Cancer, by definition, is an abnormal cell growing out of control by Caitlin Roach


I have heard this music before /saith the body —Mary Oliver

the doctor says on the phone.
This is a fact. It is impossible
to rebound from the news
these days. Each mass
shooting is only the worst
for so long. This is a fact
too. So the anticipation of
violence implants surely
as the blastocyst attaches
to the uterine wall. I’ve come to
the symphony with my husband
to distract us from the news
of my cancer. It is no use,
the symphony. It is too hot
to focus, too hot to hear
music, to watch the bassist’s face
wracked with grief our bodies share
in this heat, inside which
cicadas won’t cease
anyway. I choose the seat
nearest the exit, plan an escape
before the conductor appears.
I tell my husband I am going
to the bathroom but instead count
the number of stairs to run up
if we had to, to see how far
of a drop we could bear
if we jumped off the ledge
once we got to the top. I twitch
in my seat from the sweat
beading behind my knees.
I am too hot to think
of anything other than how
long my body has sustained this
quiet violence, so soft it has been
wholly impossible to hear. The music
starts. The baton carves
the stale air sharp
as a spider’s single thread rising
above the orchestral pit
is culled by it. I imagine it
finned like the mucus ferning
inside me. On a tree adjacent to
the amphitheater, a staghorn fern
sags under its own weight, legs
pendulous and fertile. It’s
borrowed a branch from its host
and anchored there but doesn’t live
off it. It survives on nutrients
it collects in its crown from this
sick Nevadan air, too thick
for any of us to breathe.
I do not know how
the symphony ends. We leave
early, as alive as we were
when we arrived, a fact
my husband reminds us
both of, meaning look, again
we survived. That night
I watch the tumor my body’s host to
bubble under its gauze and try
to will it from depending on me
to survive. I smell the fat
from a suite of dead things
surrounding me in bed, think it
some natal plum’s perfume
around my head. I worry this worry
is enough to unmoor the lump
of cells dividing from the wall
it’s adjunct to. Soon
I watch the castoff bloom
beneath me like ink droppered
in a test bowl, concern
myself still with whether
it can withstand the fall.
The doctor pares it down
to the single smallest unit
to make it seem more manageable:
it’s just a single cell behaving
out of control she says. My suegra says
a tortilla soaked in alcohol
on the soles of my feet
will rid my body of its fever,
that the black bubble
the burner’s flames make
on the masa’s skin that bursts
into ash and flakes back
to the fire beneath it means
our firstborn will be a boy. Later
she’ll say something about
the genetic makeup of
female chimps, how its likeness
to her son’s suggests
he would father a daughter
better than a son. It rained
the day we wed and she cried
for an abundance it signified.
I do not have the heart to tell her
about the blooming now, how
I am all swum out. As we vowed
then, a girl was walking the rows
of corn outside, looking
for epiphytes with which to crown
another girl’s head. Sweet, dumb thing
I thought to say as I watched her
through the barn window
while my husband spoke
of pleached trees whose branches
graft as they sway in wind,
becoming more of themselves
together whose lattices were said
to have been strong enough
to repel armies
in war, this place is inhospitable
for such lushness. But how
was she to know, duped
by all that green, alive
enough to sate every last one
of us at that party.
Caitlin Roach’s poems appear or are forthcoming in jubilat, Narrative, Tin House, Best New Poets, Colorado Review, Columbia Journal, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. More can be found at