Poem as MRI Scan: Lieke Marsman’s ‘The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes’

downloadLieke Marsman’s The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes (Pavilion Poetry/Liverpool University Press, 2019) is an unlikely little gem of a book about cancer, language, poetry, Dutch politics, philosophy, the environment, the art of translation and friendship – all bound together by a burning desire (in both original author and her translator, Sophie Collins) to advocate the virtues of empathy. The PBS have chosen it as their Summer 2019 Recommended Translation.

It’s Audre Lord who is the presiding spirit here, the woman with whom Marsman is in most frequent conversation. Lord’s The Cancer Journals (1985) recorded her response to the disease: a sharpened realisation – an underlining – of life’s transience and, consequently, a more acute sense of “act[ing] out of it”. She also refused to allow her response to the disease to “fossilise into yet another silence, nor to rob me of whatever strength can lie at the core of this experience”. Marsman (and her translator Sophie Collins) takes up this challenging baton to produce a busy, intelligent, funny, chatty and touching sequence of poems, an autobiographical essay and 10 concluding letters from Collins, the whole text responding to Marsman’s own diagnosis of chondrosarcoma at the age of 27.

download (1)The sort of silence Lord fears is evoked in the monitory opening poem. Its unusual, impersonal narration is acutely aware of the lure of sinking away into the “morphinesweet unreality of the everyday”, of the allure of self-imposed isolation (“unplugg[ing] your router”) in the face of the diagnosis of disease. What the voice advises is the recognition that freedom consists not in denial, in being free of pain or need, but in being able to recognise our needs and satisfy them: “to be able to get up and go outside”. It’s this continuing self-awareness and the drive to try to achieve it that Marsman hopes for and (happily) comes to embody. But it was never going to be easy and towards the end of the poem sequence, these needs are honed to the bone:

 

There is nothing I need to see

Except, again and again,

A new day with you

 

Marsman’s poems are usually very free in form, sparsely punctuated and (unlike the opening poem) give the impression of an intimate address by a sensitive, self-aware, curious and well-educated woman. This makes the moments of frank disclosure even more powerful: “I am just so scared of disappearing [. . .] I desperately need to hear / from other sufferers”. The vitality in the poems belies the exhaustion of the ill person who lacks the energy even to sort her recycling, who watches “Eurosport replays / of alpine skiing” all afternoon and for whom tying her own shoelaces becomes “the stuff of poetry!” Such rapid shifts of tone are important in conveying the resilience of the patient – more than that they suggest the true nature of the individual who is (this is Marsman’s point) more than a mere patient.

It’s this restless interest in the world that accumulates slowly to portray the individual and – against all the odds – makes this book such a pleasurable read. The poems are only partly about cancer or rather cancer is only part of what the poems are interested in. We hear fragments of conversations (‘Identity Politics Are a Fad, You Say’), then meditations on irrationality and evolution and luck. ‘Treats’ ends with thoughts about Wittgenstein’s ideas concerning language games (“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”) but ends with Marsman’s characteristic blend of intelligence, self-awareness, humour and pathos:

 

Whereof one cannot speak,

Thereof one forms silent gestures

Or bursts into tears.

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Lieke Marsman

Elsewhere, the individual’s interest is swept up into gender politics, multiculturalism, reality TV shows, upscale housing developments and the political hypocrisy of the Dutch state. In the autobiographical essay that follows the poems, Marsman explains: “I had to write about politics in order not to be totally subsumed by the cancer”. This also meant she was continuing to preoccupy herself with things that interested her before the diagnosis. It also had the effect of taking her out of herself (cancer, she says, “hurls you into yourself”). Such an interest in the multiplicity and variousness of the Other proves a beneficial way out of “a very lonely experience”.

This is the point about empathy made more systematically in the prose section which is pointedly titled ‘How Are You Feeling?’ In the final lines, Marsman puts it plainly: “What I do know is that the suffering of others is not something to be judged, ever, and that the right question to ask someone who is going through something difficult [. . .] is not ‘What’s in this for me?’ but ‘How are you feeling?’” This might seem to have the air of obviousness about it, but the preceding pages have documented depressing numbers of counter examples. The initial prose sections provide a pretty straight account of a young successful woman who sees the only likely danger for her as stress and “burn-out”. It makes her – and many of the medical practitioners she initially sees about a painful shoulder – fail to see there is a serious problem. On re-reading, I began to see this also as a failure of empathy, a failure to listen in to one’s own body. And there are certainly signs that Marsman (and Collins in her later letters) see the medical profession’s slow up-take as partly due to a lack of true empathy: “not only your age but your gender had an impact on the way you were perceived and treated”.

