Cancer Songs

On my way to an appointment one day this spring, I caught part of an interview with the poet Richard Sommer on CBC Radio. He read from his latest book, Cancer Songs, and I was captivated by his poetry and his frankness in discussing his struggle with prostate cancer. After the interview I was devastated to learn that Sommer had died in February. Since I’d missed the first part of the program, I hadn’t realized that the interview I’d just heard had taken place in December when David Gutnick visited Sommer at home. As I was absorbing this information, and pulling into the parking lot, Sommer’s wife, artist Vicki Tansey, read a final poem of Sommer’s, entitled “Postcript.” Fortunately, I had arrived for my appointment early, as it was some time before I was able to pull myself out of the car and make my way to the appointment.

I was very moved by the program and ordered a copy of Sommer’s book immediately. It is a beautiful book, a journal written in the form of poems, relating his life as he faced the diagnosis of prostate cancer and the treatments he had to undergo for it. He demonstrates his attitude towards his circumstance in his Foreword: Difficult Celebrations:

In the course of my illness, courage to persist & see life out seemed to come to me out of the air, out of sunlight & rain, the affections & generosity of people & animals around me. If these poems can help anyone with cancer draw on this kind of courage, they will have been worth writing.

Written over a number of years, his first poem, “Dreaming,” seems to question how he’s been living his life up to this point. He asks "Where have I been, / what have I been thinking / while all this has been going on?"

What is important to him and how he will live from now on is illustrated a few months later in Real Life:
this vivid new ecstasy of danger
announces the beginning of my end,
& in the deeps of each moment now
real life begins.

Chickadees & finches at the feeder
fluttering & nudging & poking after seed,
so lovely, my teachers!

He talks of birds and animals, of beauty, and the wonder of small everyday pleasures, like the taste of a perfect raspberry. He shares his joy and pain and his empathy for others going through similar pain. He writes of the comfort his dog gives him. As most of us know someone, whether friend, family, or colleague, who has had cancer, sometimes surviving, sometimes not, these poems will call to many. They are written in a very straightforward, matter-of-fact style, as if he is saying, here, let me tell you what is happening to me right now, and how I am reacting to it. There is not too much hidden meaning, as he lays everything out for us to see.

Anticipating the start of his radiotherapy treatment for example, he reveals his fear of what is in store for him, while still capturing his appreciation of everyday beauty:

Just now, the white cat Luna
crossed a lawn …

Watching her saunter across
new grass & old leaves,
I watch a billion years

of still evolving grace.
My eyes take her in.
I won’t see her again

for five days anyway,
time for me to hunger after grace,
all kinds of grace.

These poems reveal a remarkable spirit, a man who, only two months before his death, could talk with such candour and openness that you wish you could have known him. How fortunate that we have his poems to help us come to know him a little.

He ends the book with Awe:

Thunderstorm last night,
even now the sky's bruised blue
& all beneath it
waiting for the next one-two,

white flash fading to violet,
bright roar of all that's true.

This is a book of poems filled with joy and pain, fear and wonder, that will surely move you as you travel with Sommer on his journey.

Cancer Songs, Richard Sommer, c2011, Signature Editions

Please listen to the interview and reading with Richard Sommer and then to the wonderful interview and reading by his wife. It is worth listening to the end of her interview to hear her read “Postcript.”

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