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Last Saturday morning I participated in a breast cancer walk. The night before, I leafed through my poem stash to pick out a few to take with me, and it was then that I realized that a blog post on breast cancer should include my own health history.

 

I felt uneasy about that for a few reasons.

 

First because I’ve never mentioned on this blog that I’ve had breast cancer (ten years ago last fall). Okay, way back in a post about a William Henry Davies’ poem, I did mention that I have no breasts, but I tend to wear my “survivor” status like I wear my underwear–hidden from view unless you are my husband or doctor, but always there, close to the skin, a foundation, necessary to me if undesirable.

 

The other reason I was hesitant to do a breast cancer post was because the day was about my friend, the woman I walked to support, not about my own bad memories. I wanted to choose poems to celebrate her strength, acknowledge her ordeal, boost her confidence in her own good health. But the  poems I picked were personal to me and I can’t hide that.

 

The funny thing was, out of our group of ten walkers, I discovered that four of us have had cancer and (mostly) didn’t know the others did. So as much as the day was about Lisa, it ended up being about all of us, the survivors and the friends who helped, the women who didn’t survive and broke our hearts, the women and men whose hearts were broken, the strangers we met along the way. (Hello, Deb from Delaware with your chic post-chemo hair!) We walked in solidarity and friendship. I hope the poems reflect our shared experience more than just my own.

 

That said, the first poem I left was the most personal of all. When I arrived at the walk, I had a moment alone. My heart was full of friends I’ve lost to cancer. I left a poem to honor them: “Jewels in My Hand” by Sasha Moorsom which I taped to a lamppost by the entrance to the zoo, where the walk was held.

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To Beth and Christine (breast cancer), to Barb, (lung cancer), and to Kim, (jaw cancer), you are my jewels, as precious to me now as you were when I was lucky enough to know you on this earth.

All the ravages of time they can withstand

Like talismans their grace keeps me from harm

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At the walk starting point I left “New Every Morning” by Susan Coolidge.

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poem is on lamppost

This wonderful little poem is almost a prayer, and one I turned to many times during treatment and post-treatment anxiety. Maybe someone who needed a little hope took the poem home. For everyone else, it’s a great one to memorize, because how often do we need to hear this:

Take heart with the new day and begin again.

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On the railing of the penguin house I left Rita Dove’s “Pastoral.”

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I left it in celebration of breasts, how beautiful, how wonderful they are, giving food and pleasure to others.

 

I love this description of a nursing baby:

Like an otter, but warm,

she latched onto the shadowy tip

and I watched, diminished

by those amazing gulps.

 

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For women who have had breasts “diminished” in ways much worse than breastfeeding, I brought an excerpt from an Afanasy Fet poem. I left it near a peacock. My picture doesn’t capture the beauty of this bird, but I hope the poem reminds women of the beauty they have, no matter what surgery has done to their bodies.

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Losing breast tissue doesn’t make you less whole or less beautiful, or as Fet puts it,

All, all that once was mine is mine forever.

 

(Sorry I can’t provide a link to the complete poem. I found it in a little book of Russian poetry my sister gave to me. It doesn’t seem to be anywhere online.)

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Near a flock of flamingoes, some of them skittering along in a kind of flying run, I left a famous couplet of Andrew Marvell’s:

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poem is on fence post

 

This one is for everyone, to make use of the precious little time we have.

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Finally, I left “For Friendship” by Robert Creeley on a trashcan and asked Lisa’s group, “The Pink Honeybees,” to link arms as they passed by the poem.

poem is on trashcan

poem is on trashcan

This, the gift of suffering, any suffering:

to be bound to 

others, two by two

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When I was rushing to take this picture, I whacked my shin on a park bench, and came home with a bruise the size of my old breasts. (They weren’t very big for breasts, but the bruise was big for a bruise.) So here I am, bruised but glad to be bruised, like so many of the people at the walk that day.

 

Cheers to Lisa!

Cheers to Joi, Patty, Deb from Delaware.

Cheers to all the survivors who walked that day.

And a special cheers to those who walked beside, to those who form the chain that holds.

 

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poem is to the right of the woman behind the transit sign

poem is to the right of the woman behind the transit sign

 

Rosa

By Rita Dove

 

How she sat there,

the time right inside a place

so wrong it was ready.

 

That trim name with

its dream of a bench

to rest on. Her sensible coat.

 

Doing nothing was the doing:

the clean flame of her gaze

carved by a camera flash.

 

How she stood up

when they bent down to retrieve

her purse. That courtesy.

 

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02-22-13 at 22-14-06 by SpeakerBoehnerIn a bit of poem-elf serendipity, the same day I was working on this blog post, a statue of Rosa Parks was unveiled at the U.S. Capitol Building.  If you’ve never been to the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, picture a semi-circle room, overdressed with Victorian red curtains and gray marble pillars.  Crowded around the room are bronze and marble statues of mostly men, mostly standing, mostly in the neoclassical mode.  The Rosa Parks statue is seated, serious, her head turned to look out an invisible window, her pocketbook and coat belying the grandness of her action.  The sculptor, Eugene Daub, was wise to position her in contrast to the imposing figures surrounding her.  Her quiet power seems all the more intense.

