Coping creatively with Covid and cancer
Mary Madec was diagnosed with cancer just after lockdown but poetry has helped her
Mary Madec: “Poetry gives shape to experience as it asks us to assemble events in our lives. Each of us is one long story.” Photograph: Markus Voetter
Just after the lockdown I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had my follow-up consultation over the phone. Two days later my pre-op treatment arrived in the post. I had just launched my third book of poems and was planning events to support the publication of the book. Suddenly, I was in survival mode, thinking about the last time I had cancer as a young woman and glad that this time I had “my books and my poetry to protect me” as the Simon and Garfunkel song says.
I got over the feeling of dissipation at the outset and settled into a new routine, drawing more on my creativity, an essential part of our human nature which helps us to make full and enjoyable lives. I know that all the arts help to bring the restorative benefits of being creative to your soul but for me writing is the way. I was amused thinking about the title of my book from this new vantage point, The Egret Lands With News From Other Parts, which was speaking to me anew, the flashes of white on the dark landscape most personally for me and sorely needed.
Egrets on the Flaggy Shore
The stunning white backs
against the dark wrack
of the foreshore.
The delicate studied steps
as they pick through the depths
down to the rocks
exotic and strange, this dash of white
on the darks and greys in the fading light
of an Irish winter,
as beautiful as a Syrian
her skin golden, glistening
as beautiful as an erratic in the wall
fitting there like a cornerstone,
knowing this place can be its home.
Poetry gives shape to experience as it asks us to assemble events in our lives. Each of us is one long story. We can start out first on this simple timeline but as we get deeper in, each of us will find in poetry the possibility of appropriating experience and “putting it in its place”. The writing of poetry in particular allows the restoration of the fragmented pieces of our lives in some way and those who try to “write their lives” in this trying pandemic will experience inner healing and gain confidence in myriad ways that have nothing (seemingly) to do with writing.
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As the situation progresses, it becomes clear that the long-term effects of pulling back from our fellow human beings – no matter what complexion we put on it – take their toll and will have a lasting impact on our psyches. The development of our inner resources, and I would consider poetry to have a special role there, will be crucial.
So what can poetry give us precisely? When it’s a practice, something you do frequently, the act of writing your life down gives it shape and meaning. I never quite understood that until I started to take my writing seriously for myself. Poetry gives us a way into the significant details which surprisingly are often the most inconsequential facts of our daily lives. One cannot avoid thinking of course how the late Eavan Boland became so well known for a poem about feeding a baby (Nightfeed).
The inspiring moment may not turn out to be what you expect. Here’s a poem where a bird I almost tripped on, coming out of my former house, became an image in my mind which gathered the painful feelings I had about my divorce.
I stand in the kitchen saying goodbye to the house
I have lived in, mother and lover,
when I see a song thrush, dead at the door of the sun lounge
stunned forever by the clarity of glass.
I look at his small frail body, his speckled chest,
but most of all at his two spindle legs limply clinging to air
as if there could be something they could grab
to stop the folding of this fragile life back into the earth.
Poetry teaches us to pay attention to the world, and to value what we find in it and love it even for one moment with our undivided hearts. Heaney’s lovely poem Had I Not Been Awake expresses this gift of poetry so well telling us that he, would have, “missed it/ A wind that rose... A courier blast that there and then/ Lapsed ordinary./But not ever/After./And not now”. There is something deeply affecting about the impact of this little whirlwind on the poet, of how he saw in this somehow the spirit, the breath of insight itself, what one might call the immanence of poetry.
On my simple walks in the allowed distance I hear now more clearly the birdsong, the rising crescendo of it, and the building of nests. I see the colour change as the summer comes in, the fields fill with golden dandelions and later the clocks stand still in the fields waiting for the wind to take them. I see, and feel in the seeing, the lush green, the new crepe leaves on the hawthorn and the ash.
And as I walk along, I observe myself as a participant in these great cycles and I am inspired and grateful. The imbalances of body will right themselves and I will be okay. When it’s all over, the cancer and the Covid, I will remember this time, this unplanned holiday with an overlooked friend who turned out to be the best friend of all.
Cancer in a Time of Covid
This time I want to remember
that each morning began with birdsong,
in the afternoon the metronomic beat
of the clock, my husband under his hat in the lounge,
that once in those days after my walk
around a small silenced town
a little dog followed me,
the neigbours laughed, said he had found me out at last,
as he presented his head for my hand
insisting he take up residence
On Good Friday as we sowed seeds in the garden
deep into the clay, we were grateful for the light
which would coax them out of the dark.
Every story has an end and a beginning.
Mary Madec was born and raised near Westport, Co Mayo, Ireland. She received her MA in Old English poetry from NUI, Galway and her doctorate in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania. She is director of the Villanova University Study Abroad Program at NUI, Galway. She won the Hennessy XO Prize for Emerging Poetry in 2008. Her first collection, In Other Words, was published by Salmon Poetry in 2010 followed by Demeter Does Not Remember in 2014 and The Egret Lands With News From Other Parts last November. It was launched by Jessica Traynor on the Holding Cell podcast last month. She also edited Jessica Casey & Other Stories from Salmon Poetry, 2011, showcasing work from people with intellectual disabilities following a multi-award winning project funded by an Arts Participation Bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland. She teaches a workshop in the summer at Kylemore Abbey and also recently has begun working with immigrant women writers. She is a member of a collective of poets who, through poetry readings, reach out to women who have had breast cancer and is a co-author of their book Bosom Pals published by Doire Press in 2017.