"Mercy," winner of the Wolf Ridge Press Narrative / Poetic Medicine Prize, contains nineteen powerful poems--poems that provide an intimate look into the author's role as caregiver to her husband who is living with, and being treated for, liposarcoma.  But the poems in this small volume are not just about husband and wife.  Cancer becomes a third character, one who is often addressed as a presence lingering in the same house, sleeping in the same bed, never absent from every moment of struggle or from any moments of joy.  In the opening poem, "Cozy" (page 1), the couple has "escaped" to a remote rented cabin.  They slip "from love-rumpled featherbed and sheets" feeling "safe" within the sturdy cabin walls that "keep out driving rain or freeze."  For those hours, nothing can spoil their happiness, "even Cancer, who squats on our stoop, / flipping his gold coin in lazy arcs."  At the close of "Cozy," as the couple drives home from their respite, Cancer rides with them, sitting between them "as he hums and nods / pleasantly--first to you, then to me, // one hand lightly resting on each near thigh."  The author weaves this threatening image of Cancer as an ever-present entity throughout the poems that follow.


It is difficult to portray the terrible beauty of this book without quoting at length from every poem in this collection.  The author is clearly her husband's strength and protector, "Curator / of White Papers" and "Housekeeper / of Cancer" ("Diagnosis" pages 2-3).  As a poet, she is also the creator of unusual and effective metaphors.  Her silent bedside stitching, handiwork she holds in her lap as her husband sleeps, post-op, conjures the surgeon's "shining stapler" that cross hatched her husband's flesh.  ("Night Work" page 4).  The author is not, however, a perfect, saintly caregiver.  She is angry ("Anger" page 8), smashing bottles in the recycling center and saying, through gritted teeth, "You're not the only / One who can break things." We might assume she is addressing Cancer, yet the capitalized "One" suggests she is also angry at God.  And just as the cancer patient suffers side effects, so too does the caregiver. In the difficult-to-read poem "Side Effects" (pages 20-21), the poet describes finding a hole her dog has dug in her garden, and how her frustration is taken out on this loved animal.  She holds the dog by the collar, "smacking her flank" and  "hitting my / dear shelter-rescue dog-- / shouting Bad Dog, Bad--."  Even as the punishing continues, the poet knows she is not being "just," that she is not reacting to the ruined tomatoes but to the "new drips / and drugs, the side effects, the blank / chemo stare, / the flesh / that vanishes." 

Every poem in this small collection is strong, moving and informative, a look into a spouse- caregiver's world, one in which all pains are doubled, all sufferings shared with the loved patient yet ultimately experienced alone.  These poems are also well-crafted and exemplary works in their own right. The author offers precise images and invents spot-on language.  As she and her husband enter the Cockrell Butterfly Center at M.D. Anderson, the structure appears "harp-strung in sun-- // into a waver of shadowlace" ("Little Mutable" pages 11-13).  In "Blue Charm" (page 15), the poet writes "high widow" when she means "high window."  She corrects herself but leaves the dark shadow of "widow" for us to contemplate.  In the same poem, when her husband receives chemo, she sits next to him in what she names "the wife chair." And in the lovely title poem, "Mercy" (pages 18-19), the author pays tribute to one of the nurses, Liz, who tends both patient and wife with great empathy, perhaps because she too knows suffering.  A scar on her arm reveals where her step-father snubbed out cigarettes on her flesh.  "How," the poet wonders, "could / she turn burn to empathy?  Wounded, she heals." Liz's own strength enables the poet and her husband to persevere. "--blessed, we dare to drink from the bitter cup." These poems will resonate with men and women who are not professional caregivers and yet have been thrust into that role by the illness of a loved family member or friend.  Because the personal is also universal, many readers will be challenged and changed by these new, eloquent poems.


Wolf Ridge Press

Place Published

San Francisco



Page Count