 

There’s a myth of Rosa Parks, recently debunked by a new biography, that she was a sweet old lady too tired from her day’s work as a seamstress at a department store to give up her seat on the bus.  In fact, she was only 42 at the time, and what tired her out was being humiliated on the bus.  The disconnect between her outward appearance of ordinariness and modesty and the fire and heroics of her inner resolve is part of what makes her a compelling and inspiring figure.

 

Rita Dove’s poem “Rosa,” captures the same quiet intensity as the Capitol’s newest statue.  At the outset, the poem is as neat and trim as the woman it describes.  The four three-line stanzas have a fairly uniform length, and the first and last stanza mirror each other in structure.  Most of the poem is written in sentence fragments, except for the third stanza, which breaks out into a complete sentence as it describes Rosa making a stand by choosing not to stand.

 

But there’s tension under the tidiness, which Dove builds with a series of paired oppositions.  The clean flame of her gaze is set up against her sensible coat.  Each stanza has its own dichotomy:  right/wrong; dream/sensible; doing nothing/doing; stood up/bent down.

 

The pairing of sat there from the first stanza with stood up from the last tells a whole story in itself.  Sat there and stood up are two simple movements that we all do everyday, but in the poem, sat there has none of the indolence we usually associate with the phrase, and stood up carries the second meaning of standing up for human rights.

 

These pairings of opposites, along with the short line length, build tension and highlight the tenuous balance of white power/black humiliation that Parks upends.

 

I learned a few things when I posted this poem.

 

I didn’t know that Detroit has a bus depot named after the most famous bus rider in our nation’s history.  Rosa Parks, it turns out, had a history in Detroit.  A few years after getting fired from her department store job because of her activism, Parks moved to Detroit.  She worked for Representative John Conyers and lived in the city till she died at age 92.  She’s buried in Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

 

The Bus Stops Here by Mike DargaThe architecture of the Rosa Parks Transit Center does great honor to Parks.  The building and plaza suggest the beginning of a journey:  the front of the building is shaped like the prow of a ship and a beautiful canopy floats above the busses like sails.  (Unfortunately she is little honored in the operations at the depot.  Detroit has one of the worst public transportation systems in the country.)

 

I had a few more surprises when I was brushing up on the familiar seat-on-the-bus story.  I had always thought hers was a modest, quiet act that led to a big dramatic one, the bus boycott directed by Martin Luther King.  But the full story of her modest, quiet action is as dramatic and suspenseful as the Little Rock Nine’s walk through the front doors of Little Rock High School.  You can read the full story here, but I’ll highlight a few things:

 

  • Ten years before the Montgomery bus driver ordered her to give up her seat for a white passenger, Parks had a run-in with the very same bus driver, James Blake.  A Montgomery bus ordinance at the time required blacks to enter at the front of the bus to pay and then exit and re-board through the back to sit down.  This way black passengers wouldn’t walk past whites.  One day, during a rainstorm, Parks chose not to exit and re-board.  Blake very nearly shoved her off the bus and then drove away before she could get back on.

 

  • Parks’ “doing nothing,” as Dove puts it, was a moment fraught with danger.  She knew that Blake, the bus driver, carried a gun.  She was alone on the bus.  When she challenged the driver, no other riders on the crowded bus gave her  support.  She knew she could be arrested, and she knew she could face abuse at the police station.  Her calm demeanor is all the more remarkable.

 

  • The incident in the last stanza of the poem refers to the behavior of the police officers who came to arrest her. One picked up her shopping bag, the other her purse.  But whose courtesy is “That courtesy”?  The idea that courtesy could be extended in such a discourteous place, a place where a woman was asked to give up her seat for a man, a place where black passengers were routinely insulted by whites, is another of the ironic oppositions the poem holds together.

RRita Dove by gpcmlkita Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952.  Her father was the first black chemist to work in the tire industry.  She graduated summa cum laude from Miami University of Ohio, earned a Fulbright scholarship, and got her MFA at Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  She won the Pulitzer Prize and served as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-95, the youngest person to ever be appointed to that office and first African American.  She teaches at University of Virginia.

 

I wouldn’t describe too many poets as adorable, but then again there aren’t too many poets who ballroom dance.  Watch here as Dove and her husband dance the samba, and see what adjective springs to mind.

 

 

 

One of my mother’s favorite jokes is, “Mary Rose sat on a tack.  Mary Rose.”  Inspired by the second stanza of Dove’s poem, I offer a twist on the old joke:  “Rosa Parks gets on the bus.  Rosa Parks.”

 

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