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The Boston Phoenix Ancient Healing

Hilda Raz faces down illness with poetry

By Catherine A. Salmons

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  According to legend, the Greek poet Sappho was suffering a long and tragic illness when she penned these lines to her daughter, Cleis: "Don't weep for me. For tears are unbecoming, in a house of poets . . . " Meaning (according to some Greek scholars) that tears can literally un-become a person, or tear a house down. There's long been a taboo surrounding lament and physical illness -- as if denial of the beast gnawing at the flesh could somehow make it less real.

That's the strength of the new collection Divine Honors, the latest from poet Hilda Raz. It's a song/screech/elegy/meditation on the terrifying experience of breast cancer -- poems on the shock of diagnosis, the anguish of mastectomy, the slow ripening of recovery within a body irreparably changed. It's a book of loss, and of medical nightmares. But it's not a book of tears. For Raz has written her illness as the meat and bones of spiritual conquest -- a record not of "un-becoming" but of courage to fight, and to speak.

These poems are splendid verbal creations: lush and melodic, rhythmic as breath, effortless in the ear. A Rochester (New York) native and Boston University alumna -- now a professor and editor of the prestigious literary journal Prairie Schooner -- Raz is known for her stately lyricism and finesse. But this new volume has a toughness, a raw insistence in the words and their music, that makes it more compelling than her previous books. Divine Honors explores the difficulty of its subject matter as a topic in itself. The emotional fallout of cancer is something the world doesn't want to confront, Raz relates in the poem "Day Old Bargain." Suppress grief; sweep it under the proverbial rug. "When you give over your breast to cancer/for God's sake don't/write about it!"

So having fought for her life, she now wrestles the experience into words -- in an act of both healing and defiance. Some poems are brutally frank: shock therapy. ("Next day, I opted for surgery./Cut that mama off and saved my life.") Others (my favorites) sculpt the process of disease into dense, metaphorical language mostly having to do with gardening, with cycles in the natural world. She alludes repeatedly to the Greek myth of Demeter -- goddess of agriculture, symbol of birth and fertility, of the nurturing flesh of the Female. Here are the deepest psychological tropes of her illness, laid bare among ancient cultural echoes -- the image of the body of woman as life itself, as necessary food.

The refrain from an archaic goddess prayer -- "O Lady, your breast is your field" -- helps explain why breast cancer is so horrifying, for a woman, and why life-changing illness, for anyone, is almost more fearsome than death: it destroys our physical identity -- the very essence of who we are -- and then leaves us alive to bear the silent cost. This is the book's intellectual core: the "metaphysics" of disease, which Raz explores as only a poet can. When she describes the cutting and the drug ecstasy of surgery, she evokes primal stirrings of soul-loss fear; the scalpel becomes a shaman's rattle, implement of a rite of passage -- an "ordeal" that, in the words of Mircea Eliade, "transforms the individual into a technician of the sacred."

Anyone who's had breast cancer should read this book -- as should survivors of hysterectomy, chronic pain, heart disease, those who've lost the ability to run, walk, hear, or see. In its depth and jarring honesty, Divine Honors is a tale of redemption, a powerful lesson in hope and in the dignity of sharing one's physical grief. "I am telling you cancer," Raz writes, "like moisture/at soil's edge after winter, or/the bulb of the amaryllis . . . raising stem after stem from cork dirt . . . an ache, orgasm, agony, life."

Thanks in large part to women's activism, great strides have been made in breast-cancer treatment. But Raz makes it clear there's much yet to be resolved about how we react to a crisis of the body in the context of daily life. The clinical sterility of the "cure" does nothing to ease the messiness of grief, and the world is not always kind to those in need. Raz tells her darkest secrets: about loss and its physical memory; about acceptance and survival; about learning to live in a body that will never be as good as new and learning to call that healing. She reveals all this for her benefit and ours, letting us know it's the full, plaintive cry of this difficult singing that allows one, finally, to make peace -- to

Move ahead and not refer, never refer to
anything other than the sweet taste in your mouth of breath,
the steady blood beat, the road hot and loud under your feet, infinite.

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