I know too many people plagued by cancer. Young people, middle-aged people, the old, intimates, casual acquaintances, and strangers all are riddled with the disease. It is ubiquitous and it often feels like it’s something inevitable. A dark voice in me is convinced that if we live long enough we’ll all either suffer from some form of cancer, Alzheimer’s, or diabetes. There is no escaping. This is our contemporary existence; these are the plagues we’ve chosen.
Nearly everyone I know who’ve endured cancer have come out the other side. They are alive today, healthy but a disparate self. Articulating this change becomes a vital task, one that it’s incumbent upon me to listen to intently. I would argue that this is the purpose of survivor literature, those of us that didn’t undergo the experience have a duty to read, watch, and listen to those that have.
Joshua Gray’s newest collection Symposium is centered around his cancer survival, enduring and overcoming melanoma. However, it’s not a confessional piece of work nor does it fall into the maudlin or artificially saccharine, both pathos that infect survivor stories making them empty of meaning except for their inspirational value (whatever that may mean). What makes these poems standout is that individually each is its own strong piece and when assembled, when read as a collective they form a narrative that is genuinely impactful.
Poets have this habit when giving readings of prefacing their poems with so much information that when they do finally recite, the work feels like a summary of the summary. It’s disappointing and alienating. In his collection, Gray does an excellent job of threading together his poems without the off-putting footnotes or endnotes or excesive front matter. At the end of his poems, Gray gives a quasi-explanation or allusion from which the poem springs and connects with the next.
The poem ‘A Typical Life Until’ depicts a car accident. The stanzas build a sudden and brutal collision and Gray’s language is clinical:
A blaring horn brought
her to the old blue minivan,
it’s pollen-stained windshield,
the empty plastic bottle
bumping into her ankles.
The screeching brakes beside her
did no good. Her left arm flung
toward the gears; her leg pinned
itself into the right, her head hit
by something else entirely.
But the framing Gray gives (“Mammography misses about 16 percent of breast cancers”) is what lifts the work up suggesting this car accident is what led to the discovery of cancer. The situation is casual in its tragedy and that is the most crushing thing about the poem.
The first sections of Symposium situates the disease showing how cancer (breast, pancreatic) has infected family. Doing so leads us as readers into Gray’s own meditation on his experience with melanoma as in ‘Awaiting the Cure,’
Someday a specialist
won’t have to dig a hole
in my foot;
no plastic surgeon
will need to fill the hole
with a speck of skin
from my thigh;
there will be a time
when my groin isn’t sliced open
to find a node,
or worse, a train
of nodes–no resident will staple
my open wound, along with
my gentle spirit–
but that day will come
after the soul has left this body:
has led the way, through the world is full
of those who’ve tried;
and while the world waits
to claim my skin,
awaiting the cure
to creep into the glass slide, the petri dish,
the arms of Everyman.
Gray is also able to move into the more impressionistic lyric as in ‘Ultraviolet,’
The sun stares
into my skin.
The sun is a large proton,
a cobalt lead ball
lit in flames.
It is an eye, the dark
of middle earth.
It is a serial killer that cuts
us while we listen
to the poetry of waves.
This poem stands well without knowledge of Gray’s battle with skin cancer. Augment ‘Ultraviolet’ with this awareness and the poem moves from a naturalistic lyric to a graceful and existentially angry poem–a man cursing the sun.
A poet’s strength is determined, in one way, by how well the subjective is made objective and vice versa. Gray is able to write out of the experiences he underwent but in such a way to not only link with others who’ve gone through similar experiences but also those who have not. Rather than meandering through elliptic metaphors or plying excessive personal confession, Gray’s collection paints an ongoing emotional and practical struggle in an intimate and mutual language.
Joshua Gray was born in the mountains of rural Northern Virginia, outside Washington DC. He grew up in Alexandria VA, two miles from the nation’s capital and spent most of his adult life in the suburbs of the city. But he never lost his love for the mountains: he attended Warren Wilson College in the mountains of western North Carolina, and lived in the Western Ghats mountains in Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu, India from 2012-2014. He now lives in eastern Kentucky with his wife and two sons.
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