It doesn’t matter who you are. You’re a writer, or you work at the slaughterhouse in Bowling Green, Ohio. You get a diagnosis that predisposes you for the kinds of cancer Cowden’s does, and you suddenly start getting better at math:
1. You’re as sick as the doctors say you are. You’re as sick as your follow-up doctors say you are. You’re probably sick. You’re still alive.
2. The medical profession has countless euphemisms for concepts they’d rather you not know. The legal profession has metastasized in the same way. An example: for “tumor aspiration” they mean A NEEDLE IN YOUR MOTHERFUCKING NECK. THREE OF THEM. Just know that. You get to your appointment only thinking “OK, my doctor says I’ll have to take only one shot to my neck. That’s like half a Dracula, right?”
Three needles per tumor, in my case. Ergo: One Dracula plus another Dracula who got a toof punched out in a fiaft.
Lesson: Doctors lie. They’re like hookers. Never believe them when they say “Oh, you’ll feel a slight pinch.” PINCH=KILL-THE-DOCTOR’S MAMA’S pain. That’s like when the hooker says, “Oh, I just got my test.” H/she never tells you it’s been positive for a year, but you go on believing because you want to and it feels good. Right up until it doesn’t, when the drugs make you believe you’re actually hearing someone counting you down for one hundred. Though you goddamn are.
3. Your capacity to affect your own writing lasts only as long as your physical life lasts. SO: What are you going to do while you still have this time?
Anyway, to quote Bill Cosby, I told you that in order to tell you this: I arrived at what is supposed to be the end of a long poem called Grace Year. Notice please I do not give it italics because it is a draft and not a completed whatever. Right now it’s a couple of notebooks filled with words. Some of them make sense; it will take me years to sort all this out, but my original goal was twofold: 1) ideally, to wind up with a contiguous long poem; 2) if I couldn’t get there, poach anything that seemed like a potential stand-alone poem—that way, at least I did not waste my 53rd year.
You see, the goal of this draft was that it reflect the consequences of what I took to be a cosmic joke—because I’m ridiculously bad at math I overestimated my age by one year. My wife caught it first and was kind to me about my mistake; I took it as a sign I should write about it. There might even be a stand-alone poem here that would even stand for the overall like a small marker, but we’ll see. At first I thought I was dealing with something I could finish forthwith, but it turned out to be a 12-month project that amounts to a fake-journal in what purports to somehow be poetic.
I agree with Donald Hall in that when you start seeing signs of your own mortality you need to start making plans for the rest of your writing life.
So I’ve begun to.
Hall ends Life/Work by setting himself a schedule for the future. No more long poems is on that list. Now it’s on mine, and for roughly the same reasons. I don’t have cancer now, but Cowden’s syndrome means I move up in the flight line. I get that. So it means I work on smaller, more self-contained ideas rather than the old grandiose. I wanted to go for the rafters, the moon, Mars and then beyond, whatever it took to convince people I had something as a poet.
And then that ceased to matter.
Now I take great and joyful pleasure every day I wake up with Lisa and our bedroom kitty, Diva. Lisa will wake before me so my daily introduction to the rest of the apartment is to a view of the world north beyond western Toronto, which I will never take for granted. There’s tea. There are Hunter and Jericho, both named for professional wrestlers as Diva was named for a child of Frank Zappa’s. I’m grateful simply to be alive; it did not have to be like this. Not at all.
I don’t know what to make of this draft. There might be 30/40 “constituent” poems initially (or so I hope but always overestimate when it comes to these things). We’ll see. In any case, it’s been a year of poetic exercise, and somehow I feel better for having done it one last time. Health concerns say I shouldn’t be trying this again, but to be certain Grace Year has been fun. I’ll explain that more later on.