Walking Toward Cranes
Glass Lyre Press
Reviewer: Ann Wehrman
Cancer. The word strikes fear, anger, and grief into one’s mind and heart. Despite 21st century medical wizardry—including stem cell therapies, bionic body parts, and quick and easy outpatient surgeries—cancer remains a dreaded killer. “According to estimates from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in 2012 there were 14.1 million new cancer cases and 8.2 million cancer deaths worldwide. By 2030, the global burden is expected to grow to 21.7 million new cancer cases and 13 million cancer deaths simply due to the growth and aging of the population” (“Global Cancer Facts and Figures,” 2018, para. 1). These are figures, statistics, science, shocking but impersonal; the reality of cancer is its enormous physical and emotional toll taken on the person fighting, and too often, dying from the disease, and on beloved family and friends.
In her collection, Walking Toward Cranes, for which Amy Small-McKinney won the 2016 Kithara Prize, the poet documents and shares her experience battling breast cancer, with which she was diagnosed in 2013. The deeply personal poems, organized in three sections: “Treatment,” “The Healing,” and “Walking Toward Cranes,” communicate Small-McKinney’s experience on multiple levels: physical/emotional, inner/outer, and personal/social. Grounded in illuminated, complex vocabulary and tactile, sensory images, each poem is a unique vignette, like a tiny work of shadowbox art or a snapshot from one vantage point. Taken together, they create a mosaic or stained-glass collage that records and shares the speaker’s experience.
In section one, “Treatment,” the speaker expresses her feelings, physical and emotional, at discovering—and acknowledging—the cancer, as well as living with it. From “An Apple, Cut”:
Empty space is fine, I mean valuable.
A stranger has entered my home, refuses to leave.
He dared to unlock the door, let himself in.
You know by now this is metaphor.
I don’t know what else to say
about waiting to be carved into, emptied out, stitched.
These breasts fed my child for almost two years.
I am more than food.
The words drip pain and emotion. The title deceives as it foretells, allowing the reader to imagine healthy breasts round like apples, devotedly providing nourishing milk for the child. The breasts are cut, though, and the speaker cries out, asserting her own life, “I am more than food,” responding to the horror of the deadly disease, fighting for her own value and integrity as an individual, as more than beautifully curving breasts that may bring pleasure when viewed or caressed, more than one who fulfills a social role, a mother who feeds a child.
Simple objects and descriptions from daily life illuminate as metaphors in “Being Something Else, #2”, from section two, “The Healing”:
Fruit carried to our daughter.
When brown with pointlessness,
they are rich with tumor necrosis factors.
We move along the same track.
Morning glory thickets beside the train,
their mouths opened, it is early.
I want to sing.
Yes, We Have No Bananas?
No, not that, you sang her to sleep.
A song about us, your legs
awake and wrapped over mine.
I won’t leave you, I promise.
The speaker’s shocking contrast of an overripe banana with a protein that cancer researchers call a “double-edged sword that could be either pro- or anti-tumorigenic” (Wang & Lin, 2008, para.2) leads the reader first to feeling the speaker’s blurted frustration and disgust at the disease, but then to moving on, with hopeful images, morning glories and morning song, the beloved child, legs entangled in love—reasons to live.
Small-McKinney’s poems do more than record or comment on daily life with cancer; they take flight on the wings of her unrestricted, vibrant imagination, communicating her experience and battle through variegated lenses, often partially or completely removed from three dimensional references, written in the music of shifting metaphor, dancing over the stones that span a sea of possible meanings, stopping and turning to tell her story through allusion. In the title poem, which also begins the third and final section of the same name, “Walking Toward Cranes,” Small-McKinney’s artistry interweaves poignancy with beauty, uplifted and motivated by a spirit that fights to live:
The crane reaches to a red wood railing.
What is he doing? Nothing below him
but Ten Thousand Villages, wooden benches,
the sun a slap, everything else quiet.
Inside I know there are sequins sewn on fabric,
on paper lamps, fish swim toward an ocean.
The crane turns out to be useless.
The operator inches his way down,
the window ledge will have to wait.
Later, I notice it’s gone, the balcony gone,
four iron S’s left with nothing to secure, nothing to protect.
Long-necked iron lamps
bend to the door I enter: this is the world.
Blue green glass from the West Bank, mindful pillows
with strips of satin leading to its ocean of a button,
an anchor for stitched branches, songbirds from India.
I want to travel, probably won’t.
I want to walk into a village where a woman weaves yarn,
squat beside her, not condescending,
not sentimental, but because I am lost.
The speaker flies and strives, touching on the world’s beauty and pushing past limits, but winds down, in the end, still shining with bravura, but edging toward hopelessness, “lost.”
Though readers who have fought cancer personally or supported a loved one who battled the disease will immediately and deeply relate to these poems, the work also stands universally, as sensitive, perceptive, and lyrical commentary on illness and healing, modern daily life, individual and social values, nature, love, and life and death. “I didn’t want the subject of cancer to move people more than the poem. I didn’t want to manipulate my readers. I wanted the poetry to stand on its own,” Small-McKinney said in an interview published on BreastCancer.org (Small-McKinney, 2015, para. 17). Small-McKinney’s gift to the world, expressed through these beautifully wrought and triumphant poems, does more than stand alone; it dances with the full range of life’s sorrow and joy.
Global cancer facts and figures. (2018). American Cancer Society. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/research/cancer-facts-statistics/global.html
Small-McKinney, A. (2015, Apr. 22). An interview with poet and survivor Amy Small-McKinney. BreastCancer.org. Retrieved 2018, March 7 from https://community.breastcancer.org/blog/an-interview-with-poet-and-breast-cancer-survivor-amy-small-mckinney/
Wang, X., & Lin, Y. (2008). Tumor necrosis factor and cancer, buddies or foes? Acta Pharmacologica Sinica, 29 (11), 1275–1288. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2631033/