She punches ruthlessly—like the women at the gym
who’ve taken kickboxing,
but there’s something different, so I ask who she’s hitting,
and she says “Cancer,” and I wish I knew how to fight
because when I first heard the word in relation to myself,
I thought God, at last a rest, and pictured a few months of time alone
to think and read and sleep in,
perhaps so long that I would feel ready to again take on the burden
of this world that has become so heavy in so short a time
that I don’t know why people fight back to carry it even longer—
except there’s still a lot I want, things that may seem silly.
Climb Mt. Brown (elevation 7487 ft) though it’s just a hill
to people who’ve climbed Everest or Kangto or Antofalla, because I’m
I made it only halfway, a testament to my lack of discipline—just like
my meager writings which I held next to my Complete Works of
who died only one year older than I when my diagnosis came from
This all seems panicked, looking back a year later,
but now, all tests negative, there’s the bleeding
again, appointment three days away, and my head feels as light
as the balloon I let go in Mrs. Chamberlain’s kindergarten class
with my name and address tied to the string
so that someone would write back to tell me how far it went—
maybe to Ohio or Kentucky, depending on the speed
and direction of the wind.
And though the test seems so close, there’s so much
blood I wonder if, like that balloon, I’ll lose my grounding,
float away like that red speck—smaller, smaller, gone.
Reprinted from After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events by permission of Shaindel Beers. Also appeared in Ms. Beers’ collection A Brief History of Time. Copyright 2009 by Shaindel Beers
Interview with Shaindel Beers
How did you come to write this poem?
This is one of those poems that had a pretty straightforward genesis. I really did work as a fitness instructor at the time of writing this poem, and a woman at the gym I worked at, during the cardio portion of her circuit training, was just wailing punches, and when I asked who she was punching, she said, “Cancer.” From there, it’s pretty much stream of consciousness.
How did writing this poem affect your recovery?
I think it really helped me accept that different people have different attitudes. Some people are fighters. I guess, in a strange way, I was sort of relieved to have something wrong with me because I thought I would get to rest. I was teaching adjunct at two colleges, working as a fitness instructor at two gyms, and tutoring at one of the colleges when I was diagnosed with pre-cervical cancer and uterine fibroids. I didn’t really get to rest. I scheduled my medical procedures after finals so I could finish my grading, and I was able to return to work as a fitness instructor (although with a little discomfort) after three days.
It did put into perspective things that I had left undone – time spent in nature and more writing that I wanted to do.
A lot of time has passed since writing this poem. At least ten years. I’ve done a lot more writing since then – my first book, A Brief History of Time, which came out in 2009 and then my second poetry collection, The Children’s War and Other Poems, will be out in February. And my life has changed completely. I’m with a different partner; I have a child, etc. It’s probably good I didn’t “just die” at twenty-five.
Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped this poem come to life?
At the time I wrote this, I was studying with Richard Jackson and was very interested in associative poetry – stream of consciousness, leaping from image to image. I still love poetry that works that way. I went from the woman at the gym and her experience with cancer to my experience with cancer and the things I still wanted to do. Then, I went from blood and always seeing blood to the red balloon I released in kindergarten at our balloon launch. (I also thought of the 1956 film The Red Balloon, which we would watch in the gym at school for one of our big parties when I was a young elementary school student.)
The condition I had included lots of bleeding and being light-headed, so I did feel like my head was a helium balloon, and I felt “floaty” a lot of the time. And always “light” – like I might just disappear.
Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you'd recommend to others?
Richard Jackson was a huge influence on my work as far as poets I personally worked with as a student. I consider Anne Sexton and Eavan Boland my feminist forbearers, in a sense. There are so many great poets out there now, and I find a lot of them by being an editor and publishing them. Poets I’ve published fairly recently whose work I want to find more of and encourage others to find more of are Temple Cone, Anne Barngrover, Ronda Broatch, Hannah Stephenson, Karina Borowicz, Amy Groshek, and Rebecca Lehmann.
What are you working on now?
My second collection, The Children's War and Other Poems, will be released February 15th from Salt Publishing. It is a collection that opens with ekphrastic poetry based on the artwork of child survivors of war. These poems act as a survival guide, showing that hope exists even in the darkest of places and that perhaps poetry is the key to our healing. The second half of the collection explores war at home and the war within ourselves. I am running a promotion between now and February 15th, that for every 50 "Likes" on my Facebook author page, I will give away a signed copy. All you have to do to be entered in the drawing is "Like" this page: Shaindel’s Facebook page
Shaindel Beers lives in Pendleton, Oregon, with her partner Jared and their son Liam. The Children’s War and Other Poems, her second poetry collection, is forthcoming from Salt Publishing in February 2013. Her first poetry collection, A Brief History of Time, was published in 2009. She serves as Poetry Editor of Contrary Magazine Contrary Magazine. Find her online at Shaindel’s web page.