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The Cancer Chronicles: a parent’s journey by Joseph A. Farina

bk cancer

Title: The Cancer Chronicles: a parent\’s journey
Author: Joseph A. Farina
Publisher: Serengeti Press
Year: 2006
Pages: 41

Review 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.

3 comments March 31st, 2007

Transversals for Orpheus & the untitled 1-13 by Garry Thomas Morse

morse frontcover

Title: Transversals for Orpheus & the untitled 1-13
Author: Garry Thomas Morse
Publisher: LINEbooks
Year: 2006
Pages: n/a

Review by rob mclennan.

One of the first series of LINEbooks produced through Vancouver’s West Coast Line magazine, Garry Thomas Morse’s Transversals for Orpheus & the untitled 1-13 works from what Erin Mouré called “transelation,” working poems by Pessoa into her own Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person (Toronto ON: House of Anansi Press, 2001). In the back of his first collection of poetry, writing “for a case of textual influenza (antidote included): Sielger, Spicer, Blaser, okay Rilke too…” into his acknowledgments, he references a number of source materials for his pieces, including Talonbooks publisher Karl Sielger’s own translation of Rilke’s complete Sonnets to Orpheus (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1977), recently included in the first publication of this same series, companions & horizons: An Anthology of Simon Fraser University Poetry, ed. Stephen Collis (Burnaby BC: LINEbooks, 2005). As with the Erin Mouré Pessoa transelation, the notion of writing poems not only out of poems but using the materials of previous works certainly isn’t a new idea, but it’s one that has been gaining speed over the past few years, especially through the variety of how poems can be translated from one into another, from various pieces by Steve McCaffery and the late bpNichol, including Nichol’s Translating Translating Apollinaire (Milwaukee: Membrane, 1979), to George Bowering’s own Duino Elegies translations into Kerrisdale Elegies (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1986) as well as the more recent “plunder verse” experiments by St. Catharines, Ontario poet Gregory Betts.

The strength of the work itself comes from how he manipulates and moves his sources; listen, for example, to the second of Morse’s pieces from the first part of “transversals for orpheus,” where he writes:

It seemed to me a
maiden, shifting song
through veiled eyes
asleep in one ear

This is silence. Light
through trees. Touch
in a field of visions
leaving astonied

Sleeps. Innocent
lack of animation
A slab of silence

Forgetful the way
a dip in oblivious
wells - a maiden?

Compare that to the music from Siegler’s own translation of “Part One―Sonnet 2,” writing

And almost a maiden it was and went forth
from this joyful union of song and lyre,
shone clear splendour through her spring veils
and made herself a bed within my ear.

And slept within me. And all was her sleep:
the trees beheld in wonder, this
tangible distance, the meadow’s touch,
and each amazement having come to me.

She slept the world. Singing god, how have you
perfected her, that she should not desire,
even to awaken? See, she was bid rise, and slept.

Where is her death? Will you yet invest
this motif, before your song consumes itself? ―
Into what depths does she sink from me?…A maiden almost…

But for the breaks in the poems for numbers, Moore’s “transversals for orpheus” reads as one long continuous piece, turning the poem new from the machinery of the previous. The “untitled” poems that make up the first section of the book work in much the same way as the later pieces, picking and taking as collage a series of poems that move variously down and across the page, but somehow don’t have the same bite as the rest of the collection, moving through leaps and jumps in a collage of text and space and multiple fonts. Listen to this fragment from “The Untitled (12)” that moves through references to the epic, a poem said to “contain history,” and Ezra Pound, known for bringing in a steady stream of collage-like references into his ongoing poem(s):

Meanwhile, the Epic
tries to avoid meeting
history like this
		its very epos
				choking on

	        sheds excess

			poundage / baggage
					under the (i)s


gets lonely
	   as a late night charge-per-minute

rob mclennan is an Ottawa born & based poet. His thirteenth poetry collection, The Ottawa City Project (Chaudiere Books) is due to be launched at the ottawa international writers festival in April, and he has a collection of literary essays out this fall from ECW Press. He has just been named writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta for the 2007-8 academic year.

Add comment March 19th, 2007

bulletin from the low light by j. fisher


Title: bulletin from the low light
Author: j. fisher
Publisher: Frontenac House
Year: 2006

Review by Liam Ford.

j. fisher’s bulletin from the low light is “Frontenac’s first blog book from fisher’s popular blog of the same name” (jfisher.frontenachouse.com). I’d read some fisher before, and enjoyed his distinctive voice — a wordy Bukowski on his first whisky drunk. I liked his political incorrectness and his brash, confident, drunken word-swagger. I liked his alliterative, rapid-fire pseudo-slam poetics. I liked how he seemed to not really give a fuck, and how he wrote about drinking like his death depended on it.

