CancerLand Bookshelf : Loosen

Author: Kyle Potvin
ISBN: 9781939449078
Information: Hobblebush Books, 2021 $18.00 US
Oncolink Rating ⭐️⭐️⭐️ (3/3)

Flattered. That’s the best word to describe how I felt last week after I clicked on an email from OncoLink and read a forwarded invitation from Kyle Potvin to review her new book of poetry. Incredibly flattered actually, since I had only ever virtually connected with Kyle and that was way back when in 2013 when I wrote a review of her poetry chapbook Sound Travels on Water. How nice to be remembered, I thought to myself, even if we have never met in real life. Immediately I agreed to add Loosen to The CancerLand Bookshelf and eagerly awaited the book’s arrival.

Loosen landed in my mailbox yesterday afternoon on one of the hottest days of the summer to date. After grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge, I headed outside with the book, finally stretching out comfortably on a chaise lounge in the backyard under a shady tree. Then I did what I always do when reading a book of poetry for the first time; I began to turn down the corners of pages featuring those pieces that immediately “spoke” to me, the poems that would no doubt quickly become my favorites. When I reached the last page of Loosen, I immediately saw just how many upper right-hand page corners were dog-eared and had to smile. Then I flipped back to the beginning and read through all 44 of the poems again…

Loosen is structured in five parts, each section introduced by a short stanza. Each of these short pieces paints a different word picture related to the title of the book. Loosen. Such an evocative choice for a poetry collection title since the word resonates loudly on so many levels. “Loosen” suggests multiple interpretations. Just consider some synonyms: relax, lessen, moderate, untangle, untie, diminish, soften, alleviate, ease, let go. Then think about some of the alternatives: A knot in a necklace can be loosened. A group of tight muscles can be massaged and loosened up for pain relief. Knots are often made with rope and are so unique they each have a special name to identify them (“Reef Knot/Sheet Bend/Clove Hitch/Bow Line”). Other knots could actually be surgical sutures that at some point in time dissolve as the body heals. Ultimately, these introductory stanzas merge to become the last poem in the collection titled, “Loosen.” With this technique, the poet skillfully deconstructs her tapestry and then weaves it back together again to underscore her overarching message about healing and ultimately living with grace in the face of trauma.

Whether that trauma is a cancer “Diagnosis” (“you know the truth, the blank walls taunt,/x-rays, sound waves, words dripping like drugs./Will those sustain me?” ) or “Going Under” during a chemo infusion (“they hooked me up and dripped a drug/into my vein that took me to a world/where everything was gone: no light, no sound,”), Kyle’s poems speak to difficult moments in the cancer treatment journey. Her writing describes vivid examples of cancer treatment discomforts like, “poison-plumped veins/white sores in the mouth/cold fog in the brain/then the burn of the beam/for thirty-three days.” While she is “Waiting for Results,” she reflects on her fellow breast cancer survivors (“I am Jane. I am Ellen. I am Julia…”) How many countless numbers of us are collectively waiting tensely to learn the results of our latest bloodwork or scan? What a shared, painful experience. Ultimately, being a cancer patient takes its toll on both the body and the spirit. Kyle captures that feeling in the poem, “God Looks Down at 3 A.M.,” when she writes, “I see you are tired.  Me too.  Exhausted.”

It’s not at all surprising to me that after reading through Loosen a second time, that famous quote of Samuel Beckett’s came to mind: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” To which I answer with this simple question, “how is that possible?” How do cancer patients move on from treatment?

In the fourth section of her collection, with the poem, “Do You Know Pain?” Kyle Potvin offers cancer survivors this practical advice: “…return to this earth/forgetting it happened/the aching and bruising/the bleeding and writhing/for the scarring is healing/the hurting subsiding.” Perhaps the best way to get through treatment for cancer is to ultimately let go of the experience, in essence “loosen” your tight hold on what was terrible and horrible and focus on healing instead. One day, before long, you will become aware of a “New Normal.” In this poem, the writer searches her scalp, now bald from chemotherapy and suddenly, “soft spikes appear.” Such a thrilling moment for any cancer survivor when hair begins to grow back! It is a tangible sign that treatment is finally in the rear view mirror and a new kind of life is looming with possibility on the horizon in the near distance.

Apply some of the writer’s ideas to your life post-treatment and maybe, just maybe, you too can hit “the lights just right/as you cruise down Second Avenue/in and out of cars with the precision of a cabbie/” as she relates in her poem “Catching the Green.” Kyle Potvin describes that magic known as “flow,” using the metaphor of driving a car smoothly through Manhattan traffic, with every traffic light turning from red to green on the avenue as you approach, urging you forward without delay. Can healing feel that way? Yes, please…

Loosen is a rich poetry reading experience, especially for a breast cancer survivor. Kyle’s personal encounters as a cancer patient are deeply embedded in her writing, so much so that survivors can’t help but be reminded of their own days in treatment. To me, this amounts to the best sort of “poetry therapy,” that powerful “you’re-not-alone” feeling as shared experience shimmers on the page.

About the author: Alysa Cummings is a certified poetry therapist who focuses her energies full-time in support of cancer survivors using writing as a tool for healing. In the years since her own treatment ended, Alysa founded the support group Pink Ribbon Poetry (2002-2009) and led Writing the Journey workshops for Living Beyond Breast Cancer. She is the Oncolink Poet-in-Residence, publishing book/media reviews, poetry projects, photographs, and memoir pieces online. Her first book, Greetings from CancerLand: Writing the Journey to Recovery was published in 2012.

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