Poets of Franklin County: Writer documents cancer experience in book of poems

Writer documents cancer experience in book of poems

  • Montague poet Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno will be reading from his new book, “Remission,” 3 p.m. Sunday at The Rendezvous in downtown Turners Falls, 78 3rd St. For the Recorder/Trish Crapo

For The Recorder
Published: 5/20/2016 5:35:31 PM

Is it a blessing or a curse that, for writers, even the most difficult experiences — especially the most difficult — become material for writing?

In some ways, it doesn’t matter. It is what it is, as everyone likes to say these days. For a writer, there’s no such thing as living through something and forgetting about it. We have to examine things, relive them, try to make even the most bewildering experiences cohere into some kind of meaning — or if not, at least get a good laugh or a cry out of them.

So when Montague poet Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno was diagnosed with an incurable form of lymphoma in 2013, one of the first things he did was to get out his notebook.

Observations and thoughts that he jotted down during treatment and recovery formed the base for what would become Sawyer-Lauçanno’s new book of poems, “Remission,” just out from Talisman House Publishers in Northfield. Sawyer-Lauçanno will be reading from the book Sunday at 3 p.m. at The Rendezvous in downtown Turners Falls, 78 3rd St.

“Nobody wants to have cancer but it’s not the worst type of cancer one can have,” Sawyer-Lauçanno says of his lymphoma. “It probably won’t kill me. I might get killed by having too much chemo, and the medications and all the rest of it but the cancer itself is probably ultimately treatable.”

There, Here
and Elsewhere

Sawyer-Lauçanno’s book is divided into three parts. The first section, “There,” is composed of poems Sawyer-Lauçanno wrote while receiving chemotherapy treatments — he had regimens of six hours of chemo four days a week — or while at the hospital after a small cut he incurred while stacking wood in 2014 sent his white blood count plummeting.

“Basically what happened was my entire immune system collapsed,” Sawyer-Laucanno says. “The problem was I literally had .01 white blood cells and because of the condition I was in, it was a little touch and go for a while.”

A normal white blood cell count should be something more like 13, he explains.

“Eventually the nurse came in one morning after they did the blood test and said, ‘You’re up to one,’” Sawyer-Lauçanno recounts. “She said, ‘You’re gonna make it. You’re gonna get through this.’ And that was the first time I realized maybe I wasn’t going to get through it.”

Hallucinations and what Sawyer-Lauçanno calls “apparitions” caused by the medications he was being given drift in and out of these poems, as does the sense of time becoming untethered and elastic. The section also includes a translation of French Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Les Fenêtres” (“The Windows”), a poem Sawyer-Lauçanno had memorized in French some 45 years ago. Translating the poem into English while “keeping the rhymes and the alexandrines and the syllable counts and everything else in order” was wonderfully therapeutic, he said, giving him something to think about other than himself.

A second section, titled, “Here,” consists of poems Sawyer-Lauçanno wrote after he returned home.

“I was really kind of that quintessential 19th century invalid for a while, where you just sit in your bed and look out the window,” Sawyer-Lauçanno says with a laugh.

“I wrote most of that ‘Here’ section during the winter from hell, when it was just absolutely dreadful to go outside. All the snow and the ice and the cold — it inspired me to some degree. A lot of the ‘Here’ section is reflections on being at home, and being still alive, which is nice.”

Sawyer-Lauçanno laughs and shrugs, adding, “Then, the last section, ‘Elsewhere,’ is just stuff that crept into the book from all different places.”

Included in this last section are poems he describes as love poems to his wife, Patricia, who was by his side throughout the experience.

Each section reads like a long poem in parts, with some of the parts as slight as one line.

“Why not reinvent the wheel?” asks one of these one-line poems.

Another states, “There is so much of the much.”

The poems slip fluidly between intellectual and tactile ways of knowing, one minute dense with foreign language or literary allusion, the next rising into unexpected image. In one poem, Sawyer-Lauçanno, who has taught French, Spanish, writing and literature as well as written biographies of other writers, jokingly describes himself as “a victim of literature as much as of cancer.”

In the poem reprinted here, Sawyer-Lauçanno writes of the imprints that memory and the passing of time had on him during his illness.

“You take stock, I guess,” Sawyer-Lauçanno says. “And I guess to some degree that’s what I was doing in this book in a way I had never thought I would do. It’s certainly the most personal book I’ve ever written.”

Ask for “Remission” at local bookstores or order online: http://www.talismanhousepublishers.com Hear Sawyer-Laucanno read Sunday at 3 p.m. at The Rendezvous in downtown Turners Falls, 78 3rd St.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. Crapo is seeking published poets and writers for her column. She’s interested in books written by Franklin County poets and writers and/or published by a Franklin County press. She can be reached at: tcrapo@me.com

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