Lucille Clifton’s Cancer Poems

Vincent van Gogh, “Ward of Arles Hospital”


Lucille Clifton’s cancer poems mean a lot more to me since I spent several days in a Bronx oncology ward with my friend Rachel Kranz, who is battling ovarian cancer. I promised Joyce A. Asante, her wonderfully supportive nurse, that I would write a post on those poems.

Clifton became acquainted with the illness when her husband Fred, who didn’t smoke, came down with lung cancer and died at 49. In Next (1987), Clifton writes both about Fred’s cancer and that of other patients she met in the cancer ward. The book gets its title from a two-line poem that reminds us that the bell tolls for all of us:

the one in the next bed is dying.
mother we are all next. or next.

Clifton is struck by how cancer cells appear to “bloom,” normally a positive, life-affirming process. Not in this instance, however:

something is growing in the strong man.
it is blooming, they say, but not a flower.
he has planted so much in me, so much.
I am not willing, gardener, to give you up to this.

The cancer treatment process seems to violate the natural order in numerous ways, most notably by injecting poisonous medicines into the body. Instead of mothers with nurturing remedies, Clifton sees cold God-like doctors administering chemicals to cure the disease. In “chemotherapy,” she cries out that none of it makes sense:

my hair is pain.
my mouth is a cave of cries.
my room is filled with white coats
shaped like God.
they are moving their fingers along
their stethoscopes.
they are testing their chemical faith.
chemicals    chemicals    oh mother mary
where is your living child? 

In a poem dedicated to 21-year-old “joanne c.,” probably a patient that Clifton met in the ward, Clifton gets at another confusing aspect of cancer: the body is at war with itself. (The Gettysburg reference signals that it’s a civil war.) Also contradictory is cancer’s “murderous cure”:

the death of joanne c.
aged 21

i am the battleground that
shrieks like a girl.
to myself i call myself
gettysburg. Laughing,
twisting the i.v.,
laughing or crying, i can’t tell
which anymore,
i host the furious battling of
a suicidal body and
a murderous cure.

Clifton is struck by how the very word “cancer” can reduce us to a helpless state. In “incantation,” she imagines that an evil magician has transformed the patient into a puppet. Unlike my friend Rachel, who is an exemplary and therefore difficult patient because she demands that every procedure be explained and justified, the patient in Clifton’s poem has surrendered her autonomy:

overheard in hospital

pluck the hairs
from the head
of a virgin.
sweep them into the hall.
take a needle
thin as a lash,
puncture the doorway
to her blood.
here is the magic word:
repeat it, she will
become her own ghost.
repeat it, she will
follow you she will
do whatever you say.

Rachel and I were both struck by how many of the hospital’s doctors engage in power struggles and prefer docile patients to questioning patients. Clifton is never one who will do “whatever you say,” however, and she insists that we own our own emotions. In “leukemia as white rabbit,” she draws on Alice in Wonderland to show a patient acknowledging just how “furious” she is.

Alice encounters the White Rabbit and his pocket watch at the start of her adventures and is struck by his obsession with time–time, of course, being of paramount importance to one who is dying. To set up the poem, here are a couple of the relevant passages from Alice:

[The White Rabbit] came trotting along in a great hurry, muttering to himself as he came, ‘Oh! the Duchess, the Duchess! Oh! won’t she be savage if I’ve kept her waiting!’


[I]n a very short time the Queen was in a furious passion, and went stamping about, and shouting ‘Off with his head!’ or ‘Off with her head!’ about once in a minute.

leukemia as white rabbit

running always running murmuring
she will be furious    she will be
furious, following a great
cabbage of a watch that ells only
terminal time, down deep into a
rabbit hole of diagnosticians shouting
off with her hair    off with her skin and
i am    i am    i am    furious.

I can testify, from watching Rachel go through the medical system, that “rabbit hole of diagnosticians” is a perfect description. Each department had its own theory of what was wrong with Rachel and what needed to be treated first—after the Emergency Room, she went first to the cardiac ward and then to the oncology ward, which is probably where she should have been from the first.

In the face of institutional anonymity, Clifton has a fantasy of a powerful and positive incantation, unlike the disempowering “cancer” incantation of the doctors. She imagines her mother, clad as a powerful witch, incanting the words she most needs to hear:

enter my mother
wearing a peaked hat.
her cape billows,
her broom sweeps the nurses away,
she is flying, the witch of the ward, my mother
pulls me up by the scruff of the spine
incanting   Live   Live   Live!

Living, to be sure, may not be an option, as it wasn’t with joanne c. In that instance, a dignified surrender will do. The blood as a white flag may be a reference to declining white blood count:

the message of jo

my body is a war
nobody is winning
my birthdays are tired.
my blood is a white flag,
my mother darling,
death is life.

Clifton may, in this acceptance of death, have in mind a poem by Mary Oliver, who was a friend. The influence goes back and forth as Oliver herself borrows Clifton’s image of bones, which appear throughout her poetry as a metaphor for that which is foundational. In “In Blackwater Woods,” Oliver tells us how we should live and how we should die:

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

To sum up the trajectory of this post, Clifton moves from confusion to anger to acceptance. The acceptance extends not only to the patient but to those left behind. As she imagines Fred sending her messages, she picks up one that is particularly important:

the message of fred clifton

i rise up from the dead before you
a nimbus of dark light
to say that the only mercy
is memory,
to say that the only hell
is regret

Regret grows out of anger, memory out of love. Only one is healthy.

Additional note: Clifton explores her own breast cancer in a series of poems in The Terrible Stories (1996)comparing herself to an Amazon after she lost a breast. (The Amazons supposedly cut off the breast that got in the way of shooting bows and arrows.) The breast cancer finally killed Clifton at 74.

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