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How to Write a Poem about Cancer - Markings 148

The seventh in a series of writing poetry as a way of healing.


Before teaching writing to children through California Poets in the Schools and to adults at the San Diego Writing Centre, Joe Milosch worked as a trail locator and heavy equipment foreman for the National Forest Service. He wrote the following poem about his wife’s cancer exactly when he was not trying to write it:

Why is a scar on a man a mark of distinction,

on a woman a mark of disfigurement?

I don’t know.

Why is it funny when a man loses his hair,

and tragic when a woman loses hers?

I don’t know.

What will you tell her

when the X rays turn the scar

on her breast raw-

hamburger red?

I don’t know.

When she’s bald, lost the hair

from her eyebrows,

and lies with closed eyes,

with a skeletal look,

will you kiss her

and tell her

she’s beautiful?

I don’t know.

What do you do

in the bedroom,

when she is thinking

of death,

and she cries?

I hold her hand, and I breathe.

Joe tried to write this poem for three years. Earlier poems he had written about his wife’s illness were not satisfying. Although his earlier efforts served as stepping-stones to reach the poem here, Joe felt he had not gotten to the heart of the matter. Something in the experience of how Joe and his wife worked out the experience of her illness together remained elusive in his

writing. It took time to get there. Something as devastating as the possible death of his wife required Joe to do other work before he spoke clearly.

©Jeff Guess 2019


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