The first time, when the doctor inserted / the needle, I winced—not from pain but subtraction, each / sharp click reducing me to specimen.—“Redbuds”
Ja’net Danielo’s This Body I Have Tried to Write is compiled of ten short, yet powerful poems on the author’s struggle with cancer (MAYDAY, 2022). Despite the somber tone of the collection, each poem is captivating. You can almost feel the blood dripping from the doctor’s needles, the despair and rejection from the other cancer-afflicted, and the quiet fury from Danielo herself.
When my time came, / I said to the surgeon / I’m not ready, / by which I meant / not for the blade / on the tongue, / but the knife / my body would take / to itself, for that final / moment.—“That Episode of 90210 When Brenda Finds a Lump”
As someone who hasn’t experienced cancer first-hand, it’s difficult to comprehend the suffering Danielo and others like her face. One particular area that most cancer patients deal with, and that is the most frightening to me, is agonizing over time. Indeed, time is often referenced throughout Danielo’s poems, and it is one of the many elements that drew me closer to her experiences. Danielo’s second poem, “That Episode of 90210 When Brenda Finds a Lump,” encapsulates the many moments of staring at the clock, of staring at the calendar, of staring at the skies as each passing moment brings them closer to Death’s doorstep. There were instances where the victims didn’t want to know about how much time they had left, and I was immediately reminded of my deceased grandparents who had also been plagued by this silent killer. Did they feel the same as Danielo’s victims as their cancers ate them from the inside out? Or did they ask to see the remainder of their life cord laid out on a surgical table? I may not have the answers to these questions, and they possibly didn’t either, but I do know that Danielo has offered me insight into that infectious world that has “pulled you / to it’s blood & bone ache, held / you close, [and] just would not let go.”
Today, / a Ukrainian woman told Russian soldiers to fill / their pockets with seeds, so sunflowers would grow / from their dead bodies & this is hope somehow like / paper cranes that dangle from the ceiling of the Todd / Cancer Pavilion, where bald & breastless women wait / to be called.—“Metastasis”
I appreciate that Danielo offers moments of contemporary references as well as religious symbolism to convey her feelings on cancer. Of them, my favorite is when Danielo specifically cites Judas in her fifth poem, “REDBUDS.” Throughout my journey as a reader, I’ve discovered that authors never offer up anything by accident and especially those tidbits that include flowers or plants. Thus, I found that Judas Iscariot was said to have hung himself on a redbud tree after betraying Jesus Christ, and I realized Danielo feels as betrayed by her own body as the Lord did by his disciple and as Ukrainians felt as their brothers and sisters from the neighboring land attacked their nation.
This body I have tried to write, / this betrayal, to trace its roots in my blood, / through the labyrinth of my mother’s / genome.—“This Body I Have Tried to Write,”
I can’t imagine the courage it takes to write about one’s potential impending demise, let alone sharing that vulnerability with the world, so I commend Danielo on trusting us with her pain and suffering. In fact, Danielo has given me one of my favorite things to read; not the hardships they experience, of course, but that they are willing to hand over some of the most sensitive and heart-wrenching details of themselves to complete strangers. This represents a belief and hope that others will empathize and sympathize with her, and I absolutely love it. On a parting note, and within the final poem, Danielo reveals that she wants to “write myself into memory.” Danielo can rest assured that she has, indeed, left a mark on my heart and will survive in my memory for a very long time.
This Body I Have Tried to Write is available at MAYDAY
Eden Stiger is a Kentucky-bred, Ohio-living college undergraduate who recently received her Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing from the University of Findlay. She is the current poetry editor and layout editor for the literary magazine Slippery Elm.