Cancer: the word freezes the blood. Yes, many cancers, found early enough, are now a “chronic condition,” yet to people like poet Ann Bookman, who lost all the women on her maternal side to cancer, it’s been a death sentence. For her, it’s in the blood.
In this collection of poems, Bookman describes her lifelong relationship with the “Ashkenazi gene” of her ancestors, the BRCA mutation that predisposes an individual to a host of cancers, many of which can only be identified when it’s too late. The lyrical clarity of her language conceals a latent outrage, a mixture of grief and anger that persists throughout the book. In the first poem, “Migration Routes, she rails at her genes,
Bloodstreams channel a mystery, personal yet shared,
Invisible navigators confront turbulence,
make landfall, set up camp: tents sway, ropes fray.
Millions upon millions in flow, swim past Liberty incognito:
No one applied for entrance to my body.
Combining prose poems and free verse, Bookman introduces her readers to the women she lost and their adventurous lives cut short: a midwife, an ambulance driver trainee, a sculptor, a researcher. In her youth, however, she did not know their causes of death. Her great grandmother died of childbirth at 30, but their shared genetic heritage claimed her grandmother at 41 with ovarian cancer and her mother and her aunt both with breast cancer at 53 and 47, respectively.
Keeping secrets was part of the family code. As she writes in “White Satin Wedding Slippers,” Bookman, who was not told the cause of her grandmother’s death, does not grasp the portents of wearing her grandmother’s wedding outfit to play dress-up,
The details of her illness, like so
much family history, cocooned in half-truths. As a girl I was told she
died of stomach cancer: reference to women’s private parts was
I stood before the mirror in my
parent’s bedroom, admiring my grownup look, unaware whose
shoes I walked in.
Chillingly, Bookman’s physician father did not tell her mother about the recurrence of her disease. She and her brother were co-opted into the secret, forbidden from sharing the information. “My father thought he was protecting her,” Bookman writes in “Gleaming.” But the cost of that injunction was high. In “Separate Shores,” the poet reflects on the painful distance that ensued,
I offered silence, asked no questions,
our pact. A new clause added—without negotiation—
this conversation never happened.
I had joined the conspiracy.
Stranded on separate shores,
my mother and I played our assigned roles,
few scripted lines.
Bookman’s pain at her father’s unwillingness to share the truth with her mother emerges in “Museum of Natural History,” where she comments, “My father was always right/until he wasn’t.”
Along with losing her sense of her father’s infallibility, Bookman explores the other losses in her life and their links to her lost beloveds. The vermillion wallet her mother brought from Paris, her grandmother’s ivory comb, even the adventures she shared with her aunt paint a picture of her family’s connections while encapsulating the way items and memories slip away over time. Yet despite these losses, Bookman soldiers on.
The arrival of genetic testing offered new information, along with the weighty decision whether to access it. Bookman, who tested positive for the BRCA gene, seems to have some sort of genetic protection. As she writes in “Protective Factors,” this concept gives her more confusion than relief,
I am the first woman on my maternal
grandmother’s side to live into my 60s in four generations, perhaps
more. I feel no joy, cannot celebrate.
Protective factors—two words—a radical reframing of a picture
neatly painted in black and white. Unsure where evidence of
protection resides: I waver between the prosaic and holy. My ‘high
risk’ family history is not my destiny.
Later in the collection, though, Bookman learns that her 25-year-old daughter, also bearing the BRCA gene, is at high risk. In “But Not This” she mourns,
I want my daughter to inherit my green thumb, the serpentine
marble sculpture my mother carved, my Child’s First Book of
Verse—with page corner turned down for ‘The Lamplighter’—but
An intriguing subtext running through the collection is Bookman’s evolving relationship with her Jewish heritage. In “Black Satchel,” she meditates on the meaning of Rivka, her great grandmother’s name, noting that it means “knotted cord.” She plays with this image in “The Knotted Cord,” writing, “Whose fingers braided this cobra lanyard, this knotted cord?/Fate crosses randomness, right under left...”
The evocation of heritage and ritual across time clearly provides comfort to the poet. In the course of the book, Judaism becomes a larger part of her life, from an account of “mumbling along” during the Kaddish for her grandfather to her personal recitation of “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh/ Holy, holy, holy” each morning.
“Yet the book is not mired in grief and despair. A number of these poems share the delight of life and love. “Georgica” captures the joy of a childhood bicycle ride “in the honey suckle night,” the subtle “Peonies” explores the role of ants as a prelude to romance, and “Learning to Swim” describes the magical independence of finally learning to swim. Her lost mother becomes a source of comfort in poems like “Restoration,” “Sight Seeing Trip,” and “Shimmering.” In one of the last poems of the book, she addresses her son who is about to become a father, extending the bloodlines another generation.
As a poet and a survivor of breast cancer myself, I found this collection a powerful mixture of the agony of loss and the stubbornness of resilience. The photos of Bookman’s family makes their loss more personal; I mourned these talented women cut down so young. But Bookman encourages us to love, to remember, and to forgive. In the last poem, “Hymn to be Sung at Astronomical Twilight,” she writes,
till your eyes are used to the dark:
you will see animal hearts and the skins of ghosts
you will see tender shoots and saplings,
a grove of saplings
like far off stars
waiting to be born
waiting for the light.
We conclude this collection humbled by the burdens some people carry and uplifted by the joy so eloquently described. Reading this slim volume enhances our appreciation of life in all its sweetness—and its salt. We may not know how long we will live, but we can control how well we do so.
Ann Leamon’s work has been published in River Teeth, The Lyric, The Boston Globe, MicroLit Almanac, The North Dakota Quarterly, and Harvard Business School Press, among others. She lives along the Medomak River in Maine with her husband and a Labrador-Corgi mix.