Review: Cancer [+Pop Punk by Dean Rhetoric (review by Colin Dardis)

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
https://www.brokensleepbooks.com/product-page/dean-rhetoric-cancer-pop-punk



2 new poems from Colin Dardis :Whispering Torch & This Life in Bed

Whispering Torch

Everyone
is alone with the moon,

conqueror of all landscapes,
so that its singular voice may be heard
across the world.

In the desert		whispers of survival.
In the city		speaks of escape.
Inside jungles		clears out your fear.
Over oceans		points you to home.
Across fields		tells of seeds to sow.
Inside beds		holds your hand
and dreams with you,
trusted companion.

Come, lie down with the moon tonight;
it can only reflect
what you choose to shine upon it,
your
        face
    suspended
over skyline.	

Look, how you are luminescent.

This Life in Bed

My imagination, he chides me:
you are a sad, little man.

This life in bed is stationed by the window
so the sad, little man can peep through
the crooked blinds to down the street.

There is a life in business, cars and suits
appearing before nine, then committing
their professional disappearing act after five;
the trick never tires, no matter how often it’s repeated.
The car park opposite lies empty at weekends
and then it becomes harder to tell the time.
It is autumn now and the daylight deprives me
of any sense of position. I hear the joke
of my neighbours on the hallway.
The days become creaks upon my mattress.

Around the hours, I lie in my welcomed cocoon;
after three days I notice I smell sweet, of cake.
This nasal notion is a comfort: The great unwashed
are eating their cake. I am a currant inside soft sponge,
a blanket of icing for protection against staleness.

I’ll go hard over time, yes. The night is scared of me.
The day is starting to cower too.



Bio: Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent poet, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His latest collection is All This Light To See The Dead: Pandemic Journals 2020-21 (Rancid Idols Productions, 2022).

His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA, and shortlisted for the Erbacce Prize, Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, and Over The Edge New Writer of the Year Award, amongst others. Previous collections include Endless Flower (Rancid Idols Productions, 2021) The Dogs of Humanity (Fly on the Wall Press, 2019, shortlisted for Best Poetry Pamphlet, Saboteur Awards 2020), the x of y (Eyewear, 2018), Post-Truth Blues (Locofo Chaps, 2017) and Dōji: A Blunder (Lapwing, 2013). His latest album, a long-form ambient piece, is Back To Work (1tracktape, 2021).


Poetry influenced by Art: Two Crabs by Colin Dardis

after the painting by Van Gogh, 1889 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/vincent-van-gogh-two-crabs

Two Crabs

Fruits of the sea plucked
along with the entire tree:
a forest couplet, uprooted
ingloriously.

Their underbellies are floors
of humus, twig, bark and seed,
hodgepodge recipes.
Do not stare there. See them
as some foul plate from which
you must find cleaver
and lever out their meat.

No worry of intrusion: you cannot
inconvenience the dead. Instead,
aim for the head, as such,
and prise; one cannot taste
without being for the kill.



Bio: Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent poet, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His latest collection is All This Light To See The Dead: Pandemic Journals 2020-21 (Rancid Idols Productions, 2022). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger's, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA, and shortlisted for the Erbacce Prize, Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, and Over The Edge New Writer of the Year Award, amongst others. Previous collections include Endless Flower (Rancid Idols Productions, 2021) The Dogs of Humanity (Fly on the Wall Press, 2019, shortlisted for Best Poetry Pamphlet, Saboteur Awards 2020), the x of y (Eyewear, 2018), Post-Truth Blues (Locofo Chaps, 2017) and Dōji: A Blunder (Lapwing, 2013). His latest album, a long-form ambient piece, is Back To Work (1tracktape, 2021

Poetry/Writing Showcase from Colin Dardis

A MIRROR OF A POP STAR

Extract from All This Light In Which To See The Dead

He tells you that he cuts himself. He tells you this over the phone so you can’t grab his arms and examine the scars, the fresh new lines he has scored. You know a bit about self-harm. You understand that people mutilate themselves to feel control, to regain dominance over themselves when they feel overwhelmed and defeated by the world. This makes some kind of sense in your teenage mind, but you’ve never been tempted to stick a blade into your willing flesh. Perhaps you haven’t been damaged enough.

