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Cancer, church, and the poet

14 June 2013

Martyn Halsall seeks out connections in verse and prose to 'provoke conversation

Love for Now
Anthony Wilson
Impress Books £6.99
Church Times Bookshop £6.30 (Use code CT124  )

Anthony Wilson
Worple Press £10

POETRY complements prose in these two memoirs of being a cancer patient, by the writer and academic Anthony Wilson (Features, 14 September 2012). Frank and humane, mingling telling reportage with unflinching emotional scrutiny, the books nevertheless tantalise with two significant underrepresentations at the heart of Wilson's creative being. One is his poetry, and the other is God.

The poetry, we read in Love for Now, gradually returned, and Riddance - Wilson's third collection - formed part of his healing. God, as encountered through allusions rather than exploration, remains an indeterminate presence. There are references to prayer, and faith is listed among the losses in his taut poem "Lost"; but these are side glances compared with considerable detail devoted to diet or music. The hook is baited, but the line is never fully played.

Christians must share the blame. Reactions to Wilson's diagnosis, at 42, on St Valentine's Day, 2006, ranged from the spiritually supportive to damaging insensitivity. A week after his diagnosis, Wilson and his family are prayed for in church. "They couldn't even be bothered to use our real names," his daughter said.

In contrast, when a friend asks the church to pray, she suggests some realistic themes, and urges that community not to pressure the family "to say how much it is or isn't working". This, rather than a lurid leaflet - "Sickness, disease, pain, I resist you in the name of Jesus" - brought to Wilson and his family the gratitude of tears.

Much of the value of Love for Now lies in its inherent plea for sensitivity towards cancer patients. Wilson writes that he hopes that the book will challenge the military language to which those "battling cancer" are frequently subjected. He prefers a more humane approach, illustrated through the kindness of medical experts, friends, and colleagues which he experienced. He seeks to "provoke conversation".

He writes, in diary form, both to describe and analyse, recording events, conversations, his physical and emotional reactions, and the weather. With him, we learn to share the value of everyday encounters: an album track; people calling; creative cookery. We also share his relief when he resumes writing poetry, seven months after his diagnosis.

Some poems were written swiftly, in the month before his remission was confirmed. A long sequence honours the textile designer, Lucy Mason, a friend who was dying of cancer at that time. A third sequence celebrates "borderlands between different landscapes", physical and emotional; others "explore the liminal terrain between waking and dreaming, work and family, light and dark".

Together, these books offer wise companionship to those encountering cancers. Their realism emerges in many passages of prose and poetry, as in "How to Pray for the Dying", which begins:

Do not say: "Lord, this is not of you,"
rebuking our tumours
as though we were not in the room with them.

Say instead: "We are afraid,"
and "We do not understand."

and ends:

"Don't you dare
say: "It's not fair."
Spare me your weeping.
Try saying: "Shit happens."

In such moments, the missing links in Wilson's books connect.

Dr Martyn Halsall is Poet in Residence at Carlisle Cathedral and poetry editor of Third Way.


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