Tag Archives: poetry

Dying Young

I shall live to be old, who feared I should die young
    I shall live to be old.
I shall cling to life as the leaves cling to the creaking oak
    In the rustle of the falling snow and the cold.

The other trees let loose their leaves on the air
    In their russet and red,
I have lived long enough to wonder which is best,
    And to envy sometimes the way of the early dead.

Sara Teasdale

Not all die early, dying young–
Maturity of Fate
Is consummated equally
In Ages, or a Night–

A Hoary Boy, I’ve known to drop
Whole statured — by the side
Of Junior of Fourscore–’twas Act
Not Period–that died.

Emily Dickinson

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7 August 2009: awaiting my own tragedy

Day after biopsy–sitting bandaged in the backyard. An excruciating experience all around–less from the pain of the surgery than the hospital inefficiency, in a corner alone for hours afterward, told I’d see the surgeon–that I must see the surgeon–before leaving. “Before six.” Near seven I’m confronted with a registrar who does nothing, looks at my bandage, asks, “Are you always this pale?” Refuses to answer when I ask how to take care of my stitches, dressings, etc. Says the nurses will explain everything. She goes home. The nurses don’t know. Seven days or one, covered or left exposed? So I am still bandaged, taking painkillers and waiting.

What an absolute mess I must seem–and am, snapping at everyone and crying. Jetlagged still, having managed to sleep half an hour before going to the hospital, my first time under general anesthesia, terrified and alone. And back for the mastectomy, the “real” surgery, in a week. The seemingly impossible process of recovery.

The girl in the next bed was laughing, joking with the hospital staff. She was in to have a fibroid cyst removed. “As long as no one cuts my nipple off,” she says to the nurse, smiling. And I think–this is wrong, a grave mistake, shouldn’t it be me there? Instead the urgency of my situation is amplified. Five months ago, it is now almost, waiting for the diagnosis which was almost certainly, they assured me, fibroadenoma. Then cancer. The giant leap for womankind. Now this radioactive, surgical biopsy, more serious, but somehow less horrible than the first because it wasn’t a surprise, an invasion of that magnitude. Now waiting to find out not whether I have the horrible disease, but how horribly I have it. Grading. I always got good grades. And despite my perpetual pessimism about most things, I have a strange optimism about biopsies. Which is dangerous of course, because look what happened before.

So the doctor I met with in Pittsburgh says he’d be “surprised” if it had spread to the lymph nodes. But then, that’s exactly what they said here, only to find it was cancer. Surprise! After “I’m sure it’s nothing.” Sure. That roomful of people, looking at each other, nodding in unison to confirm how surprised they were. Me, stupid, faint, childish in my polka dot skirt and Mary Janes. What does their surprise mean to me? Should I feel honored? At their optimism, if that’s what it was. Dr. S. saying, “we’re hopeful.” As if hope were a treatment, a cure. As if it were anything.

It was raining then too, the day of my diagnosis. I was clutching my blue raincoat in the hospital hallway. Raining the day I began chemo, when I climbed into the loft bed of my little flat and vomited. And a downpour yesterday; we drove to London, dangerously, in it, and it began again fourteen hours later in time for us to leave. K. ran to the car while I stood outside the hospital, holding nothing and sobbing. “Are you okay?” someone said. And I nodded, because what do you say to a stranger?

“How old are you?” the nurse asked yesterday. “Twenty-four? You’re a baby.”

Of course I am. I have never felt younger or more helpless, never. And my body has never felt older, more decrepit and disgusting.

The bandage is not so bad, it’s everything else. My hair of course, getting patchy, falling out steadily, the pathetic covering I regrew over the past few months littering the pillows. Lost hair, gained weight. They made me strip off my nail polish yesterday and I got a look at my cracked yellowed nails. All to complement the fake, nippleless, Franken-stitched breast they’ll make me. I feel sorry for K. I wonder how he can stand it. Maybe he can’t.

At home, I flipped through my high school journals, and was not as embarrassed at that self as I imagined, but amazed at my intensity. Perspicacious pessimism–and actually prophetic in it, or at least realistic. I wrote at seventeen: “I am awaiting my own tragedy.”

Everyone has one, surely, coming up, sooner or later, I supposed. To varying degrees, maybe. But I’ve always been waiting for it. Or maybe  pessimism causes cancer, that holed-up negative energy. Maybe. Either way–awaiting my tragedy? Here it be. Continue reading

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Oxford 2005

That moment, that photo, that spring–Trinity term–perhaps happier than I’ve ever been.

I slog through all of this ‘survival’ hoping to someday feel that kind of happiness, to have that kind of love and wonder, again.

the kinges power and is ost wende vorth
to Oxenforde aboute mielmasse
in 1297
      Indian summer
      and also of Oxford, Cambridge
      at the gret cowrtes at Mykelmas the year
     in 1493
bearing masses of small purplish flowers
the harvest

-from “Michelmas,” Veronica Forrest-Thomson



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4 July 2009: a “lived” hieroglyph?

