reviewed by Judi Sutherland
It isn’t difficult to discern the core theme in Anthony Wilson’s book; he sets it out clearly in his detailed introduction. This collection reflects on the poet’s experience of diagnosis, treatment, and survival of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. As such, it perfectly embodies Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’; all of the poems were written after Wilson’s recovery.
The collection never gives in to self-pity or despair, in fact, at times it feels distant and objective
Wilson divides the collection into sections. The Year of Drinking Water is an account of diagnosis and treatment. The first poem we encounter is bleakly entitled ‘Tumour’ and Wilson addresses the lymphoma directly, noting, as Auden did in ‘Musée de Beaux Arts’, that tragedy occurs while ordinary life continues around one:
You saved me from talking about house prices. You obliterated my craving for alcohol. I would say I am grateful But am not ready for that, just yet.
But this first poem also gives away the ultimately happy ending, as Wilson notes: ‘The script writers of Frasier / helped me recover from you’ which makes the cancer seem rather like an unhappy love affair.
Wilson tackles the cant and platitudes of our society’s response to cancer patients. We somehow expect them to be living a spiritual life in contemplation of their mortality, and we offer pity. Wilson gives helpful advice to bystanders in ‘How to Pray for the Dying’ which concludes, bitterly:
Don’t you dare Say “It’s not fair.” Spare me your weeping. Try saying “Shit happens.”
Another piece of myth-busting that Wilson takes on is the trope of cancer as a battle. One of the most powerful poems in this section is ‘I am Fighting’ which reads as sparely and simply as a children’s reading primer, describing how, in the middle of being a patient, one cannot fight a colony of one’s own rogue cells in any meaningful way. The patient is entirely passive in the treatment process:
You are waiting I am fighting down a corridor in an armchair You are reading in a ward across the bed where I am fighting
The insidious message is that, with a little more moral fibre, a patient can make headway against the disease with sheer force of will, and that those who succumb to it are somehow lacking. Wilson deftly points out this fakery. In the title poem of this first section, he remembers being told to drink plenty of fluid: ‘even if I peed all might / I felt I was doing my bit.’ The helplessness, the lack of agency, are well-described throughout.
The second section All Lives, All Dances, All is Loud is a single long poem addressed to a friend, the textile artist Lucy Mason, whose work adorns the cover of this collection. Unlike Wilson, Mason did not survive her encounter with cancer, and the reader can sense the urgency of Wilson’s writing, in order for Mason to read the finished poem before she died. In some ways this is less successful as poetry than as philosophy; there’s a lot of ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’, and the poet’s thoughts ramble in a one-sided conversation with his friend. The poem works best when it meditates on Mason’s art: ‘To move your rags to riches / takes love of your material… a feast from scraps’. There is a tang of survivor’s guilt in this monologue.
Riddance, the third section, begins with a literally chilling description of intravenous chemotherapy: ‘my arm / cold to the marrow’, but quickly moves on to record the enhanced perception that comes with recovery. ‘They Said About the Tiredness’ lists all the symptoms and corollaries of cancer that patients are told about, but ends on a note of surprise: ‘but they never said about getting better’. Wilson has to adjust his viewpoint from dying man to survivor and we can sense the lift in his spirits. In ‘Offline’ he reconnects with the workplace and notes that his colleagues view him differently. He complains: ‘they assume I’ve lost my appetite for gossip’. Wilson writes about the ordinary things that marked his recovery; Jamie Oliver recipes, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, riding his bike, deleting irrelevant e-mails. This is a refreshing return to the specific, the quotidian, after the abstraction of the previous section.
Finally, in Three Lifetimes, we find a series of untitled poems which depict Wilson picking up the threads of ordinary life. These are beautiful vignettes, but interspersed are sudden judgements of himself: ‘I am not a clever man / nor a good one’, Wilson maintains. He speaks of his ‘ineptitude’ and anger. He finds himself writing in a new way:
Anything is allowed: sunlight on a fruit bowl The washing-line’s pearls after rain.
His experiences have changed him as a human being and as a poet.
Riddance takes us on a journey that most people don’t wish to contemplate. Wilson employs a spare, laconic style with overtones of American confessional poetry. His style is familiar and accessible. The collection never gives in to self-pity or despair, in fact, at times it feels distant and objective. I know from hearing Wilson introduce these poems at a reading that, at one stage, his medical team mixed up his ‘before’ and ‘after’ scans and told him his cancer was getting worse despite the treatment. It took nine days for that mistake to be rectified. This incident gets a mention in ‘The Quiet Room’ but there is no anger, and no frank description of how it feels to face imminent death.
Riddance is honest and raw poetry. It deserves to be in every oncologist’s waiting room and given to every cancer patient’s family because it tells us how it actually feels to be treated for cancer, and it resists the ‘othering’ of cancer patients. The book exhorts us to treat them as themselves rather than as sufferers, to bring them normality rather than hushed tones and pious hopes. Above all it teaches us that no amount of ‘being brave’ will help us ‘fight’ cancer. If there is a battle going on it is between our own cells and modern medicine; patients are not the army but the battlefield.