You want to understand your friend, learn why he feels the need to do this. You find an image of Richey Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers showing off a freshly cut carving on this forearm: depression as entertainment, reproduced by some cheap pop news rag. You cut it out and stick in on the inside of your school binder, get some kind of twisted pleasure from the bemused and concerned looks your fellow pupils give you when they spy it. The cuts say, I am different from you, and I am proud of that difference. I do not want to be like you. I am the nonconformist finding himself as you just die. But still you have not shed blood. Still your skin is intact. 

Curious, and driven on by your friend’s own experimentations, you decide on the point of your compass. You remove it from your pencil case and hold the point to a flame, struck from a match. At this age, you don’t know what septicaemia is yet – something your father would contract in later years and have a heart attack from – but you know that sticking unclean metal objects into you isn’t exactly safe, and fire helps to cleanse, sterilise. You wash the soot off the metal, slightly concerned how much it has blackened from the flame, but still keen. You are left-handed, so the carving will be done on your right forearm. You are not afraid as you make the first scrape. Nothing much happens. You score the same line back and forth, as surface cells of skin start to flake. It hurts. It’s not supposed to hurt. It’s supposed to feel, if not euphoric, then releasing: a crude form of trepanning as all the pain and hurt and confusion escapes from the wound. But there is no wound. The slightest line of red rises on your arm, like a ghost path from a stubborn itch. 

You know there is no way you will apply more pressure to the compass. What did you really expect? You can’t imagine stabbing yourself with it now, although you can imagine others hacking away, smiling as the blood flows. You’ve failed. You’re not even good enough at messing yourself up. You wipe the point of the barely stained compass and return it to your pencil case, return the pencil case to your schoolbag, and never tell your friend your sorry attempt at affinity.

YOU LOOK OUT THE SKYLIGHT, BUT ALL YOU NEED IS BLACK, NO STARS.

Extract from All This Light In Which To See The Dead

Perhaps the moon is out there tonight. Perhaps your window is facing the wrong face and the other side of the house is being glorified in moonlight. The moon has it good, despite being locked in orbit around here. Humanity has barely grazed its surface. No footprint has left lasting damage. The bits of metal and electronics we’ve left up there sit peacefully alongside the rock and dust, awaiting the next adventurer. It glows like a star but doesn’t has to expend energy producing its own light!

Yes, the moon has a pretty sweet deal. It never has to worry about deforestation, or poisoned rivers, or holes in the ozone layer, or war. The surface of the moon has no idea what it feels like when a bomb goes off. No one’s blood has ever soaked into its soil. It just busies itself with reflection and affecting our tidal patterns, and even then it doesn’t have to work very hard to do this, it’s just a natural by-product of its existence. It’s been painted and captured by artists countless more times than the whole of the Earth. It’s the A-List star of the night sky, and even dares to show itself sometimes when the sun comes round. No one is out-classing the moon! 

The moon has no concept of time and does not count the days until it returns to the same bit of space where it was the previous year. It’s wise enough to leave that folly up to the humans, knowing that time doesn’t have a dimension. Well, that’s what it believes anyway, it’s never heavily mused on the subject. The moon missed the rocks that the humans took though. It doesn’t mind the machinery and all the radio signals back and forth, but it doesn’t think it’s a fair trade. It will see you if you look up at it, but it can’t do anything about the clouds.

WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I THOUGHT YOU SWALLOWED A SEED, A TREE WOULD GROW IN YOUR STOMACH

Extract from All This Light In Which To See the Dead

I held this belief for quite a few years. I remember my grandmother making me a cheese and tomato sandwich once at her house. I liked tomatoes, but I would quarter them and scrape them clean of all seeds, lest one would darken my tongue. Only when absolutely clear could they enter the food chain. My grandmother did not exercise such caution. But I did not wish to complain and offend her; although it was never drilled into me, good manners were a necessary. So I ate that sandwich, seeds and all, and drank extra milk in the hope that this would drown them and wash the seeds down quickly through my system. 

