Soundswrite Press, 2012 £4.00
Reviewed by Helena Nelson, Fiona Moore and Peter Jarvis
Lizzie Madder is good at writing simply, which is what this sequence demands. Negotiating The Days charts an encounter with anal cancer, from diagnosis to the “last visit to oncology”. It’s an experience in which key phrases, though easily missed individually, accumulate weight—the “urgent book” in the opening poem; “an injection of:/ tree-lined avenues” in ‘Walk in Wandlebury Park II; “if there really is a god/ if what’s up my bum isn’t” in ‘Preparation’; “Holding/ everything in” in ‘Slow Burning’.
You read the sequence from start to finish, without pausing. No messing about with persona here: the poet talks about her experience personally and nakedly, although there’s much she doesn’t say. That sense of reserve also enriches the narrative. There’s not so much as a hint of self-pity. Indeed, there are points of mischievous humour: “The Occasion of/ a Bowel Movement/ to be announced in The Times.”
Anal cancer is not the sort of illness you read poems about. There’s nothing remotely poetic about it, and that’s the point. No fancy language comes into play here, just the restorative shock of blunt reality: “One last hand up my bum.” Even the form, one line placed carefully after another, small prosy fragments of experience—it’s not playing the ‘poem’ game. It’s more like a personal diary, which suddenly dips into poetry when you’re least expecting it.
The pamphlet is beautifully produced, a pleasure to read and hold. If I have any criticism, it‘s that the poet has a tendency to steal her own thunder in the titles, which reappear near (or as) the punchline. All these poems really need—so far as titles go—is a date.
Each poem in this cancer diary focuses on a state of mind, a moment, a milestone. It’s a poetry reviewer’s cliché to talk about risk-taking, but to publish such a record—of pain, fear and indignity—deserves admiration.
But does the risk pay off in artistic terms? What I enjoyed about the pamphlet is the way Madder chronicles states of mind with determination and humour, and takes the reader through her journey. ‘Negotiation’, the poem from which the pamphlet’s title comes, is about being in hospital:
And an impossible desire to go home.
Like the small child I was I become again.
I just want.
In ‘Walk in Wandlebury Park II’, just before treatment, Madder describes the beauty of the walk, and ends:
There is the unknown ahead:
a greyness—steely, strong, rigid—
marching towards me, while I quiver
and want to run away.
The image of the greyness is vivid and apt. I don’t think we need to be told about the narrator’s reaction in the last line and a half—the poem would work better if she trusted the image, and the reader, to do the work themselves.
Madder’s style lies on the borderline between prose and free verse. I would have liked to be startled or excited, to discover some tension in the line-breaks, some rhythm and music (whether discordant or tuneful) in the juxtaposition of words, and thus to lift the poems to another level. And I think she could—and should—push language and diction further. ‘Bed Four’, for example, starts with a nice metaphor of hospital staff as “a hierarchy of cockerels and hens”, but the narrator then wonders what the staff think of her body “they now know as intimately as any lover”, which feels ordinary in comparison, despite the shocking nature of the thought. I’d like Madder to stretch herself, let herself loose more often, a feeling she describes in ‘The Occasion’, when she’s on morphine:
I’m waiting to see
a buzzard look
me in the eye.
Negotiating the skies.
The pamphlet, from a small Leicester-based press, is attractively produced, and the cover includes a design by Madder, who is also an artist. £1 from each sale goes to Macmillan Cancer Support.
The convention that poems should be read ignoring their provenance simply cannot hold with this collection because these poems are Lizzie Madder; Lizzie Madder is these poems. They form a record of her experiences confronting anal cancer over more than five years. Each poem is dated—a milestone along the way —and the structure of the whole is so integrated it could be taken as a single long poem. It amounts to a journal, but never a prosaic one.
Madder’s superlative image-making gives her collection terrific vibrancy. The day before chemotherapy she is out walking with her lover and at a craft sale spots a wooden vase which they buy:
and at its centre there was a hole,
a wound of burnt wood
puckered and black, the size of a bean
which seemed appropriate
(‘Walk in Wandlebury Park 1’)
This extraordinary correlative for her condition is followed by others: “What’s up my bum” is “a cave where bats are hanging/ They’ve arrived unannounced” or “a rock pool where a hermit crab/ shifts sand to bury itself deep in a shell” (‘Preparation’). Two years later, in recovery, she compiles a list of her cancer’s characteristics in terms of human tormentors—cruel kid, thug, bully and, worst, stalker who’s “waiting at the end of the road” (‘Stalker’).
Madder has described elsewhere her devotion to Leonard Cohen’s poems and there are traces of similar syntax and rhythms in this collection: a little run of if-clauses in ‘Preparation’; a deft character-sketch in ‘Perpetua’; a catalogue of same-structure clauses in ‘Toxic’:
I’m the grub in a cherry
I’m the birthmark on a perfect skin
I’m the bruise on a peach
I’m the falling petals of a rose
In ‘Negotiation’, perhaps the key poem, Madder discloses her fruitless strategies for coping in the ward with enduring pain. Yet always at night “the horrors that have been pushed aside/ come squealing in”. Just as when in childhood she was ill, confined to bed enjoying “small attentions”, so now she is sustained by the professionals— “a hierarchy of cockerels and hens/ busy-bodying, circling the ward” (‘Bed Four’)—and by her lover, friends and family, for whom she hopes to “live up to their view of my worth” (‘Friends’).
Lizzie Madder’s consummate collection is suffused with courage, humanity, good humour, gentleness and grace. It is most moving.