In this five-stanza free verse poem the speaker, a physician, observes the patient, a young man dying of cancer and suffering pain in the arm he has lost to the disease. The patient watches television, and sees the fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of D Day, the Allied landing in France in World War II. The old soldiers, the war veterans, are enviable for the "honor" provided by the source of their losses and injuries, the sense of meaning that comes from winning a war, which is so unlike the arbitrary and passive suffering of cancer in which, as the speaker says, there's "no honor."

The patient has asked whether a scan would explain the pain in his phantom limb; the physician muses that a scan is the wrong place to look, not just because there is no arm to scan, but because what the cancer patient really lacks is a story which can make sense of and justify his misery. The veterans have such a story. Although they are aging and have suffered, the speaker longs to give his patient "their battles," the sense of significance and value (a story recognized by the whole world, as the TV broadcast indicates) which cancer lacks.

The poet plays with the "D's" of D Day: "deception, danger, death," are all inherent in the world, but seldom accessible to confrontation as they are in war (to this extent war is like the scan, making the sources of pain visible and so manageable). A fourth "D" is added, for "deliverance," implying that the "old men's stories" of battles and victory compensate for their suffering in a way that nothing can for the cancer patient.


This moving poem is about the search for a communicable explanation of the experiences that characterize human life, for a source of useful stories that make suffering make sense. One shares the patient's sense of injustice, of being pointlessly trapped (all he does in the poem is take pills and watch TV, strongly contrasted with the veterans' active searching the coast of France), but the physician's voice is a more powerful presence, conveying his wish to give the old men's battles to his patient, to find a way of providing a narrative that at least makes some sense of what threatens to be a wasteful and meaningless death.

In a story might come a form of deliverance. And perhaps the physician-poet succeeds in this, to the extent that the poem itself stands as a story delivering the cancer patient from his sedentary, dishonorable affliction, and placing him for a moment in the company of those who fought more obviously honorable--and maybe more manageable--wars.

Primary Source

J. Amer. Med. Assoc., 274(11): 867 (1995)