ for those who have been affected by cancer — we can put together the words, form the memories of our own experiences, and take another step in our healing process simply by knowing that someone else gets it.”

Lynch says she wrote this poem, in part, because of the pressure cancer survivors put on themselves to learn something from their experience, to (as she says in the poem) “make something of it.”

Lynch lives in Glen Allen, Virginia, with her family. Husband Mike “took over all ‘jobs’ of a mommy during my illness with grace, humor, and tremendous support. Daughters Kylie and Cameron, both middle schoolers, taught me the most during my illness. Witnessing the experience through their eyes made me stronger, more determined, more passionate. The depth of their love for me is astounding and mutual.”

     

GONE
by Jadon Fimon
Rochester, Minnesota

Today I got a sticky grabber from Perkins.
It cost one quarter and came out of the machine in a plastic egg.
It looks like a little lizard.

My green chameleon is so great; he can fly in my imagination.
        With a long tail I can stick him to anything I want.

I swing it around like a helicopter blade.
I once watched Mayo One blast off into the sky
‘til I couldn’t see it anymore.

I sling my sticky grabber onto my mom.
        Maybe it will take her cancer away…

     

Jadon Fimon, now seven, was only three when his mother, Michelle, was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was an especially difficult period for both of them that year: While Michelle was losing her breasts and hair, Jadon was being tested for autism. Although the school district labeled him with both Asperger’s and ADHD, the tests also revealed that he’s academically gifted. Jadon now receives his education via an online public-school format at home, allowing him to focus his talents and thrive, especially in the creative arts.

In kindergarten, Jadon won the Richard Eberhart Poetry Contest for “The Stormy Night,” and he gave his first public poetry reading at age five, when he also wrote “Gone.” (His mother’s poem, “Morning Mastectomy,” also appears in The Cancer Poetry Project 2.) Jadon, his mom, and the sticky grabber make their home in southern Minnesota, where they all celebrate the fact that Mommy’s cancer is gone.

     

SHAVING OUR HEADS
by Gail Rudd Entrekin
San Francisco

I say I’ll shave my head, become a moon-
face-bald-pink-shining defenseless-
seeming creature in some kind of funny hat,

when your hair falls out in tufts on the pillowcase
in the morning, your crisp silver beard thins,
soft flesh under chin shows through.

When we shave our hair, our skin-covered skulls,
which we have never seen, will be revealed,
embarrassed in their naked whiteness,

their lumps and bumps and funny spots, no help
for the unfortunate contours of our faces,
our strange prominent noses or ears,

heads that haven’t been seen by anyone
since we were babies and our mothers
ran their fingers through our delicate fuzz,

our fathers palmed our noggins
in their callused hands, admired how like
heavy fruit we felt, and wondered who was waiting
inside these perfect structures,
these elegant bony domes.

     

“If you’ve never shaved your head, I recommend it,” says Gail Rudd Entrekin, sixty-four, who shaved hers in solidarity and support of her husband. “People look at you differently. It’s interesting to be perceived in a whole new way, and it’s fascinating and freeing to see your simple face, uncluttered by the distractions of hair.”

Her husband, Charles (whose poem, “What Remains,” also appears in The Cancer Poetry Project), was diagnosed with incurable (but remissible) chronic lymphocytic leukemia in February 2007. “Most days we remember to be mindful and to savor every moment of our lives,” she says.

“Shaving Our Heads” appears in Entrekin’s newest book of poems, Rearrangement of the Invisible (Poetic Matrix Press, 2012). She and her husband are poets, editors and former teachers of creative writing and English literature. They are also publishers of Hip Pocket Press, and she is the editor of the online environmental literary magazine, Canary. All of their five grown children live nearby in San Francisco’s lovely East Bay.

     

POSTED NOTICE FOR PILEATED WOODPECKER
by Laura L. Snyder
Seattle

Every day between 10 and 2 p.m.
I will stretch myself on the trunk
of this pine tree until you come,
plant your spurred toes,
cock your ear, listen,
tap, tap, tap,
tap on me.
Turn your red-plumed head, listen,

and tap, tap, tap. I have chosen
you for your obsessive compulsion
to rid trees of their unseen invaders,
that rat-a-tat tat, rat-a-tat tat
that sounds clear through heavy fog.
Don’t stop, woodpecker, find the cancer
with that kind jackhammer beak,
pound, chisel out
these cells dividing rampant.

