In a 1996 issue of The New Yorker, former poet laureate, Donald Hall, describes the last months of wife Jane Kenyon’s life. Diagnosed with leukemia, Kenyon died fifteen months later. In “The Ship Pounding,” Hall evokes a powerful image of the hospital as a ship:
Each morning I made my way
among gangways, elevators,
and nurses’ pods to Jane’s room
to interrogate the grave helpers
who tended her through the night
while the ship’s massive engines
kept its propellers turning…
At first, the narrator is hopeful:
The passengers on this voyage
wore masks or cannulae
or dangled devices that dripped
chemicals into their wrists.
I believed that the ship
traveled to a harbor
of breakfast, work, and love.
But Kenyon’s illness will not be cured, evident in the final lines, as the narrator waits to hear his wife call and knows he must be ready to:
… make the agitated
drive to Emergency again
for readmission to the huge
vessel that heaves water month
after month, without leaving
port, without moving a knot,
without arrival or destination,
its great engines pounding.
(From Without, 1998)
The comparison of a hospital and the cancer experience to a journey on a pounding ship sent shivers up my spine when I first read it. Hall creates a powerful image with his metaphor, and by comparing one thing to another, the reader sees or understands it differently. Metaphors get our attention. They’re visual, descriptive and offer a shorthand route to emotions, a vivid way to communicate how we experience illness. Metaphors help a listener or reader understand and appreciate what we are experiencing.
When literary critic Anatole Broyard wrote Intoxicated By My Illness, he tackled the subject of his terminal diagnosis of prostate cancer, and, according to Publishers’ Weekly in 1993, offered the reader “sudden startling sentences” and “unexpected metaphors.” He wrote, “Always in emergencies we invent narratives. . . Metaphor was one of my symptoms. I saw my illness as a visit to a disturbed country. . . I imagined it as a love affair with a demented woman who demanded things I had never done before. . . When the cancer threatened my sexuality, my mind became immediately erect.”
Broyard described illness “as a disturbed country.” Arthur Frank, sociologist and author of At the Will of the Body, a memoir of his experiences with cancer and heart attack, referred to his experience of illness as a “marathon.” Not surprisingly, Frank was a runner, and the physical and mental demands of the marathon were apt comparisons with his recovery from cancer.
Kat Duff, who wrote The Alchemy of Illness, after her diagnosis with chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS) in 1988, explored illness narratives as a way to confirm shared experience and gain insights into the nature of illness. She compared illness to a landscape, a wilderness, or coral reef, and health as an adventurous voyage through it. She described the sensation of serious illness as dipping “our feet into the waters of illness; … fully immersed in them, as if pulled under by a relentless undertow.” Through her metaphors the reader also begins to understand Duff’s experience of CFIDS.
In “Independence,” Macklin Smith, diagnosed with leukemia, compares the hospital to a prison.
Even incarcerated men and women can achieve some independence
Through their choice of TV programming, wardrobes, even e-mail,
Depending on the warden’s policy and type of prison,
Although in the super-max federal system they cannot choose
Any of these things: they’re in solitary 23 hours a day, strip searched
prior to their hour of exercise, and never go outside, no
window, and they’re under artificial lighting night and day.
(See the complete poem at www.umich.edu/news/MT/NewsE/10_04/poems.html)
In the foreword of the forthcoming book, The Art of Medicine in Metaphors (an anthology of poetry and narrative by James Borton), Dr. Jack Coulehan, poet, Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine and Senior Fellow of the Center for Medical Humanities at Stony Brook University, states: Medicine abounds in image, symbol, and metaphor, all of which live in the minds of physicians, as well as patients. The art of medicine is grounded in empathy, trust, and shared beliefs; much of its healing power arises from image, metaphor, and ritual intended to benefit the patient.
This week, explore the “unexpected” metaphors you use to describe your cancer experience—or any other difficult and painful chapter of life. Our metaphors bubble up and are spoken or written naturally, almost without thinking. What images do yours convey? Try this: begin with a phrase such as “Cancer is a…” or “illness is like a…” and finish the thought, noting what image or word emerges. Remember, write quickly, without editing. Set the timer for five or ten minutes and try to keeps your pen (or fingers) moving. Once you’ve finished, read over what you’ve written. What surprises you? Do you discover any unexpected metaphors? How do they help to describe and explain your experience of illness or hardship? Now, take one of those metaphors and let it become the trigger for a poem or a story that describes your experience of illness or hardship in greater detail.