Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Malignant Beauty: The Cancer Cells

 Cancer Cells Image: GE Healthcare

I often read a poetry book at night before dropping off to sleep: John Ciardi's How Does a Poem Mean?  I came across this most unusual poem at about the same time a dear friend was diagnosed with incurable cancer. I've been musing on it ever since.  It is strange that something so murderous--cancer cells--could have such an outward appearance of beauty.

 The Cancer Cells

Today I saw a picture of the cancer cells,
Sinister shapes with menacing attitudes.
They had outgrown their test-tube and advanced,
Sinister shapes with menacing attitudes.
Into a world beyond, a virulent laughing gang.
They looked like art itself, like the artist's mind,
Powerful shaker, and taker of new forms.
Some are revulsed to see these spiky shapes;
It is the world of the future too come to.
Nothing could be more vivid than their language,
Lethal, sparkling and irregular stars,
The murderous design of the universe,
The hectic dance of the passionate cancer cells.
O just phenomena to the calculating eye,
originals of imagination. I flew
With them in a piled exuberance of time,
My own malignance in their racy, beautiful gestures
Quick and lean: and in their riot too
I saw the stance of the artist's make,
The fixed form in the massive fluxion.

I think Leonardo would have in his disinterest
Enjoyed them precisely with a sharp pencil.

~Poem by Richard Eberhart

My thoughts on the poem:
  • Eberhart mentions "sinister shapes with menacing attitudes" twice, personifying the cancer cells.
  • The cells are seen as a gang causing a riot.
  • The author recognizes "my own malignance" in the image of the death cells.
  • "The future too come to" is not a misspelling.  The future is coming too fast, accelerating b/c of the cancer cells.
  • The last 2 lines stand alone and were puzzling to me, until I remembered that Leonardo did autopsies on cadavers in order to improve his ability to render the human body accurately in his art. Perhaps his interest in art made him disinterested in the deceased.
  • "Precisely with a sharp pencil" was/is equally enigmatic. Was he saying that Leonardo would have enjoyed the new scientific knowledge and incorporated it dispassionately into his understanding of the human body?
John Ciardi contributes a bit of insight on the last 2 lines of the poem:
"....note how the last two lines are thrust against the first passage. That is the essence of the poem. I want to argue that a poem consists of one thing thrust against another across a silence. It is like music, in that you set up a passage, you pause, and against it you set up a counter passage. That is not a statement; that is an experience, a shape, a thing made. It is like a statue, like a painting." from his book Ciardi Himself: fifteen essays


Carol in Oregon said...

Oh. My.

It has been a year since I snatched up How Does a Poem Mean at a book sale. After some initial forays into its interior, it has sat on a shelf.

You've inspired me to get it down and start reading through it. When I was home schooling we used to read a poem aloud every morning. I miss that.

Malignant Beauty illustrates how a poet looks slant-eyed at an object and tells us something new.

Thank you, Poeima. You've inspired me this morning.

Poiema said...

We read a poem a day in our homeschool, too. It's one of the things that has enriched me the most.

I have learned a lot from Ciardi. Found another of his works on Google Books _Ciardi himself: fifteen essays in the reading, writing, and teaching of poetry_.

Thank you for your comment!

Go quickly and tell said...

Just purchased Ciardi's book How Does a Poem Mean and requested several of his from the local library.

It's gonna be a fun month!

Go quickly and tell said...

I can see myself personifying an illness. I know you must miss your friend.

PS Thanks for getting the email follou-up function ;-)