Essay / 27 February 2019

The Triumph of Cancer: A Commentary

On writer Chris McCabe

Mina Loy once stated: ‘Poetry is prose bewitched, a music made of visual thoughts, the sound of an idea.’ Like Loy, I see poetry as an awareness, of language, sound, rhythm and how these elements are constructed into one final piece. Poetic style has changed numerous times over the past few centuries, from the formalism and imaginative spontaneity of the Romantics, to the self-conscious break of tradition from modernism, to the fragmentation and paradox of postmodernism. A writer, who I believe has the quintessence of all these areas, is Liverpudlian poet Chris McCabe.

     McCabe’s poetry collections have explored multiplicities of interest during his career. Zeppelins(Salt, 2008) took a more surrealist approach, focusing on the chaos of the metropolis at the beginning of the 21stcentury. While one of his most recent collections Speculatrix(Penned in the Margins, 2014) fixates on the history of London, with a social and political focus, and has resonances of Elizabethan and Jacobean voices. The Restructure(Salt, 2012) is a semi-autobiographical collection of poetry that tells the story of the circumstances leading to the conception and delivery of McCabe’s own son, who was born with a condition requiring long hospital visits.

     The Triumph of Cancer(Penned in the Margins, 2018) is McCabe’s newest collection of poetry, and which, at its heart, is most concerned with the experience and development of cancer. For example, McCabe introduces names such as Irène Joliet-Curie, who died from leukaemia after many years of radiation exposure: ‘their daughter, Irene,/disappeared into the future.’ British actress and comedian Caroline Aherne, who suffered from several cancers including the retina, bladder and lungs and eventually died due to lung cancer: ‘born with cancer of the eyes[…]’. Snooker player Paul Hunter, who died from neuroendocrine tumours: ‘no space for hand for cue for control[…]’ McCabe incorporates their experiences to create a historical log of other sufferers of this disease, while also playing with language and form in order to surprise our expectations about what a poem on cancer may be.

     In his poem ‘Snooker’, he writes: ‘[…]astonished to see the red/mutate into reds & the white/swallowed in reds endless reds[…]’, which refers to red and white snooker balls as a metaphor for the battle between red and white blood cells. In an extract of McCabe’s poetics written for the poetry and poetics anthology, Atlantic Drift(Arc Publications, 2017), he states: ‘[…]but the poems resist global messaging through being written from the perspective of the personal moment, through a personal style.’ This is evident in The Triumph of Canceralso, as the early poems speak less about cancer on a global scale, but more about the individual lives it has affected, including his own. For example, his poem ‘Balloon’ personifies cancer as a starving baby, unable to resist ingesting healthy cells: ‘they sucker-up to the teat & start to swell,/suckling limp with a flaccid feebleness./They flare with growth, all-belly,/stretch their magenta to a vicious puce[…]’

Though his aesthetic is different, McCabe’s new collection sits well alongside other British poets writing about health. Recent collections such as Christopher Reid’s A Scattering(Aretè Books, 2009) and Jo Shapcott’s Of Mutability(Faber and Faber, 2010) both include poems about cancer. Reid’s collection is a tribute to his wife Lucinda Gane who died from brain cancer in 2005, and consists of four poetic sequences following her illness and subsequently her death. Shapcott’s collection, her first in twelve years, was written after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which is heavily featured in the book. Unlike McCabe, Shapcott never dignifies cancer with a name. She often refers to it as an accumulation of cells, her title and first poem is ‘Of Mutability’ which begins: ‘too many of the best cells in my body/are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw/in this spring chill.’ Elements of the disease are introduced throughout the collection, which almost act as a visual representation of different cells throughout the body.

Though McCabe does give cancer a name, it is often mixed with a scene that is seemingly unrelated to illness. His poem ‘Cancer’, which could be considered the title poem due to its final line (‘This is cancer’s triumph’), seems to have less to do with its name and more with London travel. However, within the journey, cancer is directly referred to: ‘Cancer cells are greedheads, nocturnal movers of neighbours’/fences.’ I found this to be one of the most powerful lines in the whole collection. Here, cancer itself becomes anthropomorphic, and in a sense, has its own voice and personality. It becomes the main character to McCabe’s story. Amid his psychogeographic mind-mapping of the London underground system, he drip feeds us lines relating to the disease, as well as one man’s diagnosis. This fixation on the tube and public movement is a metaphor for life continuing to move on regardless of ill health or any life-changing news. Amid somebody’s personal torment with their body is the narrator taking cash out of the ATM: ‘I take cash from the ATM, switch to the DLR & check my texts./One in eight men will get cancer of the prostate.’ The poem continues to expand, morph and change into something else, much like cancer itself.

Reid similarly focuses on the theme of personal experience in his collection A Scattering(Arete Books, 2009). Like Shapcott, Reid doesn’t directly refer to cancer, he mentions it in derogatory terms, and in his second poetic sequence ‘The Unfinished’, he discusses his wife’s final few days and writes: ‘Hobgoblin, nor foul fiend;/nor even the jobsworth slob/with a slow, sly scheme to rob/my darling of her mind/that I imagined;/just a tumour.’

