Three Poems With Cancer

by Tom Rist


i. Ward

Here with the terminally bald

I think of old Sarum

where after a ceremony

lepers were told they were dead


and sent on their way.  Apparently

dead men were everywhere then,

passing you on the street

in their other world,


talking excitedly maybe

in gaggles and groups

of whatever gossip or news

excites the dead.


So in the waiting room

leafing through gossip

from Hello! or OK

listen to the chatter:


we have our lives, we dead,

our greetings and questions

and some of us are morose

and some are cheerful.


ii. On the Bikini Atoll

They are complaining now

those old men

with cancers, deformities


saying they should have had masks

or suits or boots

or that they shouldn’t have been there at all


and then you see

these soldiers, line upon line,

looking to sea


where the bomb will destroy

atoms and dust and even

order, reason in nature,


so that their uniform

turn of command,

their military symmetry


giving their backs to the sea

like a wilful blindness

looks like nostalgia.



Not that I’m not

sympathetic or wouldn’t

uphold the old men,


not that I don’t think

everything they can be given

they should be given


or that their cries

shouldn’t be heard

as if by nurses,


no. Who give all

deserve all, like these men,

though few give as much


and who wouldn’t turn away

at the sentence of death

when a word like cancer


explodes with a noise you can’t hear?


iii. Precipice


If I am grave today,

if I am solemn

I will add one body’s weight

to this precipice I


like light must step over.

So this step, like a pavement,

a bridge through air

will become an edge

of the earth of many


and among the jagged

hills and valleys,

serrated horizons

of high-rise and low


among the pebbles

like boulders

and the sands

like storms

I will make a step

that’s a place to fall into.


So I will put on my happiest

clothes and eyes,

prepare my teeth

for smiling not biting,


I will turn off the television

where the visions are

of the holes and the bodies

in the earth that is falling



and I will perform

the trick of flying

that for some is called walking

and others call living


and though the earth is falling away

in shallow graves

less deep than my sorrow

and though the bodies with the special

mute appeal of the dead


are raising their arms

and smiling and bidding me welcome

I will step over them

and not look down,


and so I will tell the bodies

their time is not yet

since I have a step to take and more beyond that

steps that are forward and on

in the land of the living.