Serengeti Press - March 31, 2007 - 3 Comments

The Cancer Chronicles: A Parent's Journey

The Cancer Chronicles: A Parent’s Journey by Joseph A. Farina

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

I’ve only been a doctor for seven years, but even in that short time it’s happened more than once. What do I mean? On three separate occasions patients or members of a patient’s family have pressed a book into my hands. I’ve met the patient, I’ve met the family; we have discussed the nature of the problem, we have discussed what can and should be done. At this point, I am served with a book. And the manner in which this happens is eerily similar: Read this, they say, and all will be made clear… then you will understand.

I think I know what they mean. I’ve spent a little over an hour talking to and examining the sick person, and much less than that talking to family members. They’re concentrated encounters, little bursts; I can’t get all the data, especially all the emotional data. I get enough of the story to do my job, and I move on to the next person. These books are meant to fill me in on the rest of the story.

Of the three books I have been privileged to receive, curiously, all have been poetry. One was written by a cancer patient; another was written by a woman with MS; the last by a husband whose wife had been struck by a drunk driver and who sustained serious head injuries. All of these books followed a familiar pattern: there was an idealization of the pre-ill state. Time was spent describing the way things were before. Then there was the nature of the accident or illness: these were melodramatically described. The thing that brought change was monstrous, capricious, evil. Diagnosis took a poem or two, dramatized by dark meetings with sometimes callous doctors. Then things as they are now – as they were to the patient in the hospital bed in front of me — were depicted.

This was the stage that varied from book to book. In the case of the cancer patient, there was a great degree of acceptance and personal growth. In the case of the woman with MS, there was a ‘rage against the dying of the light’ as she herself put it, an anger as to what was lost, at the impossibility of reclaiming her mobility, her sexuality, her career. In the case of the man who tended to his injured wife, there was a great deal of fear and uncertainty. He wanted to hold onto her; he wanted to keep her as she was even though she was greatly diminished, and each successive health scare terrified him. All the books, though, shared a coda: The final poem was part celebration of what was lost, but also an optimistic look at the future. None of the books envisaged a death, as the protagonist had not died yet; these poems collectively said, We are here, despite everything. But of course, no one would hand me a book if the patient were dead; there would be no imperative for me to understand the person before me. There would be no person.

I loved these books, and sadly lost them in a flood in Newfoundland in 2001. The upstairs neighbor left her washer on and, when I returned home from work one night, I found the entire apartment awash. I can’t quote from them, though I remember them well enough to describe their general movements. Perhaps it’s just as well; I’d have to contact those families in order to obtain permission, and that might bring back all their pain and suffering in an instant. Besides, they didn’t give me those books to enroll in part of a cultural study; they did so that I might have immediate access to their lives, to how their lives had been, to how their lives had turned out, to the uncertainty of how their lives might be. It was a gesture meant for the moment, to help me keep in view an image of them as people as I wrote down on an order sheet what was good for them as a patient.

All of the books, as far as I could tell, were self-published. I didn’t look into this too deeply; it was beside the point. Self-published or published by McClelland and Stewart, their intent was the same. If I had asked, I imagine the author would likely have been offended. What is the purpose of such a question, except to judge? I had doctoring to do.

But judge is exactly what a reviewer is supposed to do. And the quality of the poetry, it seemed to me, was beside the point too. The poems were raw; they dealt in emotion –primarily sadness, anger, and fear — and they ranged in technical sophistication, from trite to abysmal. As I recall, some poems were rigidly metrical, with an abab rhyme scheme. Others were centred on the page. Others substituted sheer force for subtlety. Every one asked the obvious question, “Why me?” There was little music, no innovation, certainly nothing that can compete with anything in The Poetry Cure by Julia Darling and Cynthia Fuller (Bloodaxe Books, 2005) or The Healing Art: A Doctor’s Black Bag of Poetry by Rafael Campo (WW. Norton and Company, 2003). But those are world-class anthologies containing professional poets, and the comparison is unfair. Perhaps a better comparison is to Canadian Shirley Serviss’ Hitchhiking in the Hospital (Inkling Press, 2005). This is a decidedly lower-echelon offering, but still outpaces my poets. My poets were trying to make sense of something senseless – why does anyone get sick, anyway? — and were, I believe, using a very old genre to try to make sense of things. No doubt they were also following the modern trend which Campo espouses, that of writing poetry as a means of therapy, as treatment. Art was secondary.

But were they poems, actual verbal contraptions that do linguistic gymnastics? Devices that surprise, that astonish? Did they, qua Dickinson, take the top of my head off? No. But they certainly led me into my patients’ lives. And that was their purpose. Let me put it this way: the cancer patient, the MS patient, the husband, all of them asked me the next day if I had read their books. All of them looked intently at what I had to say in response. And when I had finished saying that I had, and that I felt the book quite helpful in illuminating their lives, I saw a look of relief. I had given them a signal — a signal that I now understood. None of these poets looked at me and said, But did you think the poems were any good?