Then I read “you ain’t never gonna amount to nothing”:

it was just too easy
lazing around, moaning
sucking on titties
and kittens
beer cans
dreaming of my suffering turning to gold
i wanted fame
respect, acknowledgement
for being clever
i didn’t want to do anything for it
so there i was
lying around,
sucking, slurping
vessels and orifices
making love to the furniture
to alien strangers
fondling the remote
so sorry a sight
so woeful
so lazy
another vagrant waste
amongst the wasted generation
who knew
these would be
the perfect ingredients
for poetry?

I immediately thought of a quotation from Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse”: “If he [man] sprawl, he shall find little to sing but himself…”

Now I didn’t pretend then and I don’t pretend now to understand what half of his essay was about, but now I think I have an idea of what Olson was trying to say with that line. If a writer is driven to poetry by the desire of “acknowledgement / for being clever” then each poem he writes will undoubtedly race towards this destination.

There’s no denying that this volume is packed with cleverness. Imagining a situation where

you’re on a blind double-date
and you’re pretty sure
you’ve slept with all
the women at the table
(including the waitress)
(“charmer” 34)

is pretty clever. The rhythm, rhyme and alliteration of

drunken neighbours clearing the dishes in large
pummeled women hide the purple
bruises with cake-baked matte
(“dancing on the horse’s lashes” 28)


dull the cock on
razor-sharp hips
dull the pain, downing
quadruple brandied candied cocktails
(“cuts you up” 38)

are pretty clever. But here are the cleverest lines of all:

		i give respect and will accept
nothing less in return so if you’re the typical
pseudo-academic ass-mouth sworn to defend form,
……………………………………………… don’t
—you’ll never know how ignorant you came off at
the exact moment you thought you were being so
precious and clever.

(“in case the title doesn’t match the text…” 33)

Here, the author predicts and pre-empts criticism. I guess, having quoted Olson, I qualify as a “pseudo-academic ass-mouth,” and although I’ve never “sworn to defend form,” I do believe bulletin from the low light would not suffer from the addition of a period or two. My critical concern is not with form, however, but rather its constant companion, content. (Moreover, I haven’t been there, but I don’t think fisher is the sole resident of Clevertown.)

This poetry is devoted to the alcoholics, the street people, the junkies, the prostitutes, “the wasted generation” amongst whom the author considers himself “another vagrant waste.” What is this “wasted generation?” Haven’t I seen these players before? Of course.

Here we have everything Jack Kerouac’s beat generation was charged with representing all over again: substance abuse (“the pugilist”, “no nonsense”, “distance”, “confessions”, “the smoke-hole of nowhere”, “smashed”, “100 bottles of hope”, “one cigarette”, “Achilles’ heel”, “it hit so hard”, “shrapnel”, “under siege in the Garden City”), indolence (“pluck me from the plot”, “wet dog”, “soft lumber”, “fink”) and sexual perversion (“Malahat crush”, “automatic yellow”, “cum-drunk and lusting after tragedy”, “wounds too big”). It’s like fisher tuned into a classic radio station and remixed the tunes as his own.

Nevertheless, there’s something ingratiating and insolently appealing about bulletin from the low light. fisher, no fool, writes himself into the tradition of the self-destructive, self-obsessed artist as in “foxglove is a yellow lie,” where he name-drops “brother Vincent [Van Gogh]” (11). His poems (especially “soft lumber”) rail against “the myth / about the grass over any fence / other than your own” (74) being greener, and articulate a cultural discontent felt by many. Unfortunately, the attempted escape through alcohol and drugs, which is the subject of many of the volume’s poems, offers no sense of salvation. Overindulgence leads to the inevitable, remorseful hangover, and the language of desperation, paranoid delusion, death and suicide offers little hope. bulletin from the low light shines a lurid light on a world where God only shows his face as a guy in a “big black 7-series” named “Il Duce,” who “emerges from the car / with a big bag of goodies / … / which he hands over / to those tobacco golden fingers” (“alms,” 82) of a bum named Butch.

It ain’t pretty, but it’s clever, and it’s compelling.

