Our Cancers: Poems

Dan O’Brien. Acre Books, 2021. 94 pages. $15.43.

Our Cancers cover image

By Indira Ganesan

The title of this new volume of poems by playwright Dan O’Brien (ΦBK, Middlebury College), is heartbreaking. Our Cancers is an account of the illnesses suffered by both by O’Brien, and his wife, Jessica. In an especially harrowing twist of fate, O’Brien discovers he has colon cancer on the very day his wife receives her final treatment of chemotherapy. His wife discovers a lump on her breast (“can you feel / my breast O / no O no) fourteen years after their apartment fills with dust from the fall of the towers on 9/11. Written in tercets, three-line stanzas, the poems are themselves terse, economical descriptions of the couple’s lives as they fall in love, as they dream, and raise their child.  

The poems are not easy to read, despite their simple structure. They are an attempt to contain and explain unimaginable tragedy, but a set of tragedies that is deeply personal. The reader is called to witness, to hold the sorrow, to understand. Fifty poems are given to the first tragedy, and oddly mirroring it, the twin tragedy is set forth in the next fifty, with one extra. Both partners survive, as does the child, who has the last word. There is a moment where the reader might catch her breath, when after telling us that “Every day / I must make / my pilgrimage / to San Vincente / in the cool of / the Canary / Island pines” the poet asks, “Have you seen / my crabbed gait”—it is a startling moment, because all of us have, at one time or another, seen someone unfortunate hobble down the street in the aftermath of a fall or an illness. We might wince, look away, or we might gaze and offer a hand. I think that is O’Brien’s message for his readers: anyone one of us can be so afflicted at any time in our lives. Our Cancers then becomes universal, a quiet warning. 

Novelist Indira Ganesan was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at Vassar College. Her books include The Journey (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), Inheritance (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) and As Sweet As Honey (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).