Give a clever and acerbic 40ish poet a breast cancer diagnosis and what do you get? "It's Probably Nothing...Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love My Implants," a harrowing yet engaging new collection of poems about breast cancer.
Micki Myers is a poet, blogger, teacher and mom, born in London but currently living and teaching in Pittsburgh. "Having survived a particularly vicious bout of breast cancer," she writes, "I emerged with new fake boobs and a determination to find it all amusing." Why? "I decided early on to see the humor in my situation, to laugh in the face of fear."
From the book's first poem, in which Myers caustically observes that any book actually titled "Oh Fuck! I Have Cancer!" would become an instant bestseller, the collection follows the arc of her cancer journey, from diagnosis through treatment and recovery.
Hospitalization. Double mastectomy. Chemo. Straight-talking docs. Dissimulating docs. A big sharp needle to the nipple. (Ouch!) Choosing her implants. Losing her pubic hair. The soul-deadening daytime television in the waiting room. A grateful ode to a kind chemo nurse. And plenty of odd surprises, like feeling nostalgic for the days when her nipples would harden when, entering a supermarket in summer, she was met with a blast of icy air conditioning.
"You'll never ever feel that again," she tells herself.
Although Myers puts a brave and upbeat face on a difficult situation in this memoir-in-poems, she's also upfront about how overwhelming it is, and how often she 's floundering. In "Teaching on Percocets," she observes that even though she continues to teach while going through chemo (because she needs the money) the drugs make her so brain-muddled that, lecturing to her class, "I could have been conducting an orchestra of clowns riding unicorns..."
It's a small book, and a quick read, although not always an easy one. But it's worth the trouble. And while it made me sad, it also made me smile. I appreciated the poet's heroic refusal to sugar coat the experience or tie a pretty pink bow around her pain and loss:
"The nurse who gets to call you with the results of your first biopsy," she observes, "doesn't get paid enough."
"When you're bald, you fear people staring at you, but they don't; most folks look away."
"Good weed is wasted on chemo."
"If needles make you queasy, don't get cancer."
Sometimes Myers tries too hard, but a few of these poems are gems. My favorite, "What To Expect When You're Expecting to Hear You've Got Cancer," is an extended riff on everything you don't want to hear upon receiving the results of your first biopsy, such as:
"Start saying your goodbyes!"
"You always wanted a breast reduction."
"Oh good - we've been waiting for someone we can practice this experimental surgery on."
""Nipples are so overrated."
"Can I have your shoes and jewelry and purses?"
"Treat it like an adventure . Like a really horrifying, painful, scary expensive adventure people go on in documentaries."
Many of the poems are encouraging, like "Recovery, a la Benjamin Button," in which Myers tracks her post-treatment progress, from "looking like a corpse" through resembling a "seventy-year old man with a crew cut," and then "a hip forty with a dyed blond quiff" until the happy day when, fully recovered, she's mistaken for one of her own grad students. But there are moments here that are nothing but poignant, as when Myers mentions that she was still nursing her son on the day she underwent a double mastectomy.
Is it Auden? Or even Dorothy Parker? Not quite. Myers isn't a great poet. But she's a pretty good one. And, unfortunately for her, she has gripping material.
So who is the target audience for this book? Well, one out of eight women in this country gets a breast cancer diagnosis, although anybody coping with a life event that's ugly and challenging could find it useful. But a quick glance at Good Reads reveals that the readers most grateful for Myer's work are other cancer survivors, one of whom applauds the author's "'Yeah, I survived it pluck.'"
Chances are, you will too.
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