Originally Posted February, 2013:
In Peter Reading’s 1984 collection C, he presents the poetic paradox of being unable to write about Cancer/illness/death and yet ‘(Incongruously I plan 100 100-word units.)’ to do so in this dark and complex work. There are moments of bleak humour, but little that is uplifting in this ‘Terminal verse’, unless the other C of candour will suffice. But poetry does not suffice for Reading,
‘Why? Snot, gore, filth, suppuration of the arse-gut – for these no metric is vindicable.’
In Anthony Wilson’s recent collection Riddance where he deals poetically with his own cancer, the creativity carrying his candour is wonderfully uplifting, as it is also humorous and honest and unflinching amongst many other enduring attributes.
I had the great pleasure of attending Anthony’s launch of this poetic collection on the 17th September 2012 at the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter. The attendance for this was amazing – tribute to the high regard from so many for Anthony as a person of considerable humility and warmth, for his journey with this cancer, and for his talent as a writer.
I read and wanted to review Riddance almost immediately, wishing to share in its significant appeal, but have found it a more complex work than I originally imagined and thus have lived with it rather than quickly treat as a product. This complexity beneath its otherwise freshness of direct accessibility is one of its many strengths, and in characterising this now, I want to light-touch as a review and tempt anyone reading to discover for themselves the ease with which you will follow Anthony’s vindicable poetic exploration. Where Reading’s objective stance struggled [though this was his ruse], Anthony’s subjectivity succeeds.
The opening poem ‘Tumour’ encapsulates as a title the directness of the telling throughout the book. There is no need for metaphor or other embellishments. I like the unsentimental honesty of lines like
‘I would like to claim
new attention to my children
but the truth is they grew up
whether I watched them or not.’
In ‘How to Pray for the Dying’, the concluding line ‘Try saying ‘Shit happens.’’ reinforces the lack of sentimentality, and in its secular declaration, he avoids the cloying spirituality one would find in others’ writing – which isn’t to say these poems are devoid of spirituality. That is a feature of the unravelling depth and complexity they offer over several readings.
The list poem ‘Lost’ is bookended with the lines ‘Lost my hair’ which asserts the humour found in many poems, but also that sensible grasp of priorities: being bald is more critical a reality than agonising over whether to rail against an uncertain god. This humour is continued in the delightful ‘Homeshopping’.
The poems I am focusing on are largely from the first section ‘The Year of Drinking Water’ and they establish aspects of discovery/realisation/pain/fear/acceptance/recovery, themes which are revisited throughout all five sections of the book. Whilst the fifth is titled ‘Reasons for Life’ these reasons are plotted in poems throughout all the sections, often directly or by extrapolation.
I also like the playfulness of many poems, like ‘Words’ where the distancing of not quite clinical but key diagnostic terms suggests much about isolation and pause and focus as the emotive response to hearing these. This gets an oblique repeat it seems to me in ‘I am Fighting’ with its echoes and repositionings of meaning.
In ‘Heads’, Anthony returns comically but by its very mentioning again the very visible consequence of cancer and treatment in being bald,
‘I’m Kojak without his lollipop,
a paunchy Duncan Goodhew and haggard
Syd Barrett on his bike.’
The physical manifestations of this illness are what he and others so readily see – it is only in this retrospective telling [though much clearly written during] that deeper truths are conveyed.
The close observation in the poems ‘I am Becoming my Grandmother’ and ‘Man in a Fleece’ account for further physical but also behavioural changes – real and imagined – that attend the progress of the cancer and treatment. The humour now is more sardonic, but there is also the poetic imagining at work which perhaps finds a beauty that Reading could not, for example, achieve [or attempt to achieve],
‘I stroke my second skin.
It catches the light in beads
which ripple up then down my arms.’ [MIAF]
In the poem ‘Blood’, a visual and tactile description leads to the telling line ‘….you seem stable as mercury./If only.’
In ‘The End of the Affair’, a poem that recounts the recovery and defeat – though we will be taken through the processes again and again: this being an aspect of the overall complexity I hadn’t noticed at first – we get the first dialogue with an illness that has gone but can never go away as an experience,
‘My days grow fat without you.
There are rumours of gales.
No, I don’t think we can be friends.
I would rather you didn’t write.’
Indeed, in section three ‘Riddance’, we get a poem like ‘The Clothes I Bought During Cancer’ which is all about discarding and change. In ‘Playing Dead’ Anthony recalls what is presumably an early MRI scan. And in ‘Probably Nothing’ we are reminded though a poem of childlike verses the grown-up reality of beating this disease,
you beat it, they say.
No I didn’t.
But it did go away.’
These references merely scratch the surface of a book that startles in its apparent simplicity. The account of being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma [7 years today] through to remission is told with candour and considerable grace, the subjectivity having an innate power no metaphor could hope to deliver. The poetry is in the tones and emotions, the playfulness at times, the precise placings on the page [Anthony Wilson has always been an excellent craftsperson] and the total lack of any self-pity. It is, as I have said, an uplifting experience to read.
Anthony’s website with details of how to purchase Riddance: [link]