Cancer[ + Pop Punk by Dean Rhetoric Reviewed by Colin Dardis
Given the ubiquity of cancer in our lives – we all know someone who is being treated for it, survived it, died from it, or indeed we may be dealing with it ourselves – it is natural that poetry should attempt to make sense of it. Of course, it is often not the disease itself that we need to try and understand, but the impact of it on our lives.
The tone in this, the debut pamphlet from working class poet Dean Rhetoric, is all at once challenging, unaccepting, disbelieving and mocking, running a gamut from “Define inoperable”, to “Meet the lump in combat” to a quickfire list of contemptuous comparisons of ‘fighting’ cancer to various styles of wrestling. Rhetoric’ poems encapsulate the sheer helplessness that cancer put us through; that whatever we do or say in our offers of help, it is not enough, was never enough to keep someone alive. As the title Cancer [+Pop Punk] suggests, dripping down through all of this is a litany of cultural references and quotes from various pop punk bands, plus a healthy dose of REM. (this reviewer will leave it to others to debate if the mentioned bands are indeed pop punk, given the preciousness of some gatekeepers in the punk community; this is a literary review, not music journalism.)
The music being the formative connection between the author and the deceased in question, Rhetoric weaves the narrative of loss and vulnerability through allusions to Green Day, Weezer, Dillinger Four, etc. Such is the lasting impact of their songs, that it takes over the form of the work. There is not so much a lyricism in the writing here, as a song-like structure, the poems presented visually on the page between musical staves. This presentation bleeds over, threatens to take over the poems, morphing lines into sing-along chorus with plenty of fa fa fa, la-la, doo doo, di da chanting. This is a defence mechanism: if we can express our distress and despair as quasi-nursery rhymes, perhaps the truth will not hurt as much.
Fruits and vegetables
seeds and antioxidants
[her stomach line tore though, fa, fa, fa!]
The smell of shampoo makes
her cry uncontrollably
[the cancer took her hair away, fa, fa fa!]
Similar to the Internet myth that Emily Dickinson wrote all her poems to fit the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, Rhetoric pushes the reader into singing along with his work. Those of a musical slant will be tempted to reread the page and attempt a tune of their own. Yet despite all this music, all this setting of song and lyric, there is much left unsaid. The unease of not knowing the perfect words; “specific words you need to avoid | to not talk about the cancer”; the ever-presence of someone’s absence: “It’s getting loud outside and your silence has everywhere to be.” Pop punk fills these silences, but music can only achieve so much. Rhetoric realises their shortcoming, listening favourite songs that are “always accusing me of changing the subject”. Parallel to all of this, the trials of cancer continue without words.
under neon lights where halos hang their laurels onto IV drips as mothers scream and swallow truths as hard to chew as hospice food and stumble out of swaying rooms no medicine improves and if these walls could talk they wouldn’t. We find out in the closing sequence that takes a trip through REM’s Automatic for the People that sixteen years have passed between the initial acquaintance and the death of the friend. The reader is never quite sure to the extent of the pair having been romantically involved or not, merely because the author appears unsure as well. This is not to stray into the realm of the unreliable narrator; rather the work is also a study in the uncertainty and tenderness of teenage relationships. There is already much fragility at play: the consensual removal of clothes, and then later, a kiss unrealised; the admission that “you hated me towards the end”. What seemed possible in 1998 is repeatedly cut off by the brutal reality of 2014’s treatment and subsequent funeral. It is only then that we find out that the death of an ex-partner of nine years is “not a good enough excuse to leave work”, the poem hitting us with the simple facts: no window dressing, no persiflage, just like news of a diagnosis.
All author royalties from the sale of the collection go to WAY (Widowed and Young) for the bereavement support of others, so you can be assured that with your purchase that you are supporting a worthy cause. The quality of the poems, Rhetoric finding an original and engaging way to approach and navigate anguish, is a bonus worthy of applause.
Cancer [+Pop Punk] is available from Broken Sleep Books, pp42, ISBN 978-1-915079-87-9