During medical school, I had Nowlan, a New Brunswick poet who developed thyroid cancer at the age of thirty-three, as my major tutor in pain. Before he was diagnosed and eventually underwent three major surgeries, he wrote a poetry of fine lyric, a mainly descriptive poetry that stuck to stanza. But after his cancer, his style exploded: he started to write about himself, about his own impressions and feelings, about his own frailties and how they manifested themselves in others and, most importantly, about his own life-threatening illness.
“The Boil” is typical of the kind of poem Nowlan wrote in what I call his middle period; perhaps enamoured of William Carlos Williams’ variable foot, with great attention paid to breath. There is great attention paid to typography, meant to simulate the rolling of a boil–“prying it”–between one’s fingers, and the gasps as one does so. The words “master” and “servant”, though, have pride of place, occupying a line each. Nowlan’s poem provides a benign optimism: that the patient can understand her illness for what it is, and thereby steal its mastery. Nowlan’s poem describes how one can literally take a problem between one’s fingers and exchange servitude for perhaps not mastery (for the boil, though pierced, may form again, and it always levies pain), but at least a measure of control. And good poems are controlled performances…
(How Poems Work, May 2004)
The late Alden Nowlan was a cancer survivor who wrote a significant body
of work devoted to his illness and treatment. “In The Operating Room”
is such a poem. It begins strongly, starting off with a man’s voice. The opening
song is appropriate to the occasion, for the autobiographical “I”
of this poem is about to be shunted off by the ritualistic acts of the anesthetist
(positioning the patient on the OR table, starting intravenous medication,
etc.) into the nether-realm of the general anesthetic. These first few lines
are packed further with meaning: “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore”
is an old slave song that used to be sung by American blacks rowing their
masters’ goods across Virginia’s rivers. The song form–a hymn–is
apropos to the poet’s funereal circumstance of general anesthesia, a state
one remove from death. The occasion of the song is also apt in that the anesthetist
will be ferrying the poet from the waking world into unconsciousness.