Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Steingraber the Poet

. . . I'm very old-fashioned and prefer my science and my art served up separately. I think they are two different ways of knowing the world. Both art and biology are about the mystery of being alive, but science seeks to solve the mystery while art simply says "behold." . . . When I'm really writing poetry. . . I'm not thinking like a scientist at all. It's all about tone and finding images to stand in for intangible feelings.*
~  Sandra Steingraber

I wrote on March 23 about Sandra Steingraber and a new film based on her book Living Downstream. (That post is here.)

What some people may not know is that Steingraber is a marvelous poet. Her 1995 Post-Diagnosis (Firebrand Books), which I found quite by chance a couple of years ago while looking for work by another writer, left me wishing for many more poems than this slim volume offers.

The collection opens with "In Response to a Promotional Ad Claiming That the Number of People Who Have Survived Cancer Could Now Fill the City of Los Angeles":

And the nonsurvivors fill the Pacific Ocean,
the Grand Canyon, and the whole of Antarctica.
They fill our silences. And they fill our mouths. . . .

Don't make the mistake that some might of thinking these poems are about cancer only. Experience with cancer** informs the poems, undoubtedly; Steingraber is a cancer survivor, a fact she doesn't let slide:

There is this burden

as in winter when rain
falls and freezes . . . .
~ From "Post-Op, January Ice Storm"***

What you find in this exceptional collection is an intense drive to understand and transcend the narrative that cancer produces. Steingraber shares the long journey — getting scans and waiting for lab reports, keeping watch, remembering before cancer, trying to create life after it — and writes movingly of uncertainty, fear, loss, desire, hope, determination, the tentativeness that is life itself:

I am often unsure
how to begin

as a bird who
holds in her mouth
the first twigs
of a new nest

and not far below
the gray cat
in the full sun
~ "Prefatory"

Steingraber also writes of Rocky Flats and Yucca Mountain, Bikini and Chernobyl, of lectures on the  destruction of nature during which "nothing bad can happen" so long as she keeps talking and after  which you're left "alone. You have to defend yourself." She shows us the places where "what's essential, we must rescue." We know, because she tells us, how she

. . . wanted to write the story
of all our lives
in the voice of a third person.
~ From "Third Person"

and yet has to conclude:

I'm returning to civilian life.
You can come home now.
Thanks for your help.
~ From "Envoi: Disbanding the Angels"

You cannot read Steingraber and come away untouched.

All excepts © Sandra Steingraber.

* Sandra Steingraber, quoted in interview at Terrain.org, No. 20, Summer/Fall 2007.

**See the interview "The Good Earth? Interview with Biologist Sandra Steingraber", in which Steingraber makes clear that she is not a person who considers cancer "a gift": ". . . Cancer is a big waste of time. It screwed me up in ways that I still have to work to overcome. At twenty I didn't need a lesson in how  to live life to its fullest; I was already doing that . . . ."

*** This poem is on Steingraber's Website, as are "Dominion of Geese" and "In Response...." You will also find there audio tracks for texts of poems set to music by Boston composer John McDonald, as well as two scores and the text of "Three Crueler Tangos".

The Sandra Steingraber Collection is at Illinois Weleyan University.


katdish said...

I feel like that bird so often. Beautiful poetry, Maureen. Thanks.

Louise Gallagher said...

I was inspired by the original video and essay you shared on Steingraber. This just blows me away. A true WoW!



S. Etole said...

The quotes you shared leave one wanting more ....