These fourteen sonnets interweave themselves to form a unified work, just as lines are repeated or echoed to interweave in the individual poems, providing an account of the author’s experience of breast cancer, radical mastectomy, and recovery. The medical details appear more prominently in the early sonnets, but gradually, other themes take precedence: suffering and how to compare relative degrees of suffering among individuals and groups; the reaction of oneself and one’s lovers to a disfigured body; and the search for affirmation, for a reason to want to live and be rid of the horror of disease and death.

Note: A relevant Web site about and by artist-model Matuschka,, has been annotated in the art section of this database (Matuschka: Matuschka Archive).


The ninth sonnet--in effect, the beginning of the tercet--has a masterful way of placing personal suffering in the context of the political sufferings of our century. "It’s not Auschwitz," Hacker begins; "It’s not gang rape in Bosnia or / gang rape and gutting in El Salvador." Then, in a beautiful turn, she adds: "My self-betraying body needs to grieve / at how hatreds metastasize." She then recalls her father and the Holocaust victims, "each numbered, shaved, emaciated Jew / I might have been. They wore the blunt tattoo, / a scar, if they survived, oceans away. / Should I tattoo my scar? What would it say?"

The theme of comparative suffering recurs in the twelfth sonnet, as Hacker remembers friends who died, or strangers whose death she read of, all of whose requiems she feels inadequate to sing. Hacker even acknowledges in the fifth sonnet that this recurring issue has its limits, "a form of gallows humor," but her poems are nevertheless her effort to "do what I can." Given that so many sufferers find these things nearly unspeakable--whether war crimes or diseases--the sequence of sonnets is a powerful achievement.


For "Cancer Winter" the author won the John Masefield Memorial Award.

Primary Source

Winter Numbers


W. W. Norton

Place Published

New York