A poet would do that, you know. A poet wouldn’t care if you understood what he meant; she’d care if you agreed there was something new on offering, something preternatural. Something that can only be apprehended.

With this experience in mind, then, I expected Joseph A. Farina’s The Cancer Chronicles to affirm what I already knew about this kind of illness poetry. Though the book is not self-published, it is, like my lost books, very clumsily produced. The cover shows darkened clouds, a real cliché — as if to say, Beware, There Are Storms Ahead. The subtitle does almost fatal damage to the artistic enterprise of the book. Why use “a parent’s journey?” Isn’t the title enough? Why assert that business of being a “parent” on a “journey” unless one wishes to attract other fellow sufferers, fellow parents who might be on the same journey? This strikes me, frankly, as special pleading. Then there is the nature of the biography of the author, which should be secondary. The back cover states that Farina has a child who also had cancer. This is irrelevant to the matter of poetry, of course. But it deadens the mind to art as it simultaneously announces, This really happened! As it aims for the self-help section. I criticize, I know, but it’s because of the ungrounded earnestness, an earnestness crystallized by the epigraph, which is dedicated to “… all the families touched by Cancer.” For the dullards out there, that’s the big C. Literally.

Following the typical arc I’ve already laid out, “Diagnosis” kicks things off:

born on
the last night
of the solar year
you were our first joy
that our love conceived
our morning light
our son
born beautiful

There’s the idealization of the afflicted, as I mentioned earlier. But there’s also a horrible habit of cliché: imagine, a baby “born beautiful,” a baby that is a father’s “morning light.” There’s also no verbal play at work here, no word wit, no lexical roughhousing. The problem is, I think that’s the point: the poet here wanted to be as simple as possible in order to convey his message, which is: Illness is terrible and witnessing illness is terrible. but there is strength to be found and hope is even possible against great odds. It’s a simple message, but too simply told. It alienates art as it embraces therapy; it panders to others – to readers who might find in it hope — when it should concern itself with itself. There isn’t any of this necessary self-consciousness in “biopsy”:

determined cancerous,
it was then
that youth left you
and mortality began…

This is a poetry that, when the going gets tough, uses ellipses to summon what it cannot itself say. It is a poetry that, though sincere in motivation, is profoundly insincere in execution. I restrain myself to these early instances to not do dishonour to Farina’s well-meaningness, his intention. This book is too easy to quote from; it practically dismisses itself as art, though not as testament.

This is not to say that the poetry is a failure. I think it does exactly what it sets out to do; it stays on message. Like those patients and their families who handed me their books, The Cancer Chronicles describes what happened. As a doctor, I’m into collecting data. I’m sure that, if I had the privilege of presiding over Farina’s son’s care, I would have thanked him for giving me a glimpse into his life and his son’s life that I could never have had if he had not written his book. It would have been difficult, though, if he had asked me, as poets are wont to do, “But do you think it any good?”

Shane Neilson is a writer from New Brunswick.


On April 03, 2007, Lynn Tait said:

I began to think Neilson was never going to get to the actual review. Then, when he finally does get down to it - he goes on about the cover and the title -  finally mentioning the actual poems, but only briefly, and with comments he doesn’t really back up with much of anything because he believes the poems are too easy to quote from?
If in fact he is a doctor, I do hope he isn’t as dismissive and lazy with patients as he was with this review.

He actually wrote 9 paragraphs before actually reviewing the book.

On April 03, 2007, Eric Barstad said:

I wouldn’t fault the review for taking the time to place the book within the context of “healing/therapy” poetry and within the world beyond art. Had Shane actually been as dismissive and lazy as you claim, he would have simply said, “This was a shitty book; I read the first two poems and they sucked.” He might have sent it back and not done the review at all (certainly no other reviewer has taken it upon themselves, that I know of). Or perhaps by dismissive and lazy, you meant honest and diplomatic. If so, then I agree.

Moreover, what would be the point of quoting from more poems if they’re all of the same caliber ? it would only serve to potentially embarrass the writer and publisher and diminish the motivation of the book.

Finally, the snide “If in fact he is a doctor” statement is a bit personal, don’t you think? A bit of an attack. Try and be civil, at least on this site.

On April 03, 2007, Frank James said:

An interesting review. I don’t know whether to slap Mr. Neilson on the back or slap him across the back of the head?figuratively speaking, of course! I would have expected?given Mr. Neilson’s other online reviews?that he would have savaged this book for being awe inspiringly and shockingly bad poetry. His response brings to mind policy administrators who are hard-line about enforcing policy until it suddenly impinges on them personally or on someone close to them.  Clearly, this book stakes out its turf in an area that familiar to Mr. Neilson, both personally and professionally. Does his response to it constitute hypocrisy or a breakthrough? I’m inclined toward the latter. A book of poetry is not simply a series of linguistic effects, and it should not be judged solely on its technique or on its craft. This is obviously a lousy book of poetry but, as Neilson points out, an interesting book of testament. Likewise, the review, as Tait points out, is lousy, but interesting for the glimpse it affords the reader of a talented young poet and critic confronting some of his assumptions about poetry.

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