Helen (Helena/Nell)'s Reviews > Riddance

Riddance by Anthony   Wilson
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it was amazing
Read 3 times. Last read September 1, 2012 to January 2, 2013.

Poets, like other people, get cancer, and sometimes they write about it. It goes with the territory of the whole poet thing. Poets make stuff out of what happens to them and that’s what Anthony Wilson has done here.

This means there are two ways (at least, two obvious and separate ones) of reading and responding to the book. The first of these is to go straight through from beginning to end, because the book works in clear sections. There is an introduction in which Wilson explains how the book came about and some of the background. He hopes, he says, that the poems “in their own way . . . begin and even sustain a conversation about what it is we go through when our lives are touched by cancer”. The poems are divided into sections from the beginning of the experience to the end, which is of course not an end. The poet doesn’t die. He recovers, in a manner of speaking: “I kissed you / then carried you outside. // You did not leave. / I am still saying goodbye.” I’ll come to the second way of reading later.

I don’t have cancer and haven’t had it yet, so I didn’t read the book from the point of view of one who knows how it feels. I do have friends who have had cancer though: some have died; some are very much alive; some . . . I don’t know. It is all around us, the tissue of life and death. I was reading to try and understand from the outside what it is like on the inside – in order to be more use. Like most people who haven’t got cancer themselves, I am never sure what it’s appropriate to say to friends who have. I do share with Anthony Wilson, though, a fervent dislike for the clichéd metaphors, especially the idea of “cancer as a battle”.

The book works as a narrative. It is variously funny, thought provoking, moving and alive. It has characters. I liked Jörn, who says “If you’re handed a shit pack of cards / that’s what you have to play with”. Cancer – Wilson’s own personal cancer – is also a character, directly addressed, as in ‘The End of the Affair’:

My days grow fat without you.
There are rumours of gales.
No, I don’t think we can be friends.
I would rather you didn’t write.

I don’t know, having read the book, whether I’m now better able to write to my friend who is currently dying of cancer of the lungs and is too ill to write back. I still don’t know if it’s okay to talk to her about death. Perhaps it’s different in every case. Perhaps there’s never a ‘right’ thing to say, only multiple wrong ones.

My neighbour died of lung cancer three or four years ago. She was the same age as me. She always looked so well, even in the later stages. I talked to her before her second, and last, course of chemo. The first was for breast cancer, the second when it reappeared in her lungs and bones. She dreaded the chemo because she had some horrible side effects, which included an inability to sleep for more than about three or four hours each night. She said to me, “I don’t really want to go through with it. I’m tempted just to take my chances.” And I thought, but did not say, “Except there are no chances.” So I merely nodded.

Effectively, ordinary ‘healthy’ life proceeds from one apparent necessity to the other: getting from A to B, from shopping to the dentist. Illness stops everything. Suddenly one is outside all of that, the prime directive being to stay alive as long as possible, not lose weight or buy birdseed. And so we have two ways of being. There are those inside the imperatives of birdseed (or the equivalent), which is the majority – although even for them it is temporary – and those for whom birdseed has become irrelevant.

Life and death. We walk the edge of a cliff daily, but our brains function in such a way that they disregard the risk. We can die at any moment. All we have to do is stop breathing. It’s very dangerous to look over the edge, so why do it before we have to?

Which brings me to the second way of reading the book. You can forget all about the narrative, the business of being diagnosed with cancer, treated for it, the remission and recovery. You can read it simply for its way of looking. Because when the birdseed imperatives stop, people see things in a different way, and that sharpness of vision is something we prize. It is invaluable: the true gold we sift through poems for.

This book is lit by that vision, and sometimes where you least expect it. For example, some of the untitled and fragmentary poems in Section 4 (‘Three Lifetimes’) do that thing:

There are four buds on this hawthorn.
The wind is not an old woman shrieking.

Or a glimpse of the playpark with “the swings trembling like tuning forks / in the pink dusk now strewn / with litter and prams”. Or:

The house ticks.
What I thought
was an upstairs radiator
was actually my own plumbing
gurgling in the darkness.
I am not a clever man
nor a good one.

Here “Anything is allowed: sunlight on a fruit-bowl, / the washing line’s pearls after rain.” And so these are true poems, poised on the edge of the cliff where life is of the essence.

There are also some complex and satisfying pieces, poems to return to again and again. One of these is ‘On Speaking to One Another from Different Rooms’, a wonderfully real ‘found’ metaphor for miscommunication, but also for my own personal issue: trying to communicate with the person in the room with cancer when you are in the room without it:

Because everything is not where we left it
history will revisit us tomorrow
at approximately the same time.
The door is almost closed
and we have not said our goodbyes yet.

‘Reasons for Life’ is also remarkable, ‘Seller Feedback’ made me laugh out loud (‘On the Exeter Poets’ ran it close), and ‘Cured’ lifted my heart. Many of these poems function just as efficiently divorced from their cancer context. And there is a beautiful ‘prayer’ for healing, which works brilliantly on both sides of the door.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
Finished Reading
September 1, 2012 – Started Reading
January 2, 2013 – Shelved
January 2, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Trevor (new)

Trevor I read something recently - and I can't for the life of me remember what or where - someone say that when they were faced with their battle with cancer they surrendered immediately. And it got me thinking about what I would say. That as a pacifist I would have to remain a conscientious objector? That I would most likely be taken prisoner immediately and spend the rest of the war in an internment camp? This last one seems to be what most 'battles with cancer' look like from the outside.

I love the different rooms idea, by the way.


Helen (Helena/Nell) I've copied out the whole different rooms poem. I'll send it you.


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