The Naming Of Cancer, Tracey S. Rosenberg

Neon Books, 2014     £4.00


This pamphlet takes the reader through the experience of treatment of cancer in sometimes graphic detail. The overwhelming impression is that cancer is a disease people endure. Remission is the most positive outcome, and the feeling of helplessness comes through, for doctors, patients, and visitors.

The first poem, ‘Cancer Villanelle’, has variants on the refrains:

Needles plunge, Consultants come and go.
Tomorrow, next year, they may sink below

The patient:

[…] still submerges, cold, forlorn. She knows
he’ll ease her to a surface of hours, days,
tomorrow. Next year she might sink below.

In ‘Touch’ the poet examines the dehumanising effect of extended medical treatment, juxtaposing the patient’s experience of being touched intimately by her husband who ‘loved stroking her body awake in the giddy dawn’ with examination by the surgeon, which is very different. His:

fleshy hands are gloved. Through latex
they adjust her skin by inches.
[…] This is not his body.

‘Steadfast’ (a sonnet) shows a partner whose life is dominated by visiting and caring. He smooths her hair, speaks to her doctors, searches the internet for new treatments. He is always there, waiting. Then the poem captures how it feels after the moment of death; the mechanical distancing that often accompanies it, a mixture of deadness, regret, relief and sheer exhaustion:

Afterwards, he bends to wipe his boots.

Others will whisper, admire, turn green or pale
at his voice, which never dwindles to a lie,
and eyes that calmly watched a woman die.

The final poems move out of the hospital and into the experience of bereavement. ‘Widower’ examines the way one man’s bereavement affects his colleagues at work. ‘Funeral’ shows the partner ‘cut off in his stoicism / to wander through a wilderness he feared for twenty years’.

‘Receiving Line’ shows the ‘streaming row of compassion […] squeezing her dry’ and ends with a woman’s gallows-humour observation to her late husband’s best friend ‘we really must stop meeting like this.’

Anyone who has experienced cancer will know about the endurance needed, and will recognise it here. You need to feel strong to read this undoubtedly moving series of poems.

Rennie Halstead