Performance, education, and collaborative research for health, justice, and community-building.

Poems to accompany Performing Cancer Cultures

body dispatches

2 poems and a note by Sandra Steingraber, POST-DIAGNOSIS (1995, Ithaca: Firebrand)

dedication: for the nonsurvivors.

Prefatory: Watch

I am often unsure / how to begin

as a bird who / holds in her mouth / the first twigs / of a new nest

and not far below / the gray cat / squinting / in the full sun

Cyclotron — for Jeannie Marshall

In the dream my job / is to hold you under the cross hairs / of a machine designed to fire / subatomic particles through solid materials. / We are in an underground bunker. / The walls are bare cinder block / on which hang masks shaped like human faces. / The doctors instruct me how to immobilize / you. I part your legs and pin your arms. / It is not clear if I am helping you / or collaborating with them.

In the non-dream my job / is to chat with the radiology / technicians in the Control Room / and watch you on closed-circuit TV / lying under the cross hairs / of a machine designed to fire / subatomic particles through solid materials. / You are in an underground bunker. / The walls, bare cinder block / are covered with masks used to hold / the faces of those receiving / proton-team therapy to the head. / I twist my legs around the legs / of a plastic chair and fold my arms. / I am trying to beam a message to you / through the monitor, through the concrete, / through the body cast that holds you.

In the dream something goes wrong / with the equipment. Radiation / leaks out everywhere over both / of us. It feels like the orange light / from subway station heat lamps. / I try to pull you to safety / but we can’t move. The doors / lock. Our voices are immobilized by the blare of emergency sirens. / We are falling down a shaft, / accelerating in a tube. / There is darkness and speed. / There are no station stops.

In the non-dream you get dressed. / We walk on our legs across the Harvard / parking lot. The guard waves good-bye. / Our arms brush snow from the windshield / of your car. We could be / two young professors on our way / to a seminar. We could be / two young mothers going home / to our kids. The snow falls harder. / We don’t speak.

Also see: Apology to Audre Lorde, Never Sent (excerpt), Field

Groundwater (for E. Susan Burt, excerpt)

This morning—as though night and day were any different—you are the one who smiles alone above your obituary, and I, who saw the sun rise five times from your hospital window, am surprised. I buy a second copy of the newspaper, and then a third. I want to buy all the copies of the newspaper, but I know you are already lying on a thousand porches, stacked beside a thousand counters, locked inside a thousand metal boxes that even now the coins are dropping into.

You are the one who taught me that an aspirin added to / the water of cut flowers will preserve them. I have done this now for years.

Smash the vas named Survivor. Let the funereal flowers be flung from the water. Let th behalf-dissolved tablet eat a hold in the floorboard. As the dead evaporate, the living behave like water. We want to fall. We want to run through gullies to the bottom lands, mingle with dirt, lie down with roots and worms, turn paper back to pulp, leach through rocks, be pulled underground.

Under the earth, a thousand rivers flow. On the far banks, the dead are massing, wrapped in white hospital blankets, waving arms encircled with plastic name tags, their faces unsurprised, indivisible.

Cancer patients are well prepared for civil disobedience

Steingraber is a biologist and ecologist, a poet and organizer committed to cancer activism after life as a cancer patient. She says of her bladder cancer experience in her 20s (and an ongoing lifetime of surveillance-care) that “being a cancer patient” prepared her “to be in jail.” Steingraber joined and co-led acts of civil disobedience to stop fracked gas storage in her now-homestate of New York, where organizers were jailed for days at a time (talk at Sonja Hanes Stone Center 2017, ACT members joined in a planning committee to bring Steingraber to UNC/the Triangle). Each brings: loneliness amidst technically crowded but partitioned bureaucratic spaces, the experience of staying tethered/captive/stationary in a small radius, relinquishing control of your own body and schedule.

(Both also accrue pain and unpleasantness for a seemingly necessary purpose given the crisis/conundrum at hand—but the suffering would be unnecessary were it for front-end interventions, some known, others unknown but benefitting from precautionary principle application. Many of Steingraber’s family members faced similar cancers while growing up or parenting in the same Illinois corn field / pesticide using farming communities. Sandra’s mom got breast cancer, around the time she got bladder cancer—but Sandra was adopted. See Living Downstream 2010).

storying tactical movements

In Moral Mondays and Flipping Cancer

Do you hear us? (original invocation— HCJ) and McCrory 11 Letter - Audio Dispatch Soundcloud by Quran Karriem. Voices of Sedrick Harris, Kriti Sharma, Jodi Lasseter, Serena Sebring, Manju Rajendran, Marie Garlock, Deborah Ferruccio; and Jimmy James Tyson, Colin Miller, Justin Miller, Rakhee Devastali.