Similarly, in The Restructure, McCabe also uses the persona of THE RESTRUCTURE to drive a message to its reader. Reading that collection, I was reminded of a quote from Sylvia Plath during an interview she gave in 1962: ‘I would say everything should be able to come into a poem, but I can't put toothbrushes into a poem, I really can't!’ McCabe is one of those first-rate poets who manages to incorporate even the proverbial toothbrush with as much skill and seamless energy as everything else he writes. THE RESTRUCTURE is an omniscient and abstract voice that continues to invade the collection, between poems about a sickly boy and his father, this voice is ever-present and continually aims to force both the father and reader into feeling a sense of powerlessness and forces our very beings into becoming ‘restructured’ to fit into the economic world. McCabe writes: ‘THE RESTRUCTURE aims to occupy/the dictionary space for macabre[…]’ This forms THE RESTRUCTURE with a personality and desires, much like his character of cancer in his newest collection. The Restructureand The Triumph of Cancerboth explore mortality and experiences through crisis, with this looming presence repeatedly hanging over the heads of all parties involved. Even with two collections that are so personal to McCabe’s own experiences, he uses this to create works that manage to combine the personal with the political. In an extract from Atlantic Drift, while discussing his collection Speculatrix, McCabe writes: ‘I think of these poems as if structured through a double helix with one spine documenting political events, twisting across another spine of simple captured experience.’ The same can be said for both The Restructureand The Triumph of Cancer, as the political and personal never seem to be too far away from each other, regardless of subject.

     In true McCabe fashion, he not only plays with form, but language. His poem, ‘Cell’ becomes a visual representation of a single cancer cell surrounded by healthy cells: ‘[…]it, it, it, @ it, it, it[…]’ This concrete poem needs no words or imagery to have a profound impact on its reader. This is much different to the way Shapcott and Reid portray their own work, which relies on language and narrative to tell a story. Here, even language itself becomes a form of cancer, constantly shifting and is purposefully split to create these moments of linguistic disruption.

     In Speculatrix, McCabe writes a series of sonnets as characters from various Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. They have been stripped back to an almost unrecognisable tone and form, and yet their presence is unmistakeable. Ilya Kaminsky writes: ‘[…]I believe that no great lyric poet ever speaks in the so-called “proper” language of his or her time.’ Despite the fact modern poetry has taken steps away from the style and language of the 16thand 17thcentury, McCabe brings this back, using phrases from those plays and overlapping them with visions of London now and then. McCabe has written: ‘At the moment of writing, the language of the play would reveal itself as if through a synced-in channel and became an adaptable parable to the hysterical drive of human life in the current capital.’ Likewise, in The Triumph of Cancer, McCabe refers to the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins several times, and dedicates his poem ‘Pinthover’ to Hopkins’s famous poem ‘The Windhover.’ Hopkins’s poem is written in ‘sprung rhythm’ and follows the flight of a bird, which has a rare ability to hover in the air while it scans the ground in search of a prey. It also reflects on the poets own excitement at the bird’s performance. McCabe pays homage to Hopkins’ poem in his famous sardonic and dark humour style, replacing the bird from Hopkins’s poem with a pint of beer, and reflecting on its effects to the poet’s mind. For example, ‘Amber & wheat clouds to thrushes as it stirs the mind/from familiar grooves & the fire breaks in unexpected converse[…]’ He mixes words and phrases from Hopkins’s into his own, creating a multigenerational poem that uses intertextual references to place the poem among two eras.

Interestingly, when McCabe does stray from the overarching theme of cancer, with poems like ‘Straw’, it is never completely removed. Though it is a political poem about labour politician John Whittaker Straw (known as Jack Straw), McCabe presents the poem in the context of a cancerous society, for example: ‘John Whittaker who changed his name to one who confessed his plans to kill ‘all landowners, bishops, monks, canons & rectors of churches’ : his plans to burn down London.’ Again, McCabe attests to this in Atlantic Drift, he writes: ‘The political is always the personal in my poetry, it’s the only way I’ve found to make global politics bear my fingerprint.’

       Like McCabe, Shapcott balances these harrowing moments of the body failing itself by including poems with a much lighter tone often for comedic effect. Her poem ‘Scorpion’ discusses in length the killing of a scorpion with a shoe, and the reasoning behind it, she writes: ‘I kill it with two fast blows/in case one isn’t enough. I kill it because I can.’ Her dark humour here reminded me of McCabe’s poem ‘Clatterbridge’. Clatterbridge is a small hamlet in Wirral, Merseyside and is best known for its hospital, which specialises in cancer. McCabe uses this as a setting for his poem while a father and son have a discussion about a man who had lost his penis, “I said, listen: you don’t need it after a certain age anyway.[…]He said: I’d like it just in case.” In an interview poet Billy Collins says: “And I think humor, at least in poetry, can be a doorway into serious subjects[…]I’m probably trying to make them laugh to disarm them. Because humor is a strategy, not an end in itself.” A balancing of dark and light is something that McCabe often returns to in his work, and it is something excellently integrated into his readings. After I had the opportunity to meet him from being involved in editing Atlantic Drift, McCabe read at the book launch at Edge Hill University. His performance was captivating and the dark humour used throughout gave the audience a sense of wistful relief among a stream of heavily serious subjects. Several poems from The Triumph of Cancer were read that evening and the humour allowed us to take a much-needed breath.

Catherine Smith says McCabe’s poetry is ‘[…]like watching an acrobat performing a series of perfectly executed backflips, then land on his feet, barely out of breath.’ Similarly, The Triumph of Canceris an ambitious, lyrical and truly outstanding collection of poetry from one of British poetry’s finest writers. It is an example of modern poetry at its best.


Jennie Byrne

is a poet and fiction writer from Wirral, Merseyside. She has a BA and MA degree in Creative Writing from Edge Hill University. Her work has appeared in Tears in the Fencedatableedzine and Young Writers’ Anthology 2017 among others. She was shortlisted for the MA Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2018 and was longlisted for the erbacce prize for poetry 2018. She has previously worked for Edge Hill University Press helping to edit and promote an anthology of poetry and poetics entitled Atlantic Drift.