At times when I consider my losses, I feel like a loser in the battle against self-pity. Like many diseases, cancer has everything to do with loss: of a breast or a leg, of a chunk of liver or lung, of continence, of mental capacity, of life itself.
My losses, like those of most people, vary in scope. The biggest is the loss of physical autonomy. I must rely on all sorts of equipment and medicine to keep me going. Then there is the big loss of my teaching job. Enforced retirement isolates me from the intellectual community that had sustained me throughout my life. The smaller losses of my hair and of not being able to feel my feet sometimes loom larger than they should.
But why be a downer? Who wants to wallow? To take my mind off my woes, it is always possible to think of someone worse off. As I child, I was told how lucky I was compared with the starving children in China. Now I mourn violence against women in Congo. Yet it feels mean-spirited to buck oneself up with the misery of others, not an attractive option.
Neither can I bear to become a Pollyanna, counting the manifold blessings of loving family and friends, of reading near a window overlooking a beech tree, of a cardinal at the bird feeder. I realize that I should subscribe to the idea of abundant recompense, of looking on the bright side, of the glass half full, of the silver lining, but it can elude me. What I need then is something more stringent or even mordant.
During those moments I return to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art.” The key words that Bishop repeats are “master” and “disaster.” In this villanelle, Bishop had the chutzpah to teach her readers how to master disaster.
Practice makes perfect, she ruefully assures us, and then explains how. Start by losing small things like keys or a badly spent hour, and then up the ante with larger stakes: “Practice losing farther, losing faster,” for example, the places you meant to visit, a mother’s watch, a treasured house. In the process of losing, the poet implies, your skin will thicken, you will get stronger, more resilient.
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” Bishop insists, pointing out that she has suffered the loss of cities, rivers, even a continent. She misses them all, “but it wasn’t a disaster.”
I have had enough experience of losing that I can imagine losses that I have not (yet) incurred: the loss of my house in a fire, my parents’ loss of their native land through a forced emigration. With a tight grip on the demanding form of the verse, Bishop grits her teeth, steeling herself, assuring herself (and me) that these dreadful travails can be survived.
The boastful final stanza always catches me up:
— Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
After diagnosis I read the lost “you” of “One Art” as me. Surely my husband and daughters and stepdaughters will master the disaster of my demise, the absence of my voice and gestures. I need to believe they can and will. But of course I know that Bishop was writing about the abandonment or death of a beloved companion.
And then I am flooded with terror that I could not master the disaster of losing my husband, one of our girls, their partners, or children. My list widens to include my brother, cousins, godchildren, close friends. I would rather be lost than lose, not that we are given a choice.
Bishop’s parenthetical phrases and the repetition of the word “like” in the final line tell me that she also loses her breath, chokes or stutters at the thought of inconsolable bereavement. Losing a member of my family would be the worst: a soul-shattering tragedy. In comparison, my current losses from cancer amount to nothing at all — nada, bupkis.
Under the shadow of that possible but thankfully unrealized nightmare, I remember a student who memorized “One Art” and stood to recite it at the front of a lecture hall of 150 freshmen because, he explained privately, it helped him come to terms with the death of his father. His voice trembled.
Dealing with a disaster that had happened, he relied on Bishop’s “One Art” to give his loss a rhyme and rhythm, to find sound sense in nonsensical grief, even if only provisionally. In the face of what cannot be righted, Bishop understood the clenched urgency of heeding the imperative “Write it!” just as my student grasped the need to recite it.
Now a glance out the window at a cardinal perched in the beech tree confirms my need to lavish love on those who could so easily be lost.
By SUSAN GUBAR APRIL 24, 2014
Susan Gubar is a distinguished emerita professor of English at Indiana University and the author of “Memoir of a Debulked Woman,” which explores her experience with ovarian cancer.