Divided and Multiplied: Writing The Triumph of Cancer

Blog | Published on April 2, 2019

Chris McCabe reflects on the multiplying effects of writing about cancer in his latest poetry collection The Triumph of Cancer.

The Triumph of Cancer marks a break, or mutation in my work, towards a new kind of writing. A ‘mutation’ is the word that oncologists use to describe a dividing cell. Sometimes when this happens the cell no longer understands its instructions and grows out of control. This image was explored in a famous advert that was printed in the American press in December 1969 and playfully corrupted the last letters of the word ‘cancer’, showing cells spiralling out from the typography:

I visualised this moment of the dividing cell in a visual poem which appears early in the collection and sets the tone for the kind of poetic language I was exploring in this book:

it, it, it, it, it, it, it

it‎, it, it, it, it, it, it

it, it, it, it, it, it, it

it‎, it, it, it, it, it, it

‎it, it, it, @ it, it, it

it‎, it, it, it, it, it, it

it‎, it, it, it, it, it, it

I became fascinated with this idea of what cell-like mutation would look (and sound) like in poetic language. As always, Hopkins was never far from my mind, with his poetics based on Sprung and Counterpoint Rhythm. Although Hopkins was really describing a kind of poetry that he liked – his included – rather than inventing it, his poems often hold together multiple stress patterns at the same time, changing and morphing from line-to-line. I paid homage to this in my poem ‘Pinthover’, for which I reimagined Hopkins’s kestrel as a pint (it was a hot dry day when I wrote it):

the gut & glug chicaning the pining

gullet as it smooths the throat’s glovepurse‎, the glow in the mind

of this glyph refused, the regalia of it, the ‎crystal tardis of the thing!

As these poems began to mutate, and attach to each other, I imagined The Triumph of Cancer as a museum of objects in which ‘still lives’, like Hopkins’s pint, would exist side-by-side with poems that attempt to get inside, or under the skin of nature, where the invisible fury of cellular activity takes place. I wrote elegies for my father who died of brain cancer in 2004, and documented my mother’s recovery from breast cancer. In my poem ‘Marriage’ I brought their struggles together, questioning the limitations of the language available to make sense of the disease:

These accidents of body & place called marriage,

or is it the destiny of genes that splits the union

of two rings by one box into startled vernacular?

My father a victim, my mother a survivor.

William Burroughs’ phrase ‘the word has gone viral’ gave impetus to a poem like ‘Lungworm’ which mutates in meaning from the ‘word’ to ‘worm’. In this instance the mutation is in the consonants, the end ‘d’ of ‘word’, transforming to the ‘m’ at the end of ‘worm’. In other poems I played around with this technique through morphing vowels from word to word. In fact, the Contents Page of the book, which is made of a list of single words which factually document the main characteristic of each poem, often shows meaning shift through a simple alteration of a vowel, so ‘Car’, for example, becomes ‘Cure’. This mutation exists through cadence too, ‘Cancer’ becomes ‘Cinema’, and then further down the list, morphs into ‘Cemetery’. Poetic language itself divides and multiplies. It doesn’t create the meaning, but – through its shifts in sound and syntax –is that meaning. As much as the language makes us talk of cancer as ‘other’ – an invading body – those cells are ultimately us. The cancer patient feels divided but is completely and inseparably one organism. I aimed to write poems which exist in tension – often displayed through lines of alternating length – but are held together through the relationships between words, bound within their overall corpus.

Looking at the poets and poems I admire most – Hopkins, Blake’s epic work, Alice Notley long visionary – it is multiplying, viral language, that I go for; poems that seem to grow on the page even as they’re read. Poetry that resists releasing all its toxins in one go. Perhaps what we fear most for our bodies actually makes for the most arresting poetic techniques? Erasure, chiasmus, asterisms. Ultimately there isn’t a thing called poetry, there are poetries; and likewise there is no single thing called cancer, but cancers. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s writes about the American ‘war’ against cancer in the 1950s in his groundbreaking history of the disease, The Emperor of All Maladies, which provided dozens of anecdotes and images which prompted the initial mutation in many of my poems. I was moved by his description of the American ‘war’ on cancer which began in the 1950s:

Potent, hungry and expansive, the word war captured the essence of the anticancer campaign … Wars also demand a clear definition of an enemy. They imbue even formless adversaries with forms. So cancer, a shape-shifting disease of colossal diversity, was recast as a single, monolithic entity. It was one disease.

And poetry, too, has a history as a shape-shifting entity of colossal diversity. I hope I don’t ever get it.

The Triumph of Cancer is published by Penned in the Margins and available to buy priced £9.99.

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