Cati Porter’s latest collection of poetry, The Body at a Loss, deals with the devastating toll of illness, not only on the body, but also on the mind of the patient and all those stung by the far-reaching tentacles of disease. Though often wrenching in its acute description of symptoms, treatments, and feelings, these fierce, feverish, and feral poems catch the reader from the first lines and don’t ease their grasp even after they’ve been read. Like the illnesses themselves, they arrest and hold the reader riveted at the moment of disclosure.
Porter is the author of eight books and chapbooks. Her poems have won prizes from So to Speak: A Journal for Language, Feminism and Art and Gravity & Light, been finalists for competitions offered by Crab Creek Review, Elixir Press, the Poetic Asides blog, and The Binnacle, and appeared in Verse Daily, Contrary, West Trestle, and The Nervous Breakdown, among others.
From one-line poems to those made up of lists and schedules, Porter finds a way to define the realities of living with cancer. The fright. The uncertainty. The helplessness. The hope. She invites the reader into waiting rooms, bedrooms, showers, cars, and lives.
One of the first poems in the book, “Initiation,” sets the fitting tone: “Because I have complained / Now the doctor can feel a mass / In my neck / And I am referred to / The sonograph technician.” Looking at the monitor she sees, “The blurry image on the sonogram / The way one gazes into tea leaves for answers / To questions you don’t yet know you have.” Porter captures the gut punch of a diagnosis followed by all the uncertainty a patient now faces.
Porter’s mother’s cancer was the impetus for this collection. “Mom’s Surgery Instructions” relates the everyday realities, the clinical elements of doctor visits, biopsies, surgery preparations, protocols, and loaded questions like, “If they determine during surgery / that they see more cancer, / will they just take more?” The blunt clarity of the words makes the anxiety and frustration crystal clear.
Not long after her mother’s detection, Porter received her own diagnosis of cancer, transforming the advocate into the patient. Sleeplessness and nightmares reflect her confusion and fear:
Some nights I dream of gasoline, of flames, of
Running barefoot through sprinklers in the dark in my
Night dress, late as always, slipping stupidly
On the damp lawn, sprawled cold beneath
The streetlamp’s yellow flare.
From “Small Knots,” “The harder I pull, the tighter the knot / Untangle the mess, untangle the thought.” And from “The Solution,” “One day you awaken to the sound of waves / And the world has dissolved, as sugar into water—.” Both examples graphically illustrate frustration in the face of helplessness. Taut words evoke an overwhelmed life, one that is simply melting away.
Moving from desperation to defiance and humor, the reader follows Porter through the progression of her mother’s cancer and treatment.
When my friend Marion, my mother’s age,
First was diagnosed, she went with her hairdresser, Joey,
To “Wigs on Wheels” to select, while she still could,
A replacement coif that most closely
Matched her own hair.
Not my mother.
Even as it thinned, even when down to baby fuzz,
Still no wig, though we did peruse the catalogs.
After chemo. After radiation. Her solution
Became an array of berets, cloche,
Newsboys, straw, knit.
These words from “My Mother’s Hats” illustrate the different ways patients deal with their situations. The determined scramble of sorting through a rack of “Wigs on Wheels” may be funny on the surface, but there is poignancy in the attempt to hide shame behind a familiar hairdo. For others, hair loss offers a chance to try on a completely new look via a stack of diverse head coverings.
Friendships are born in “Marion & My Mother.” Porter writes, “At the cancer center, they bond over Lebed and potlucks. / Pronounced ‘clean,’ their hair returns. / Their nails thicken and harden.” The women share diagnoses and treatments—parallel situations. But in the end, there is good news for one, not the other. Porter’s happiness at her mother’s health is tempered by the divergent path of her friend’s. She writes, “I think of Marion’s daughter, en route for a final visit.” Happiness laced with sorrow and guilt.
Like a camera, Porter’s pen captures snapshots, moments of longing and wonder. In “My Mother’s Breasts,” she writes,
After the final exam
Before the lumpectomy
In the mirror
As my mother
With her back
To me trades
The flimsy pastel gown
For her Maidenform bra
My own breasts,
Distorted by years
That I have not
Buried in those last lines is the hovering question, Will I have a future? And what will it look like? It’s almost as if the scars were welcome badges of survival. Something to look forward to. Certainly better than the alternative.
In “Patient Surgery,” Porter observes snails on a walkway at the wellness center. She removes one and places it in the grass, only to wonder if she has perhaps unwittingly changed the course of the snail’s life by interrupting its journey. Later, Porter reflects on the patient survey pamphlets in the waiting room: “How patient they are, waiting, / The stack fanned out as though many hands / Might reach for them at once.” This calls to mind a hand in a game of cards. We are all dealt different combinations. It is up to us to play our hand as we see fit. But no matter our ingenuity, a win is not guaranteed. How our lives hinge on luck and patience! And how many layers Cati Porter can weave into just one poem!
In “Tiny Baby Cancer” and “False / Alarm,” blood tests can be inconclusive and diagnoses proven wrong, conjuring the dilemma of how to live with a disease which may not kill you, though it may remain uncured. Even when proven false, the fears linger, haunting the mind. The Body at a Loss circles back to conclude with the poem, “Where It Begins.” It’s a question without an answer, much like the disease itself.
Cati Porter’s passionate work is beautifully crafted and heartfelt. The reader will connect with these protestations to indignities on a visceral level and empathize with the denials and fears. One cannot help but be drawn into this intimate portrayal of illness by Porter’s gut-wrenching honesty.