I’m not sure where the belief came from; it’s not like I thought there was soil in my tummy, awaiting plantation. We must have planted seeds in school to learn how plants grow. I obviously didn’t pay enough attention: all I knew was that ‘seeds’ equals ‘potential for plants’. At some time during my youth, I had planted three apple seeds in the corner of our garden. Apples were another food, along with oranges and grapes, you learnt quickly to avoid the seeds from. Trees take years; kids don’t think years ahead in the future, they mostly live day to day, week to week, unless something big is coming up on the horizon, like Christmas or a holiday. I had a vague notion of our own apples growing in the garden and imagined them soon blossoming. My parents had had a plum tree at their old house on Dublin road, before my sister and I were born. Apparently the branches would bend and break from the weight of the fruit. That was something to aim for! 

Somehow time slipped by and the seeds became a sapling. It was a source of pride for me, that I had intentionally created something growing and alive that we could see and visit every day. I was warned it would be a long time before we could harvest any apples from it, but I enjoyed daydreaming about the fruit that eventually would come. I looked into the future and could see a mighty trunk and thick branches blessing us in the upcoming years, a permanent fixture that no other neighbour had. It might not have beaten the cherry blossom tree a few doors down, whose light pink detritus would blow all through our park and gather on the windscreens of cars; but still, to bring to life one’s own tree was a splendour to behold. Each year, it would grow more and reward me more as it thrived. 

I did not foresee us moving; my parents sold the house when I was fourteen, and the tree’s future, our future together, disappeared. Perhaps it is still there, bringing another family pleasure. I have no idea what type of apple the seeds were from. Back in the eighties, you didn’t have the variety stores have now, so most likely it was a simple Golden Delicious. Perhaps someone else now picks those apples to bake into a pie, one of the rare culinary baked goods my mother excelled in. Sometimes I think of returning to that first home, of sneaking around the side of the house just to glance at the tree and check how it has grown. My wife thinks I should just ring the doorbell and explain that I used to live there, ask if I could go round back to look at the tree; I fear them replying, “What tree?”. It’s better to have the memory and dream; to find its absence, torn up and screaming of vacancy, would be a wound too much on the pale face of childhood.

Poetry by Colin Dardis “So You Want to Earn Some Self-Respect”

Bio: Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent poet, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His latest collection is All This Light To See The Dead: Pandemic Journals 2020-21 (Rancid Idols Productions, 2022). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger’s, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA, and shortlisted for the Erbacce Prize, Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, and Over The Edge New Writer of the Year Award, amongst others. Previous collections include Endless Flower (Rancid Idols Productions, 2021) The Dogs of Humanity (Fly on the Wall Press, 2019, shortlisted for Best Poetry Pamphlet, Saboteur Awards 2020), the x of y (Eyewear, 2018), Post-Truth Blues (Locofo Chaps, 2017) and Dōji: A Blunder (Lapwing, 2013). His latest album, a long-form ambient piece, is Back To Work (1tracktape, 2021

Wolfpack Contributor: Colin Dardis

Colin Dardis is a neurodivergent poet, editor and sound artist from Northern Ireland. His latest collection is All This Light To See The Dead: Pandemic Journals 2020-21 (Rancid Idols Productions, 2022). His work, largely influenced by his experiences with depression and Asperger’s, has been published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA, and shortlisted for the Erbacce Prize, Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, and Over The Edge New Writer of the Year Award, amongst others. Previous collections include Endless Flower (Rancid Idols Productions, 2021) The Dogs of Humanity (Fly on the Wall Press, 2019, shortlisted for Best Poetry Pamphlet, Saboteur Awards 2020), the x of y (Eyewear, 2018), Post-Truth Blues (Locofo Chaps, 2017) and Dōji: A Blunder (Lapwing, 2013). His latest album, a long-form ambient piece, is Back To Work (1tracktape, 2021

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