Liam Ford lives in Coquitlam, BC. His blog is http://handicapramp.blogspot.com/.

Add comment March 11th, 2007

Tacoma Narrows by Mitchell Parry

tacoma narrows

Title: Tacoma Narrows
Author: Mitchell Parry
Publisher: Goose Lane
Year: 2006
Pages: 96

Review by Jenna Butler.

Mitchell Parry’s Tacoma Narrows is a finely-focused collection that finds, in the minutiae of life, a deep and enduring connection to larger issues and emotions. Parry’s poems are humble and yet startlingly beautiful. They revisit, time and again, the courage and balance required to love truly and with meaning, whether in the sense of love for another person or love for the small moments in everyday life that momentarily stop the breath.

The collection opens strongly with the section entitled “Faithless.” Here, in the poem “Night Wind,” Parry’s own courage as poet and observer/participant is evident:

[…] In the next room
a woman’s voice opens,
I think of you.

Outside my window an elk steps,
bends & nibbles. Her valentine rump,
that mouth, the heartbreak of her ankles. In the distance
men’s shouting fights the wind
& loses. She ignores them, moves from one blade
of grass to the next.

There is no long, slow immersion into this collection; the start is as abrupt and brief as a plummet into cold water. The language itself, however, and the aching beauty of the imagery, serves to take the shock out of the initial plunge. Parry does not hesitate to begin the book with a meditation on love and loss — the separation brought about by a failed relationship, the intangibility of the cycles and inhabitants of the natural world.

One common thread that draws the collection together is the concept of gift-giving. Rather than a simple material exchange, Parry expands the notion to include gifts of inspiration, memory, and insight. In “Parlez-moi d’amour,” abstraction and concrete meet in the form of the gift of a tattoo bought by a loved one, in a relationship that then falls to pieces:

[…] On your back

is a tattoo I paid for. Le moineau. I like pain,
you told the man who needled it into your skin. This is my gift
to you: a sparrow who will fade
slowly over the years but never fly
away. Singing what all gifts sing: Here.

I am.

This notion of gift-giving extends to the naming and recognizing of emotions in order to reduce pain and begin the healing process. In “Self Taught,” the loser in a cat fight is likened to the author himself, and to all those who have fought and lost someone close:

[…] The loser vanishes.
Go outside and find him – under a car,
hiding in the woods, it doesn’t matter.
Sing to him (this is imperative). Coax him
with songs of nonsense or loss (it doesn’t matter).
When he comes to you, look at the ache
in his eyes. Name it.

It is not so much what is said, but how — the calling into being of a certain emotion by simple recognition. Parry suggests that there are never words to take the pain out of loss, but that a look, a touch, or even a bit of nonsense offered in comfort, can prove the catalyst to healing. Without the recognition that loss has occurred, the healing process itself is unable to begin.

There is an edge to the beauty in Parry’s poetry, an awareness of the brevity of life and the swiftness with which it can be taken away. This extends from an appreciation for the subtle things in nature to an actual physical awareness of mechanisms within the body not functioning the way they should, as in “Perilous Breathing”:

Drowning in surfeit
of air, o gasp-eyed mullet,
you cannot
to breathe.
This breath:
		      or this – . Could be


At times, the pain present in these poems becomes acute, lances through the words and imagery like white-hot wire. There is a tremendous balancing act going on in this collection: the struggle to maintain a love for life and a clarity of seeing and thinking, while at the same time experiencing tremendous emotional and physical turmoil. As Parry states in “Elegy for Two Greek Kittens”:

			To have come so far
following the faint scent of adventure
& failed reunions
only to find always, 

always the wide pink mouth of need
crying at dawn. Three weeks
of ringworm    mewling   shit & our best efforts
dying quickly & painfully as all
hopes & battered things die: open-mouthed,


Tacoma Narrows is a beautiful collection, speaking elegantly of love and loss, and the many ways to keep loving through pain. It is “Ragged Hymns – While You Were Away,” I believe, that captures the essence of this book:

Listen: there is no flight –
only falling endlessly deferred. Stumbling open-armed
is not longing, is stumbling only. All I know of desire
cannot extend beyond this bare bulb, spirals of dust
and smoke. A bird lost in the night,
hoping song can light its way home.

Jenna Butler is an educator and poet who makes her home in Edmonton. Her work has garnered a number of awards, including CBC’s Alberta Anthology, and has been widely published in journals, anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and abroad. She is the founding editor of Rubicon Press.

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