Cancer’s a thief. It’s not a stealthy one, though. In most cases, it doesn’t sneak in and out of a window while the owners of the house snore in their beds. It’s more like a robber with an extreme taste for vandalism — it robs you of loved ones and leaves wreckage behind.

Still, many artists have put a brave face on this condition (I’m sure there’s a more substantial post here somewhere … for another time). I’m reminded of a beautiful beautiful beautiful poem (it’s clear that I think it’s beautiful, right?) by Stanley Plumly, “Cancer,” that mythologizes it:

Mine, I know, started at a distance
five hundred and twenty light-years away
and fell as stardust into my sleeping mouth,
yesterday, at birth, or that time when I was ten
lying on my back looking up at the cluster
called the Beehive or by its other name
in the constellation Cancer,
the Crab…

The poem is found in “Orphan Hours: Poems,” published by W.W. Norton & Company. At $25.95 it’s a steal — worth every penny.

Iain Banks in 2005 (credit: Szymon Sokol)
Iain Banks in 2005 (credit: Szymon Sokol)

And, at the other end of that noble spectrum, there’s Scottish novelist Iain Banks, who just announced a terminal diagnosis of gall bladder cancer on his website. The Guardian provides the full story.

Where Plumly is glorious and epic, Banks resorts to the type of black humor you find everywhere in his work, from his mysteries to his sci-fi Culture novels. What’s the sentence in his unhappy announcement that knocked me over and then out? This one:

“I’ve withdrawn from all planned public engagements and I’ve asked my partner Adele if she will do me the honour of becoming my widow (sorry — but we find ghoulish humour helps)”.

I truly admire that voice. I’m sure there’s fear and terror behind it, but it’s still extraordinary to me that anyone receiving such serious news could muster the energy to make their readers smile a little in spite of it all. (I wish I could have carried such an attitude when my own loved ones suffered from it.)

The Guardian article does much more than announce this news, however. It also gives readers a taste of what Banks’ work is all about (something else beautiful and strange? Banks’ novel “The Wasp Factory”) and an opportunity to read him while we still have the pleasure of including him in our company.


  1. Such sad, and terrifying, news. My husband, following a rec from a friend, has just finished several of Banks’ sci-fi books. He enjoyed them immensely, but he hasn’t read The Wasp Factory. I’ll have to get it for him.

    The excerpt from Plumly’s poem is lovely. My local bookstore loves you because they always see my face after reading one of your reviews. 🙂

  2. Hi Jilanne — if we lived in the same town, I’d definitely let you have my copies on an indefinite, longterm loan! (although I think it’s absolutely right to support our local stores)

    By the way, if your friend Michael would be willing to do a short Q & A with me about his “Strutting” chapbook, please pass along my email to him. I’ve been dipping into his book over the past few weeks and it’s magical. I’d love to talk to him about it.

    Now I’m heading over to your site to read about “Demonologist”!

  3. Fabuloso, Nick! I’ll let Michael know ASAP! Hope you like my take on The Demonologist. And no worries about my book expenses. I don’t spend money anywhere else. 🙂

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