Telling Him He Has Cancer of the Lung

Dyer, Eric

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Willms, Janice
  • Date of entry: Jan-25-1999


This is a tight, short poem that takes its central metaphor from the uncredited quote, ". . . a madman attacked Michelangelo's Pietà with a hammer." The speaker is presumably a physician who, with a pathology report on his desk, contemplates the task before him. He likens himself, as bearer of grim news, to an avenging creature about to assault his patient, the Pietà, with a catalogue of cutting and pounding tools as images for the effect of such news on the recipient. The speaker also reflects on his own anger, the anger he feels about his patient's bad fortune, yet ". . . not wanting to judge / the cracked face of God."


The poet's choice of informing metaphor, a hammer striking not a constructive blow but one of demolition, is followed by a Whitmanesque string of similar imagery--a new tool with potential for both good and harm in almost every line of the poem. It is, in part, the insistent pounding of the metaphor that creates the power of the poem and sculpts a painfully clear image of the physician's agony at what he must tell his patient and what he perceives it will do to his "hard face."

Primary Source

Annals of Internal Medicine 126 (No. 2): 106 (1997)


American College of Physicians

Place Published