“Cancer Poems”

By Dave Morrison

JukeBooks, Camden, 2015

48 pages, paperback, $12.95

“Cancer Poems” might be, astonishingly, Dave Morrison’s best collection of poetry. So far.

This is saying something, because the notorious writer-rocker from Camden has been writing energetic verse and turning it loose in book form for more than 10 years. Thus have we heard the authentic force of his voice in collections like “Clubland,” which depicts the life, times and tensions of successful lounge and bar musicianship, and the more recent “Stethoscope,” which soundly registers the characteristic rhythms and observations that make his poetry tick.

But “Cancer Poems” goes beyond this. It is literally a record of his time served in the grip of tonsilor cancer, just this calendar year. In it are the distinctive features of Morrison’s poetry — directness of expression; palpable feelings of wonderment, awe and different kinds of pain; what is traditionally called wisdom from close to the heart; and a remarkable feel for simile and metaphor. In this book, the latter aspect goes beyond, goes far beyond even his usual facility for apt figuration.

In the midst of the seemingly endless suffering of treatment, restless bed rest, and helplessness in the face of possibly the most terrible “force of nature,” the poet has the heightened presence of mind to form metaphors like this, from “Radiation Burns”:

I just passed a mirror and I saw

Satan as a young man,

just after his girlfriend

broke up with him; scorched, sullen.

Dealing with the varieties of physical pain is (maybe inevitably, I don’t know) the principal theme, and it comes in poignant figures like this, from “Morphine II”:

It’s like waiting for a

ride, on a dark corner,

in a light rain, trying

to be patient.

Come on! I took a generous

dose before bed so I could

float off to sleep pain-free;

where’s my ride?

This is poetry in its purest form for several reasons. One is the rhythmic clarity of expression. Another is the aptness of the imagery. Another, a step beyond no matter how you look at it, is a persistent uplifting sense of humor even in the worst moments (“Morphine I”: “I can’t get used to this / because / I could get used to this”). And a further step beyond is the fact that these poems are characterized not only by clarity and wryness, but also by an authentic generosity of spirit that feels, at least to me, like an awakening of a higher order. The poet repeatedly acknowledges, thanks and even amid his own suffering empathizes with the trouble it causes his wife, Susan, his indispensable bodhisattva-like care-giver. From “Last Night”:

… when you have your weary moments

and you say I wish there was something

I could do, that’s what I mean when I smile at

you and say

you do

you do

a hundred little things.

The only drawback to this amazing little book is that it is not complete. It’s Dave Morrison’s most expansive work — so far — and we should all be looking forward to the next poetic chapters.

The fearless verses about suffering, confusion and care in “Cancer Poems” will — I imagine — make healing, or at least balming reading for many people suffering both the pain and the pain of caring for the pain. You can get it through online book sellers or by sending a check for $15 to Dave Morrison, JukeBooks, 3 Park St., Camden, ME 04843, for a signed copy.

Off Radar takes note of books with Maine connections about twice a month in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel’s What’s Happening? Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].

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