Sep. 23, 2004

Breast Cancer

by Ann Iverson

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Poems: "Breast Cancer" by Ann Iverson, from Come Now to the Window Laurel Poetry Collective. Reprinted with permission.

Breast Cancer

One time while painting in an unventilated space
my husband said, "Ann, breasts absorb everything,
every toxic fume and chemical there is."


I began to think of all the breasts in the world:
upright and alert in uncomfortable under-wire bras
or maybe weary and hanging with no support at all
vulnerable and innocent breasts.
Albino, cream chocolate, mint, bruised, bitten,
tangled, tired, silicone, yellow,
happy east and west.


Canine mammary cancer spreads identically
as it does in a woman:
Lump, lymph nodes, lung, back, brain.
The very obedient dog began to wet the carpet
about a year after the malignancy was removed.
That night after supper her legs gave out
and the cat came to touch noses.
The collar and tags are what they gave me.
My mom just loved that dog.


I have four sisters, which makes this fear tenfold.
For goodness sake, Mother,
you settle in my heart like a house at night.
The slowest creaking in memory sinking deep into the earth:
I am four, you bathe.
I peek through the keyhole.
I hear singing from the tub,
your brassiere hanging from the doorknob.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the day that Greeks celebrate the birthday of the tragic poet Euripides, who tradition says was born near Athens in 480 B.C. Of the three poets of Greek tragedy whose plays survive, Euripides' plays survive in the greatest number. He probably wrote 92 plays that ancient people knew of, but only nineteen of them have been preserved.

Not much is known about his life except that when he was about twenty, he began submitting his tragedies to tragedy competitions. He came in third place with his first play, and he only came in first place four times that we know of, compared to Sophocles, who won first place more than twenty times in his life.

Of the three tragedians, Euripides portrayed the gods as much more petty and uncaring, and he made his characters more human, flawed and fully rounded. He was also one of the first writers to treat women as major characters in his plays. He's best known for tragedies such as Medea (431 B.C.), about a woman who murders her own sons to get back at the husband who left her.

In his time, he was known as a reclusive man who spent much of his time sitting and writing in a cave. In 1997, archaeologists discovered what they believed to be that very cave. Inside it they found a clay pot from the late fifth century B.C. inscribed with the first six letters of Euripides' name. The pot was about 300 years older than the inscription, so they assumed it was written by one of Euripides' fans who had visited the place where he did his writing.

Euripides apparently died at an early age, and there are different stories about the cause of his death. He was either accidentally torn apart by a pack of hunting dogs, or purposefully torn apart by a pack of women. When the word of his death reached Athens, the other great tragedian of the time, Sophocles, wore robes of mourning in the streets.

After his death, he became the most popular and widely performed of the tragic poets in the Greek-speaking world. Ten of his plays were selected and copied over and over for use in Greek schools.

The only reason we have another nine of his plays is that a single fragment of his collected works survived. The collected plays were arranged in alphabetical order, and the nine plays that survived are those from the Greek letters epsilon through kappa.

On this day in 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned from their westward expedition after over two years and 8,000 miles. Most people had given them up for dead, and when they came into St. Louis on the Mississippi River, the whole town crowded along the shore to greet them with cheers, gunfire salutes, and ringing bells. Their report of what they discovered filled Americans with excitement about the West, and launched a flood of expansion across the newly purchased Louisiana Territory.

It's the birthday of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, born in Hamlet, North Carolina (1926). He played the tenor saxophone because he believed Charlie Parker had exhausted the possibilities of the alto saxophone. He got his big break when Miles Davis hired him in the mid-1950's, and he played on Davis's masterpiece Kind of Blue (1959).

In the 1960's he began to experiment with an abstract style that was described as "sheets of sound." In his live performances, he became known for his wild, extended improvisations on the melody of the Rogers and Hammerstein song "My Favorite Things." As his style grew wilder and wilder, critics began to say that he had lost any sense of melody, that he was too angry, too abrasive. Coltrane said, "Maybe [my music] sounds angry because I'm trying so many things at one time...I haven't sorted them out.

He had spent most of his life addicted to heroin, but just two years before he died he finally kicked the habit and got religion. He wrote and recorded the album A Love Supreme (1964) as a way of expressing his new faith in God, and that album is now generally considered his masterpiece.

There is a church in San Francisco called The Church of John Coltrane where A Love Supreme is played at every mass. Coltrane said, "You can play a shoestring if you're sincere."

And it's the birthday of singer Ray Charles, born Ray Charles Robinson in Albany, Georgia (1930). He dropped the Robinson so he wouldn't be confused with the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. Ray Charles came along just a few years after John Coltrane, but he played a different kind of music. They called him the "Father of Soul."

He first got national attention in the mid-1950s with his performance of "I Got A Woman," which fused rhythm and blues, gospel, and jazz. His album The Genius Hits the Road (1960) was full of songs featuring place names, including "Georgia on My Mind," which won him a Grammy in 1960. He died this year.

Ray Charles said, "Affluence separates people. Poverty knits 'em together. You got some sugar and I don't; I borrow some of yours. Next month you might not have any flour; well, I'll give you some of mine."

It's the birthday of singer and songwriter Bruce Springsteen, born in Freehold, New Jersey (1949). He was a working class kid, his father taking odd jobs, his mother working as a secretary to support the family. He didn't do well in school and said, and people thought he was weird because he didn't seem to have any ambition for anything. Then one day, he saw Elvis Presley perform on TV and that inspired him to scrape together eighteen dollars to buy a battered second hand guitar. By the time he was fourteen, he was playing in local bands on the bar circuit.

Springsteen was the leader of a series of hard rock bands with names like the Rogues, the Castiles, the Steel Mill, and Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom. He played at private parties, firemen's balls, trailer parks, prisons, state mental hospitals, a rollerdrome, and even a shopping center parking lot. His first album was Greetings from Asbury Park (1973).

By 1976, Springsteen had become the most promising rock star of his generation. That year, after a concert in Memphis, he made a midnight pilgrimage out to Graceland, where Elvis still lived. When he found the front gates locked, he decided to hop the fence. Security guards grabbed him and escorted him from the property, but he shouted that he was Bruce Springsteen, he was on the cover of Time and the cover of Newsweek and his album was in the Top Ten! Elvis didn't hear him. He never did get to see the King, but within ten years he became the biggest American rock star since Elvis, writing songs about cops, fire fighters, soldiers, road builders, steelworkers, factory laborers and migrant workers.

Springsteen's 1984 album Born in the USA became the best-selling album in Columbia Records history. His most recent album is The Rising (2002), about the aftermath of September 11th.

Bruce Springsteen said, "I want to do everything. I want to see everything. I want to go everywhere. I know what kind of situation it is. Inside, I got everything straight."

He said, "If I have a good trait, it's probably relentlessness, I'm a hound dog on the prowl. I can't be shook!"

It's the birthday of William Holmes McGuffey, born near Claysville, Pennsylvania (1800). He wrote his series of Peerless Pioneer Readers (1836), or "McGuffey's Readers," as they were called, for isolated pioneer families and the children of immigrants who couldn't speak English. They became standard texts in almost every state for fifty years, and sold over 125 million copies. McGuffey only made a thousand dollars for the whole series.

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