In recent years, poet Stanley Plumly gave readers “Posthumous Keats,” a gorgeous, award-winning prose meditation on the great English Romantic poet’s life and death. With “Orphan Hours: Poems” (W.W. Norton: $25.95), the Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, ruminates again on the topic of mortality, though this time the subject is much closer to home. Surely there’s a struggle ahead for anyone with a serious illness, but in the poem “Cancer,” he offers a respite from the horror by addressing the disease from a startling, cosmic perspective.
By Stanley Plumly
Mine, I know, started at a distance
five hundred and twenty light-years away
and fell as stardust into my sleeping mouth,
yesterday, at birth, or that time when I was ten
lying on my back looking up at the cluster
called the Beehive or by its other name
in the constellation Cancer,
the Crab, able to move its nebulae projections
backward and forward, side to side,
in the tumor Hippocrates describes as carcinoma,
from karkinos, the analogue, in order to show
what being cancer looks like.
Star, therefore, to start,
like waking on the best day of your life
to feel this living and immortal thing inside you.
You were in love, you were a saint,
you were going to walk the sunlight blessing water,
you were almost word for word forever.
The crown, the throne, the thorn —
now to see the smoke shining in the mirror,
the long half dark of dark down the hallway inside it.
Now to see what wasn’t seen before:
the old loved landscape fading from the window,
the druid soul within the dying tree,
the depth of blue coloring the cornflower,
the birthday-ribbon river of a road,
and the young man who resembles you
opening a door in the half-built house
you helped your father build,
saying, in your voice, come forth.