CancerLand Bookshelf: Sound Travels on Water

Alysa Cummings
Alysa Cummings

Author: Kyle Potvin
Publisher: Finishing Line Press, 2012 | $14.00 US
Information: ISBN: 9781622291380

Sound Travels on Water

Serendipity: that’s the word that immediately comes to mind when I think about how I happened to connect with Kyle Potvin’s delightful chapbook, Sound Travels on Water.

Last week I was hungry for a new book to add to the CancerLand Bookshelf and began searching through Amazon and scanning the shelves at the local Barnes & Noble for something special to read and review. And that’s when I received an email from a woman in my writing group. Did you catch that great cancer poetry article in the New York Times? Helen asked. No, I didn’t, I replied. Would you please share the link? Yes, she could, and in the blink of an eye it seemed, she did. I began clicking, scrolling and reading; three paragraphs later, I found myself deeply moved by the words filling my computer screen.

What can I say? Cancer poetry just has that effect on me, especially when it’s written by a fellow breast cancer survivor.

The New York Times piece, Finding Poetry in Cancer, written by Tara Parker-Pope, opened with an excerpt from Sound Travels on Water, specifically lines from Kyle Potvin’s poem, Chemo. The poem describes a moment that many cancer survivors can no doubt relate to. That is, stepping up to the challenge of beginning treatment, despite knowing full well that the side effects will be unpleasant and the experience itself life changing. What a credit to the poet’s skills that in one short page filled with little more than thirty lines of text, Potvin is able to vividly capture the feelings of masking and managing fear of the unknown (After the diagnosis,/I was stoic,/cold,/unfeeling,/I spoke dispassionately/of biopsies,). Followed by ultimately facing up to one of her worst fears and allowing herself to be intensely present with those painful feelings as treatment begins:

How I feared chemo, afraid/it would change me./It did./Something dissolved inside me./Tears began a slow drip:

Potvin’s chapbook is inviting, filled with poems whose titles sometimes announce their focus on the cancer experience (Tumor, The New Normal). But other poems have titles that have nothing to do with oncology (Mise en Place, Chayote Fruit, Last Bite). A poem ostensibly about riding a bicycle with her son, on closer examination describes the poet’s feelings of focusing her energies on the latest challenge (‘Push, Mommy, Push,’) related to cancer treatment. For me, that was part of the real joy of reading and re-reading this wonderful collection of twenty three poems: looking for multiple levels of meaning, enjoying the writer’s skillful use of simile and metaphor. Ultimately, admiring her poetic form; especially her sonnets.

Potvin’s sonnets are beautifully structured poems that celebrate hair slowly reappearing on a head recently bald from chemo (He crowds his brother as they check for growth-/The way I’ve searched my hairless head since fall.) as well as her cancer-survivor-as-superhero fantasy (I don designer Superhero capes,/black patent heels, lipstick the shade of need/and in one bound I leap to cityscapes/).

During my own cancer treatment, I began experimenting with sonnet form using personal cancer journal entries as a starting point. I transformed my sentences into lines of ten beats each, counting out the syllables, tapping my fingers on the desktop until my poem was fourteen lines long. I cared less about the requirements of an abab rhyme scheme and more about feelings and the flow of the words. I didn’t have the right to call what I created a “real sonnet” since I wasn’t following all of the “rules” of the form, so I thought of them as “almost sonnets” or “10 by 14s” (ten beats to the line, fourteen lines total). For some reason, this ritual of transforming my journal entries – descriptions of surgeries or physical changes or medical appointments – by “pouring” them into “almost sonnet” containers felt calming and healing.

The final poem in the collection, Last Bite, resonates loudly and in the best possible way, long after I close Kyle Potvin’s chapbook. She writes about food – strawberries and cream, a French baguette, a chocolate bar filled with caramel: all delicious treats to taste. But this is more than a poem describing the author’s guilty pleasures; it’s a statement of intent, a declaration of how she will integrate cancer into her life moving forward. The last stanza makes that perfectly clear to the reader:

I can handle the bitter,
The sweet, the salty, the sour.
I’ll take what you bring
And devour each bite.

I feel so grateful that I can now add Kyle Potvin’s chapbook to my CancerLand Bookshelf. With her kind permission, I will share poems from Sound Travels on Water with my fellow writers and breast cancer survivors at the next meeting of our writing group.

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