Dire Cure

Matthews, William

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Jan-27-1999
  • Last revised: Sep-06-2006


This is a long (110 lines) narrative poem about the poet’s wife’s cancer, "large, rare and so anomalous / in its behavior that at first they mis- / diagnosed it." At first the poet personifies the cancer, then he demonizes the chemotherapy. He describes Tumor Hell and Tumor Hell Clinic, which "is, it turns out, a teaching hospital. / Every century or so, the way / we’d measure it, a chief doc brings a pack / of students round." Back on earth, his wife’s cancer is gone.

"This must be hell for you," some of his friends said. He reflects on the meaning of Sartre’s hell (created in Sartre’s own image) and Dante’s hell (created in his city’s image), and he considers the tumor’s name. He concludes that his wife should "think of its name and never / say it, as if it were the name of God."


This is a delightful and moving poem that confronts cancer and its "Dire Cure" with just the right mixture of imaginative wit and sensitivity. The sections in which the poet personifies the tumor (second stanza) and imagines Tumor Hell (sixth and seventh stanzas) are particularly fine, as is the conclusion in which he realizes that some of the "it" he hated "was me-- / the self-pity I allowed myself, / the brave poses I struck."

Primary Source

After All: Last Poems


Houghton Mifflin

Place Published