     

Laura L. Snyder, sixty-one, writes poetry about cancer to “turn the unbearable into art.” This poem, previously published in Classifieds: Anthology of Prose Poems (Equinox Publishing), sings with quirky humor and a love of the natural world.

In 2012, Snyder had published two chapbooks: Winged (Flutter Press) and Witness (Willet Press). Other recent works by Snyder can be found in Baseball Bard, Switched-on Gutenberg, Fault Lines, and Windfall. Her work is also included in three new anthologies: Hot Summer Nights, From Glory to Glory, and Cradle Songs.

Snyder is retired, but now her work is writing poetry, canning, and gardening. She has “three children, five ‘grands,’ and a tuxedo cat named Baker who brings me dead rats to inspect.” She lives in Seattle “but would rather live in the wilds in a cabin and cook on an old wood stove.”

     

TUESDAYS
by Samantha Albert
Stratford, Ontario

Every Tuesday
the journey through Chinatown
to the chemo unit at the hospital.
The stench of garbage day, heightened in July,
threatens to overwhelm me
on those days when my stomach roils
with the effect of the drugs.
I pass front yards that are seeded with concrete
and porches of dilapidated student housing
that sprout old couches and beer bottles.
Tennis shoes drape from power lines,
the decorations provided by
drug dealers marking their territories like dogs.
I pass through all of this urban grit
with a mixture of fascination and revulsion.
Then I stumble upon them
and catch my breath with the deep green lushness
of the postage-stamp gardens.
Bok choi, tat soi, guy lan
peppers, eggplant and kohl rabi.

Vegetables that I can’t identify,
but which make me feel I am in a foreign, tropical land.
These plants, growing so fervently from among the grit,
growing up, down, and out
to take advantage of every inch of space,
make me feel alive and supremely optimistic
as I leave Chinatown behind
and climb the four flights of stairs to my inevitable appointment.

     

Samantha Albert, forty-five, was diagnosed with amyloidosis — a “close cousin to multiple myeloma,” she says, in 2000. She underwent a stem cell transplant that year and, today, continues a weekly treatment with a new smart drug. “No cure, per se, but the disease is controlled.”

Why write about cancer? “What better way to say the unsayable?” she asks. “How better than poetry to capture those feelings that are sliding around inside my head that can't seem to flow through normal conversation. Poetry opens doors for those thoughts to come tumbling out in a way that captures their essence.” 

Albert has a poem published in Survivor's Review; her other publishing credits include essays in The Globe and Mail and Edible Toronto. She lives in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, with her husband, son, and two pet rats.

     

VALLEYS AND LILIES
by Nancy M. Fitzgerald
Tucson, Arizona

Say our spouses died the
same day and
left us numb and needy
among children.

The lilies of the valley
by my back door never
bloomed that spring.

Say I met you
hollow eyes, but
ruddy in your red jacket
saw you steaming
in the snow shoveling out
my driveway.

Say you said, “I’ll teach
your son to drive”
and I knew love at forty
felt different than at twenty-three.

Say my body aching from
his cancer and chemo
felt better curled next to yours.

Say I lay my head on your
chest and wept
for him—
Your cheeks wept upon my breast
for her—
Say we were healing partners.

Say all this is true
and that we survived
and from the valleys of our grief
grow lilies sweet and strong.


Nancy Madison Fitzgerald, seventy, a retired creative writing professor, was forty-two when her husband, Jack, died of bladder cancer. She met Jerry, her husband of twenty-seven years, shortly after their spouses died and they became “healing partners.” She wrote this poem during that healing time. They did their best to finish raising their six children and now live in Northport, Michigan, in the summer and Tucson, Arizona, in the winter. “Reading, teaching and writing poetry has been my life,” says Fitzgerald. “Over and over again, reading poetry has awakened me, and writing poetry has helped me find my way.” Her new book of poetry, Take a Twig, was published in January 2013.

 

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