Sweet World by Maureen Seaton
CavanKerry Press, 2019. 88 pages.
Reviewed by DM O’Connor
Eating fish with hidden lesions
and missing eyes. Your bra could, your abortion, your
implants. Your genes could be responsible. Ask yourself:
How long do I want to live? How can I do things
differently? What am I doing wrong?
“Two Men Walking on a Breast”
Or things that might give you cancer
Having lost a brother and a best friend to the c-word over that last year, reading a collection about cancer on a glorious spring day in the park feels like the antidote to healthy mourning. Yet like a blues tune, when you sing the blues, the blues go away, and Maureen Seaton’s poems about confronting and surviving breast cancer have alleviated some of aspects of loss. When cancer takes someone, there is a hole that nothing can fill.
Told with gallows humor and a nod to the Beats, Sweet World is a farewell lament to a breast removed by mastectomy. A series of poems entitled, “Tit, with Shelf Life,” “Tit, with Cannabis,” and “Tit, with Foreplay,” all show a wry and brave poke at illness. The “tit” is a globe, a sloth, a rogue wave, a bell tower, a freight train, a missing eye. The severity of treatment is punctured with a wise-crack: “That’s my kind of chemo, someone says. (not me, of course.)/(But if it were me, so what?) I’m colder than a witch’s tit/” Yet, like a seasoned performer, Seaton reels in and warms up the reader with laughter, before unleashing passionate arias full of life. In “Tit, with Blue Guitar,” the wit turns lyric:
Now some say
she’s harmoniously flawed. As if a left tit in the trough
means she’s a has-been musician who can’t strap a guitar
across her ribs or peak or squeaky sweet soprano highs
like she used to, rising up and up to the zone where
nothing matters but God and the moment, all music
and imagining, sex and oscillation, right tit soloing a riff
The narrator drives from Florida to Colorado, stopping in motels when snowstorms descend, faces treatment, remembers past loves, and meditates on quotidian events that take metaphoric proportions when facing the ultimate truth, our inevitable death. In “Summer Theatre” cancer is turned into a character:
Cancer, played by Anonymous, stage whispers to a rapt audience:
Quick, before she rewinds her circadian clock.
Ha ha, I proclaim, pleased to be played by anyone by myself.
I can’t tell if I’m really laughing, but I assume I am, much like I
assume there will be snow on Longs Peak at summer’s end. (An aside.)
Nox, umbra, obscurum, vitae. (Someone says.)
Seaton is describing those tragic giggles that come in those unfathomable moments of diagnosis, loss, before that phone call in the middle of the night. With nerve and audacity, these poems explore the cancer battle. Those nights before the removal of hopefully the final tumor, and the film Harold and Maude comes on the TV and suddenly the world makes sense because “either way, any movie/ with someone dancing on a cliff is worth watching again.”
Sweet World, the 13th title of CavanKerry’s Literature of Illness imprint, confronts the physical and psychological with mettle and heroism. There are moments of great alienation, hope, denial, pain, love, and struggle. The eponymous poem ends beautifully:
I never thought to call the world sweet before.
Surviving something can do that, make things taste different.
Suddenly you’re a hero/ine. All this devastation—-
and you’re still standing in the middle of it.
My only wish is that I could have read these poems aloud to my lion-hearted friends and family who didn’t win the battle. Regardless, discussion and witness are essential to proper grieving. Maureen Seaton and CavanKerry Press are producing difficult and excellent work.
DAVID MORGAN O'CONNOR is from a small Canadian village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he's based in Albuquerque, where stories and poems progress daily. His writing has appeared in more than 50 print or online publications. He reviews, interviews and blogs monthly.