I’d forgotten what a blessed thing Saturday mornings in the Radcliffe Camera are. In Oxford I am always possible–grateful and humbled to have been in some small part at home in this great tradition of knowledge. I’d come into town with the intention of attending the History of Childhood conference at Magdalen, but rail disruptions deposited me in Oxford an hour after registration ended, and I could not summon the courage to disrupt a lecture on baptism in medieval England; I’ve given up the headscarves, and as a result am not exactly inconspicuous.

The sky has clouded over, making the stone saints above Brasenose seem ominous. I’ve spent an hour jotting notes for an essay on my disease, yet am so tired of my disease that I feel sick to think of it. Or maybe it’s feeling sick to write something trite. I never do finish what I begin. Not even my twenties, perhaps. Oh God, I have grown so morbid.

These girls with long hair and nice legs and summer skirts and smiles–how envious I am.

Usually I am half in love with the English weather but right now I would hate it to rain; for some reason the thought strikes fear into my heart.

What I hate most about the thought of dying is not to have written, and to have K. forget me, and love someone else. Not to have his children. To think of anyone else as their mother kills me.

What is it about the Bodleian that breeds such morbidity? Maybe imagining myself here at twenty, writing poems on a Saturday morning while everybody else slept off their hangovers. Sitting with the Narnia series in a stack, unable to concentrate on otherworlds, being too grounded in my body, imagining making love to the beautiful blonde man I’d met. Frenziedly typing up an essay on the “Whitmanian strain” in American elegy, thinking I was really quite something, when in actuality it was the worst mark of my master’s–told off for misquoting Crane (“a livid hieroglyph” as “a lived hieroglyph,” when the whole essay was in fact about misquotation and re-interpretation, and couldn’t they appreciate the splendour of that? Because a “lived” hieroglyph suits, doesn’t it?)

A moment of panic yesterday when I was taken by the Thames’ current. But then acceptance: drowning would, after all, be my preferred method of death. Another grand tradition. Michael Llewelyn Davies & his tied hands. And of course Crane: “Goodbye, everybody!”


Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

-Hart Crane, “At Melville’s Tomb”

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this living hand


This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is

I hold it towards you.

John Keats


In Italy (or What I Did on my Cancer Vacation), I found I agreed heartily with Percy Shelley; the non-Catholic cemetery is indeed the “holiest place in Rome.” This, though the previous night, I’d had mass with the Pope.

I’d bought a nice little hardback volume of poems in the Keats house; I sat by his grave in a sweltering silent heat and read this poem. How chilling it is, the physical presence of death–and comforting too. The pervasiveness of poets who thrust their tubucular bodies into their verse, and the image of that outstretched hand–as in Whitman:

Mon enfant! I give you my hand!
I give you my love, more precious than money,
I give you myself, before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

and in Crane’s reply:

My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman — / so–


I am enamored of cemeteries, and I guess a little of death. And of the irony of Keats’ poem: the “icy silence”  interruped by the near violence in the image of his outthrust hand. And of the omnipresence of Whitman beneath our boot-soles and Plath’s Lazarus unwrapped “hand and foot.” I’m considering the continual trope of the post-mortem voice–

as in Hardy:

Ah, are you digging on my grave,
My loved one? — planting rue?

and Dickinson:

Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

I developed a new respect for Keats’ lyric sufferings after understanding the science of his disease, the awful physical progression of tuberculosis. In the abstract, in an anthology, it is all nightengales and whining. But then the reality of blood and ugliness underscores so strongly this search for beauty. Ie, how can anything as ethereal as the pursuit of art persist against something as demanding and decisive (derisive?) as corporeal decay?

Still, despite the chill of Keats’ hand stuck up out of his grave like a flag or a flower, despite Tennyson’s elegaic temper and Milton’s pastoral mourning, I prefer death in American verse (& perhaps as a newly-inducted 19th-century Americanist, I am obligated to say this).

I cannot imagine two views of death as disparate yet individually visionary as Dickinson’s and Whitman’s; in each, there is a distinct kind of kinship. For Dickinson, a kinship with Death:

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

–and for Whitman, a kinship with audience which transcends it:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

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an abstract insight wakes

Oh my God, I thought: I’ve been happy. Happy like a human being.

And it makes me want to not take my pills. I’m not scheduling any more appointments; I don’t want to set foot inside a fucking hospital. I went to UPMC last month and the cancer ward waiting room unnerved me so much that I cried and cried in the parking garage and hated us all: the dead-eyed doctors, the pathetic bald patients, myself. 

Last night I dreamt I was having chemo–and when I woke it seemed so distant, so disparate from my own experience of being dull and dumb and ordinary here, going to the grocery store and watching television and feeling almost at home in myself, even without alcohol or weed or benzodiazepines. And I feel that spark of wanting again in so many ways. Perhaps I am not entirely resigned. Perhaps I am still electric, alive and insatiable.

Wouldn’t that be something.

At night I recite Auden like a faithless prayer–

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find our mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

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Ash Wednesday

Remember that you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.

Not really too hard to do these days.

I am so desperate to be alive right now that I wonder whether I am confusing self-destruction with living deeply [“having to construct something / Upon which to rejoice”].


Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

-TS Eliot, from “Ash Wednesday”

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