Book review: Poets unblinking in the face of breast cancer

Bosom Pals: Eight Poets Share Their Experience of Breast Cancer, edited by Marie Cadden (Doire Press)

IF YOU are a woman, or have a mother, wife, girlfriend, sister, or daughter, the poems included in this new anthology, Bosom Pals: Eight Poets Share Their Experience of Breast Cancer could, some day, perhaps even today, prove invaluable.

Sometimes, when life forces us to go unblinking into the dark places, the considered voices of those who have been through it before us is of at least as much help as pep-talks from doctors, nurses, and psychotherapists. The poems in this collection, edited by Marie Cadden and published by Doire Press, tell, in their own exact words, what breast cancer was like for each of the eight women who wrote them. Indeed these poems show that people who are seriously ill are often great craic.

In ‘Within My Sightline’ Mari Maxwell writes: “No time for second opinions./Smack it and smack it hard./Yes to cocktails and potions!/Yes to orange pee!” In ‘Pope has Breast Cancer’, Mary Madec imaginatively projects her cancer onto the first woman Pope, and in the process creates a light satire on the retrograde gender roles the Holy Roman and Apostolic Church still clings to: “A source from the Vatican revealed last night/that Her Holiness Pope Christina the First has been diagnosed/at the Gemelli Clinic/with a tumour in the inner quadrant of her left breast.”

Through poetry, this erratic Marxist has gotten to know a number of liberal women Catholics; and would be happy to provide the Vatican with a shortlist of potential first woman popes, as and when the need arises.

In ‘Breast Count’ Marie Cadden is wry: “Like a buttock/it comes in pairs/cheek to cheek.” Her poem ‘Mammogram’ is one of the wittiest ever written about medical procedures and a must for anyone who has ever been in possession of either breasts or testicles, which is pretty much everyone.

The tone in Mary Hanlon’s ‘Well Woman’ is darker – I have long thought Hanlon to be Mayo’s answer to Philip Larkin at his crazy best – ‘Feel your feelings’ the German doctor says,/turns then and phones the hospital,/her pragmatism devoid of Irish cheer./Even so I refuse to listen or hear,/certain that the lump she found/will end my life aged forty-three.”

Marion Cox’s ‘Polka-Dot Bikini’ responds to her life threatening reality by “delighting in daisies and dandelions,/smelling scented treasures/where the lawnmower and Ulster Bank /could not go.” Lorna Shaughnessy’s ‘Taxol’, with its great language, manages to both frighten and reassure us with the reality of chemotherapy. In ‘Threat’ Susan Lindsay’s take on chemotherapy is different: “Maybe aggressive killers are necessary./I’d prefer to root them out organically/to crowd them out with flowers”. Robyn Rowland’s fantastic ‘Blue Line’ delicately presents the reader with the aftermath of surgery to remove a lump.

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