9780141187129Marsman tells us she read Audre Lord and Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor after her operation and discharge from hospital. It’s Sontag who draws attention to the role of language in the way patients themselves and other people respond to cancer. Marsman asks herself: “Am I experiencing this cancer as an Actual Hell [. . .] or because that is the common perception of cancer?” The implied failure to achieve truly empathetic perception of the role and nature of the disease is echoed horribly in the empathetic failures and hypocrisies of Dutch politicians (UK readers will find this stuff all too familiar in our own politics). Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, blithely allocates billions of euros to multinationals like Shell and Unilever (on no valid basis) while overseeing cuts in health services. Marsman reads this as a failure to empathise with the ill. Another politician, Klaas Dijkhoff, reduces benefits on the basis that people encountering “bad luck” need to get themselves back on their own two feet. Bad luck here includes illness, disability, being born into poverty or abusive families, being compelled to flee your own country. Marsman’s own encounter with such ‘bad luck’ makes her rage all the more incandescent.

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Sophie Collins

Marsman’s texts are about 35 pages long in this Pavilion Poetry edition. The remainder of the book consists of Sophie Collins’ letters. This might look like padding but the letters not only raise interesting points (particularly about the practice of translation) but are at one with Marsman’s pleas for a social fabric that enables “mutual, consensual and willing exchange[s]” between its citizens and its power structures. The epistolary form has this sort of open, empathetic exchange at its heart. In fact, the phrase I’ve just quoted is from Collins’ discussion of translation. She argues against the idea of ‘fidelity’ in translation because of the implied power relationship in such a word: “‘fidelity’; implies the presence of a primary source of power”. Traditionally, this would be located in the source text or source author; a power to which the (secondary) translator must defer. Collins wants to propose a more equal partnership, one she wants to call ‘intimacy’: “a mutual, consensual and willing exchange between two or more subjects without referencing (an) authority at all”.

Translation as an act of intimacy seems right to me, though it might appear easier to achieve this with a living source author than a dead one. But Collins really means “developing a sincere engagement with the source text, author and culture”, a ‘getting close’, so – quoting Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – the translator actually “speak[s] from inside”. This is a timely re-statement of a view of translation that, in these days where versioning and textual appropriation is so common, can be lost sight of. Collins goes even further here than the great Michael Hamburger, who was in the habit of saying the translator puts herself at the service of the source text. Collins sees the practical reality, that any translator herself is always going to be “fixed in a particular moment [. . .] will never, ever be a neutral entity” so however much we serve our source, the translator must always be bringing something of herself too: translation is an intimate engagement, a series of negotiations, an on-going drama of the most complex empathies.

Collins points out that this view of translation is one particularly fitting for the kind of work presented in this book. Marsman’s voice has the marvellous accessibility and liveliness of a conversation: “there is a deep intimacy in the way you seek to connect with your audience [. . .] the amount of credit you give your readers”. Her writing is both “accessible and smart”, says Collins, and this is just right. I might also add ‘uplifting’ – not only because Marsman’s personal prognosis looks good but because between them these two authors have produced a remarkable hybrid sort of book, grown from the astonishingly rich soil of empathetic response to others, expressive of a range of human intimacies as well as a variety of angers at the way individuals – and society – too easily succumb to blinkered self-interest and self-immuration.

Douglas Dunn’s ‘Terry Street’ and Thoughts of 1969

Recently, in my local Oxfam shop, I found a remarkably well-preserved hardback first edition of Douglas Dunn’s debut collection, Terry Street (Faber, 1969). Since living in a very similar street in Lancaster exactly 10 years after Dunn’s book was published (Aberdeen Road, up on the northwest-facing terraced streets above the town, looking out across Morecambe Bay to the – occasionally snow-capped – peaks of Cumbria), I’ve always had a soft spot for the book. But I hadn’t read it in years, I now realise.

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Aberdeen Road, Lancaster, in a recent photo

The particular copy I bought (for £2.50) still had the Poetry Book Society’s Bulletin in it as Terry Street was the PBS Choice for Autumn 1969. It printed a review by Julian Jebb of the PBS’s second Poetry International staged at the QEH, South Bank, in July 1969. Jebb praises the organisers for attending to the faults of the first such event (noted as an over-crowded audience and over-running readings by poets). WH Auden is there in the “blackest of spectacles”, reciting recent work from memory including ‘On the Circuit’ (1963) in which he satirises the lecture/reading round he has been treading in the USA: “so large / So friendly, and so rich”. He read precisely: “15 minutes and hardly a fluff”, reports Jebb.

