Cancer Songs by Ron Graves


Cancer Songs 
Ron Graves 
LEB Books, 2017

4 Stars


There is a serious and moving tradition in music of writing through trauma, of using one’s art to excise not just demons but to come to terms with loss. The first album I ever listened to that dealt with death and mourning in all its ugliness and rawness was Lou Reed’s Magic & Loss. As a young adult and Patti Smith fan, I found listening to her Gone Again album not just an emotional rollercoaster but a brilliant tribute as well as a wondrous release of loss. Making an album involves threading together sonic beauty with authentic lyrics. The two work with each other to create a true memorial.

There are times when an individual needs to overcome personal tragedy and horror through their art. When you’re a musician and poet, this art most readily expresses itself in a kind of mortal lyricism. Ron Graves has given us a brief collection of poetry, cancer songs, about his enduring chemotherapy and radiotherapy as he survived rectal cancer.

These lyrics possess the kind of somberness you’d expect like the poem ‘Black.’ However, more often than not, Graves writes poems owing more to John Donne’s work than anything else. The poem ‘Tube Map’ describes the London subway system going on lockdown because a killer is on the loose, but it becomes immediately clear as Graves repeats “Studying the tube map, tube map, tube map/Studying the tube map to track him down” we are reading a metaphor for doctors looking through Graves’ own gut for the cancer that is eating him. Which is perhaps what led the English poet Ian McMillan to characterize Graves book as one that “paints pictures that tell us what it’s like to face a disease that scares him and us deeply and fundamentally.” These poems are darkly comic as well as bald faced rather than grim refusing to look away from the consequences and challenges of his diagnosis.

Yet within the poems, readers can hear an unwavering intensity pushing our emotions towards a kind of hope. A poem like ‘Bluebirds’ is soft, meditative lyric reaching out towards the natural world as something to hold onto. In contrast, ‘Physio’ gives readers the sense of opposition to nature, “it was as though deep down inside me everything was spinning/like I was at odds with the motion of the earth and the motion of the earth was winning,” only overcome by looking towards others (the physiotherapists in this case) to ground us, to create “genuine joy” which literally heals.

Ultimately, the poetry of cancer songs and the intent of the work is to imbue Graves and others with optimism, to encourage positivity. Any work of art, an album or a collection of poetry, looks to stand as a testament to the artist’s ability. Sometimes that ability is an exercise in skill or an expression of love, and sometimes that testament is of the ability to endure and survive. In describing his project, Graves concludes “Life is beautiful and you need to get on with it. We are all mortal and your diagnosis has drawn your attention to that.” It is a simple statement but hardly one lacking complexity. Graves has created a slim but moving book centered on his experience but reaching out beyond him as all good art does.



About the Author


Ron grew up in the North East of England, in the mining town of Spennymoor, County Durham. He left school aged fifteen, having excelled at nothing. His English teachers noticed something, though, and generally allowed him to write about whatever he liked. After leaving school, Ron worked in a hotel for three years. An historian who became his friend thought that reading ancient Roman and Greek literature, and writing poetry, meant Ronshould get back into education. Ron’s parents agreed and he spent the next seven years as a student (‘Parasiting on Mam and Dad,’ he says) before becoming a student psychiatric nurse, ‘To find out what happened in the asylum.’ In total, Ron managed to be a student for ten years! Between 1982 and 2017, he worked as a therapist with teenagers and their families. Ron says most of his earlier writing, ‘Just lay around somewhere till I forgot about it.’ Then, in 2015 he began a collaboration with David Reid and together they have released two well-received albums. He has directed two short films, with a group of young, independent film makers. Having grown up in the coalfield, it was maybe inevitable that Ron became and remains a political and trades union activist.

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