Dinner Invitation (original invocation — EJ) at Epiphany Hearing Jan 2016, Maundy Thursday March 2016, USCCR Apr 2016, Jan 2019. Inspired by interviewees: Danielle Bailey Lash, Rev. Leslie Bray Brewer, Shuntailya Imani Graves, Caroline Rutledge Armijo, Ada and Willie Linster, Tony and Lydia Prysock, James and Priscilla Smith, David Hairston, Rev. Gregory Hairston, Carnice Johnson, Rev. Alfred Warren.

The Clock Speaks (2011 in document)

Bone and fur (original invocation)

Nayyirah Waheed salt. (2014, self-published) and NEJMA (2013, self-published)

ritual — for grief, environmental transmutation

Destiny Hemphill, “Meditation on Burnt Offerings.” (2017, Scalawag, in document)

In Women In Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (ed. Jane Hirshfield, 1994, New York: Harper Perennial)

Makeda, Queen of Sheba (ca. 1000 B.C.E.), Wisdom is, I fell.

Yu Xuanji (ca 843-868), At Home in the Summer Mountains.

Lalla Ded (ca. 14th c.), The soul, / like the moon. This world, / compared to You. Coursing in emptiness. To learn the scriptures is easy. At the end of a crazy-moon night.

Malidoma Somé. Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community (1993:107, Portland: Swan Raven Press. In Divining the Body, Jan Phillips 2005:16-17, Woodstock: Skylight Paths publishing).

“In cultures around the world, dance is used to express emotions that are too deep or complex for words. In his book Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community West African shaman Malidoma Somé” describes funeral ritual, and “[e]laborate steps are taken to ensure that the mourners fully express their grief in every way possible, not only for themselves but to help the dead souls go home. Relatives who come from afar often play the role of ‘containers,’ making sure the mourners stay in the ritual space and do not harm themselves. The whole village [local community] is there, not only to assist in the grieving of the mourners, but to complete their own unfinished business with their own deceased relatives.

Members of the immediate family of the dead are tagged with cords around their wrists, and people are assigned to look after them during the ceremony. The caretakers mimic the actions of the mourners, doing exactly what they do, only two feet behind them. Musicians and cantors play and sing in a way that encourages the wildest expressions of grief. Xylophones weep the tune, drums dramatize the sadness and chaos, and the singers chant spontaneously about the life of the person who died. The whole group engages in a visceral dialogue with the music and chanters, and great wailing occurs in the grief ritual space.

Somé: ‘Sometimes, a large group of fifteen to twenty people will come out to join a primary relative battling with his sorrow. The whole group will end up as a line of dancers dancing exactly what the relative is doing in the front of the line. It is understood in the ritual that the feeling of the person in front of the line will be transmitted to every person as they dance together in one line.’

This is the potency of ritual, this understanding of oneness among everyone who enters into it. The village [local community], in this case, becomes the unit dealing with the immensity of grief. The whole body is involved in the process, allowing the emotions to flow unselfconsciously and unrestrictedly through every part.”

Hafiz (14th c. mystic Sufi poet, trans. Ladinsky 2011, Johannesburg: Penguin)

Until They Become Sky Again (2011:208, July 6)

The peace, it is there; it grows from her soil. / A few feet beneath her surface, all is always / perfectly calm.

What does she know of any storms then? What / does she hear of any cries of this world, or is / in any way startled by fear?

Once in a while something stirs a thirst she / had forgotten about;

a divine rain falls on her hills and settles in a / beautiful valley;

there, life’s companion, water, gently reaches / down and touches, awakens her heart

She begins to reach up with all her strength, / feeling a glorious destiny awaits,

and she keeps stretching out her arms until / they become a sky again and all that is / luminous in it.

Her love shelters then from all angles, above, / below . . . and to our sides.

Yes it shelters us, any heart, like an earth, / that knows God.

The peace is always there, just beneath a / particle on our surface.

Your Fidelity to Love (2011:184, June 14)

Your fidelity to love, that is all you need. / No day will then match your strength.

What was once a fear or problem will see / you coming, and step aside . . . or run.