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He was followed by “a ponchoed American poet, Robert Bly”. Jebb’s tone here will have been addressed to the original readership of his review (it appeared in The Financial Times) but it’s still an interesting period piece. Bly seems to have flailed his arms while reading “in tragic-comic, uncoordinated circles, strongly reminiscent of Peter Cook’s imitation of Macmillan in Beyond the Fringe”. Later he over-ran shockingly with 20 minutes of his “sloppy, deranged images about Vietnam”. This was delivered, Jebb tells us, to a growing slow hand-clap.

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A young-ish Robert Bly

Later in the evening, Edward Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, Ogden Nash, Miroslav Holub, Vasko Popa and Janos Pilinszky also read. Few details are given on these contributions unfortunately, but the experience of the latter three poets of the Second World War and Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century prompts Jebb to observe: “We have felt safer than these three men and we are grateful to them for their eloquence in telling us so”. Here is evidence that poetry was making very little happen when it came to the heavy lifting required to shift the entrenched sense of superiority and national egocentricity of the period.

So the review both evokes an earlier age of extraordinary poetry and also shows how far we have come. With Ted Hughes’ and Daniel Wiessbort’s founding of Modern Poetry in Translation in 1965. British poetry was just at this moment becoming exposed to worldwide influences (even if some were hardly listening). In this light, Douglas Dunn’s PBS Choice reads like the dying edge of the 1950s, of The Movement. The Terry Street poems themselves may be memorable evocations of working class life in Hull but what I notice now more than anything is Dunn’s obsessive use of the plural subject: young women, girls, the children, mothers, old men, the chatty women, men of Terry Street, old women, revellers, neighbours, street tarts, trawlermen, young women, the people who live here, men on bikes. These are versions of Larkin’s typological  “cut-price crowd” (‘Here’), the women in ‘Faith Healing’ and the fathers and mothers and newly married couples of ‘The Whitsun Weddings’. The difference is that Larkin would as often turn his acerbic gaze on himself. In Terry Street, Dunn makes the choice to keep himself out of the picture (behind glass) and there are hardly any delineated individuals in the book (though we all remember the man who wheels an optimistic lawnmower down Terry Street).

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Dunn viewed ‘these people’ through a window – “our window” says a self-lacerating, retrospective poem of mourning addressed to his late wife, Lesley (‘Envoi’ in 1981). While the belief that these people were a fit subject for poetry is admirable, many of the poems now read as patronising, still mired in the English class system (despite Dunn’s Scottishness). To that extent I disagree with Terry Eagleton who, in 1970, praised Dunn for being able to “transcend the two major pitfalls of poetry concerned with working people – bourgeois voyeurism or sympathetic mythification”. Dunn seems to me to fall foul of both of these.

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In the 1969 PBS Bulletin, the young Dunn himself wrote “Terry Street became for me a place of sad sanity . . . an alternative to the gaudy shams everywhere”. It was this sense of the real that Dunn needed (for himself) as a mature student in Hull, pursuing an English degree, and perhaps was a substitute for what he was already declaring: “Scotland is what I most want to write about and what I am least able to”. Later, Morrison and Motion’s 1982 Penguin anthology of contemporary British poets, pigeon-holed Dunn with Tony Harrison in being “sharply conscious of background and upbringing, which sets them at an angle to the cultural establishment”. But Dunn’s chosen strategy in the longer run was to acquire the ‘language’ of the poetic establishment in formal terms and try to speak up for those men and women of Terry Street (or their Scottish equivalent) rather than merely observe them from afar. ‘The Come-On’ appeared in Barbarians (1979):

Our level is the popular, the media,

  The sensational columns,

Unless we enter through a narrow gate

  In a wall they have built

To join them in the ‘disinterested tradition’

  Of tea, of couplets dipped

In sherry, and the decanted, portentous remark.

  Therefore, we will deafen them

With the dull staccato of our typewriters.

  But do not misbehave –

Threats and thrashings won’t work: we’re outnumbered.

Whatever piece it was Bly read that night in July 1969, the voice of the establishment regarded it as threats and thrashings and was too easily able to dismiss it.

How far have we come? Is it still the case that alternative poetic voices look to disguise themselves – whether with formal display like Dunn’s or with an obscuring erudition – to pass through the narrow gate into poetic acceptability? Or is it now that we anxiously seek out and fetishise what is different so poets and their publishers feel the need to define and confine work with USPs like race, gender, sexual orientation, locality, even disease – whole books focused on life events that begin to sound like the prose genre known as ‘misery memoirs’? Do poets actually articulate this to themselves: in my Creative Writing graduation ceremony, how do I ensure I stand out?