The Best Literary Writing About Mothers and Motherhood

The Body At A Loss by Cati Porter

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Review by Mindy Kronenberg

 

There is a considerable and influential archive of women’s writing detailing with journeys of terminal illness, as evidenced in the raw and honest work of poets Audre Lorde, Carol Snyder Halberstadt, and Kate Fox, whose experience with breast cancer resulted in a four-book sequence beginning with My Pink Ribbons. It is an admirable and brave pursuit to creatively convey the shock, pain, and day-to-day struggle of living against the idea of dying, while immersing themselves in domestic routine and finding gifts in moments of familiar peace or simple accomplishment.

The Body at a Loss chronicles the poet’s experience with her mother’s diagnosis, her own, and a friend’s, overlapping in hope, struggle, and ultimately an outcome for each. Cati Porter deftly takes the reader through narratives that can be emotional or clinical, that shrink and stretch on the page with changing temperament, from quiet, calm and precise to longer, elaborate poems and those that break abruptly mid-stride. In “Initiation” (p. 8) a discovery at a sonogram is presented in startling imagery:

A smattering like night stars,
Many grainy moons

On the monitor:
Nodules bob amid

Red and blue splotches
Denoting temperature, blood flow.

I can see my carotid arteries
Throbbing, see myself

As if viewing a distant new galaxy.

In “Surgical Precision,” (p. 35) an observation:

It doesn’t hurt
That I can see

That the surgeon
Has such small

Beautiful hands,
Tender in the way,

They extend
From the wrist

To smooth
A shoulder

Their firm, calm
Pressure.

In “Incidental,” (p.29) she imagines cancer as a malignant pregnancy:

…The body

inviolate, invaded, inflates

Conditions ripe for growth

I don’t know

that it’s there

but I do

Sweet thing

I must not

Feed you.

 

Moments in day to day living becomes a precious commodity in many poems, captured scenarios that detour from fear, temper pain with tenderness. The poet waxes philosophical in “Reading Miller’s Essay ‘on Tragedy and the Common Man’ with my Teenage Son the Night before Receiving the Radiologist’s Report” (p. 9), an exercise in patience and anticipation. The poet struggles with her son’s trouble in understanding the work, which to her “//…says nothing more than/ We’re all in this together, that tragedy/ is not a state reserved for nobility/ But instead can afflict us all. …” He simply wants to finish the assignment, and the poet embraces a message for her own predicament: “…what good does it do us to fixate/ On endings when everything depends/ Upon the liminal, the little deaths that happen each day/ while we wait to live.”

“Taking my Time” (p. 10) is a slowed tour through a rainy morning’s breakfast, the solitude an hour before the doctor’s visit. Despite the signs (“The coughing starts early today, each hitch,/ Each hiccup, a jolt.”), she muses “I can still pretend that I have not already/ Read the report. If I sit still and quiet, the coughing// subsides… If I drink the coffee, slowly. If I care/ Not to wake the children. …” Particularly moving are poems like “This” ( p. 50) where a bathing becomes a momentous event for a fragile life, a soothing ritual:

She cannot tip her head back toward the spray

He waits while she smoothes the suds
With loofah up and down her unshaven legs,
Her arms, across her back, her hair beading,
The delicious heat, and he holds her
Hand as she steps out dripping,

And now he wrings the water from her hair,
Dabs the wet bandage, brushes her hair

This braided life, this tangled, aching bliss

The Body at a Loss bravely captures the intimacy of fear and hope, including the luxuriant small moments of pleasure (“At First”) and humored awkwardness (“For Your Amusement”). Cati Porter’s poems are an important and eloquent addition to the canon.

 

The Body at a Loss
By Cati Porter
Cavankerry Press, 2019

 


Mindy Kronenberg is an award-winning poet and writer with numerous publication credits world-wide. She teaches writing, literature, and arts subjects at SUNY Empire State College, publishes Book/Mark Quarterly Review, is editor of Oberon poetry magazine, and the author of Dismantling the Playground (Birnham Wood), Images of America: Miller Place (Arcadia), and OPEN, an illustrated poetry book (Clare Songbirds Publishers).

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