‘The Naming of Cancer’ reviewed by Emily Underwood-Lee

‘The Naming of Cancer’ by Tracey S. Rosenberg (Neon Books, 2014)

Naming-Of-Cancer-ThumbnailArthur Frank describes ‘illness as a call for stories’ (Frank 1995: 53) and since my diagnosis with breast cancer in 2007 I have sought out tales that chime with my own experience.  Frank claims that, in order to understand our identities as people who have been touched by illness, we turn to stories to repair our sense of self and redraw our life-map charting where we have come from and where we are going (Frank 1995).  Tracey Rosenberg’s compendium is well pitched to satisfy this need.

The Naming of Cancer’ consists of fourteen short poems, and each one appears to be about a different character and case of cancer.  In this respect ‘The Naming of Cancer’ stands out from the glut of autobiographical stories of cancer, also pejoratively known as ‘misery memoirs’, that are generally available to those seeking out cancer tales (for an examination of the ‘misery memoir’ see Couser 2012).  At no point does this book claim to be an autobiography, although there is an allusion to the author’s personal relationship with cancer in the acknowledgement she gives to the medical team who cared for her mother at the start of the book.

The anthology is instead a representation of cancer which attempts to tell many different fictional or fictionalised emotional experiences of it.  The characters afflicted with cancer within the book change gender, age, familial status, faith and circumstance with disconcerting regularity and are presented alongside portraits of their families, lovers, carers and doctors giving a sense of a multitude of the diseased, dying, dead and grief-stricken.  As a parade of the ill and the bereaved walk before us we are presented with the manifold lives of those who populate oncology wards; so in the poem Ward B (p. 5) the man and woman share a moment of recognition for each other’s plight, in Funeral (p. 12) we meet the family of a woman who has died and in Receiving Line (p. 13) we encounter a recently widowed woman greeting guests as she mourns her husband.

Although the perspectives are diverse they all come from a place of tragedy, clearly for Rosenberg there is no other way to view the disease.  A more rounded outlook might be gained by looking at ‘The Naming of Cancer’ alongside works that consider points of view other than that of the ‘cancer victim’.  Notwithstanding the tonal similarities between the poems there is enough variety in the stories and characters to allow for each reader to find their own place of recognition; for me this was the anxiety of the genetic condition so eloquently described in Stories (p. 9) with its contemplation of the young daughter’s inherited curls and everything else that might also be part of her maternal legacy, including genetically inherited cancers.  Although the character in Stories is in a very different situation to my own this poem prompted a moment of contemplation for me as I considered my relationship to my mother and children.  The cultural and personal specificity of each poem will necessarily include some readers and exclude others yet Rosenberg includes enough subtlety and diversity to allow each reader to find a mirror for their own experience.

Despite the title of this book, at no point are the particulars of the types of cancer that each character is affected with revealed.  This is a series of stories about the psychological impact of the disease rather than physical symptoms (although of course the two are often interwoven) and in avoiding giving medical specifics Rosenberg allows the reader to identify with the universal human experiences of pain, loss, illness, fear and anger.  The choice of the title ‘The Naming of Cancer’ calls to mind T.S. Eliot’s The Naming of Cats and his ‘Deep and inscrutable singular Name’ (Eliot 1969: 209).

The lack of any one noun that adequately describes the experience of cancer is strikingly foregrounded in Rosenberg’s collection.  This is most apparent in The Oncologist’s Nightmare (p. 4) where the medic’s terminology is woefully inadequate to answer any of the patient’s questions; “Why do I feel like this?” is met simply with “Mx. Stage IV. LCIS. NK.” or “things that don’t mean a damn” (p. 4).  Instead of the medical terminology having the power to name the experience of cancer it is the prosaic and quotidian that is most articulate.  Rosenberg again calls on Eliot and opens with his quote ‘The whole earth is our hospital’ (unpaginated) and indeed here the whole earth serves a reminder of the cancerous state, even the most everyday object becomes a symbol for our fragile and diseased state.  In The Vending Machine in A and E (p. 8) the ‘luscious machines’ (p. 8) taunt the patient who is unable to eat, and in Gardens (p14) the standard motif of the flourishing of plants serves as a counterpoint to the subject’s mortality.

The final poem Bait (p. 15) differs greatly from the others contained in the volume.  It is more metaphorical, and in its references to a woman transformed into a fish, it is reminiscent of the Celtic fairy tales where women are often transposed into marine forms.  The fantastical metaphor allows for a graphic viscerality that is absent in the other poems.  The brutal images of the ‘dead white’ (p. 15) flesh and of ‘plucking green slime from her twitchy skin’ (p. 15) revolt but also offers resolution as the mer-woman is returned to the ‘restorative’ (p. 15) water.  However, the fish-woman in Bait is used as a trap to entice others to the angler’s hook.  Rosenberg does not offer an easy way out and Bait reminds the reader that even while she is temporarily healthy her vulnerability to cancer is always present.

Although it seems churlish to literally judge a book by its cover, the chapbook format of ‘The Naming of Cancer’ requires further consideration. Its production values are no doubt a pragmatic choice but Rosenberg’s writing seems to demand more.  The poems have the feel of a memento mori and as such the disposability of this book in pamphlet form with a cheaply printed cardboard cover devalues the contents.  ‘The Naming of Cancer’ stands as something of a liturgy to all those who have suffered and died and the poems feel like they would be more respectfully housed in more permanent publication; however, perhaps the fragility of the paper on which the poems are printed echoes the potential for damage and destruction of our own bodies and the ephemerality of our own bodily presence.

Overall this book makes a notable contribution to the field of poetic representations of illness. Rosenberg makes no claims to the authority of medical knowledge about cancer or the authenticity of first person experience of the disease; instead she presents the emotional lives of her various protagonists in a manner that will provide moments of profound recognition for those whose lives have been touched by cancer.  The world Rosenberg creates is perhaps overly tragic. There are no survivors in ‘The Naming of Cancer’; yet anyone has lived with cancer, either as a patient, a carer, a clinician or an onlooker, and who share’s the need for stories identified by Frank will find ‘The Naming of Cancer’ of interest.

Reviewed by Emily Underwood-Lee, a performance artist and researcher based at the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling and Creative Industries Research Institute, University of South Wales. Emily creates autobiographical work and is principally concerned with the construction of gender and how the female body can be presented and represented in performance.  Her areas of interest include performance and the body, feminist performance art, narratives of illness, autobiographical performance, and performance and disability.  Her recent performances use her radically changed and continuously changing body, which bears the marks of breast cancer treatment, double mastectomy, salpingo-oophorectomy, motherhood and menopause, to consider her relationship to femininity. She is a founder member of the Factory Floor creative network for women solo performance practitioners.  Emily is also currently studying for a PhD at the University of South Wales titled “The Body Exposed: Strategies for confronting objectification in women’s autobiographical performance” with an anticipated completion date of autumn 2015. 

Correspondence to Emily Underwood-Lee.

Works cited

Couser, G. T. 2012. Memoir: an introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eliot, T. S. 1969. The Complete Poems and Plays. London: Faber and Faber.

Frank, A. 1995. The Wounded Storyteller. London: University of Chicago Press.


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