“My poetry got a lot better,” Anya Krugovoy Silver told Macon Magazine in 2010. “Nothing focuses your mind and helps you see clearly what’s important quite like cancer. It made me want to explore, even more, the beauty and divinity of the ordinary world.”
The breast cancer diagnosis came in 2004 when she was in the second trimester of her pregnancy with her first and only child. Given a prognosis of perhaps two years to live, she carried on for fourteen, producing luminous poetry before dying at the age of 49.
Scott Cairns put me on to her work with his forceful recommendation to read her final volume, Saint Agnostica, which was published this year. “You must get this,” he tweeted on September 14. I did. I’ll just repeat. You must get this.
It’s heartbreaking poetry and I ached each time I went to pick it up. But it’s beautiful poetry. Exquisite. And I was not able to resist it. Each poem goes deeper as you trace the course of Silver’s coming to terms with death.
Only coming to terms is probably not the phrase to use. Her anger persists to the end. Her evident Christian faith is strong enough to allow her moments of tremendous honesty, as in “Metastatic”:
means nothing to me. I have nothing to lose.
If you push me off a building, I’ll sing.
I’d jump in front of a bullet if I could.
I’d let someone wring my neck if only
I knew it would hurt God just one little bit to watch me die.
She resists the chirpy platitudes that we throw out to help us resist the horrors. In “Knowing What You Know Now, Would You Choose To Be Born?” She advises:
Don’t say no out loud. Don’t admit
that gold-sponged April isn’t enough,
that the first milky sip of coffee or fuchsia
bougainvillea on a Greek patio don’t provide
moments that make life worth its worry…
I’ve been struck down too many times.
Stuck, poisoned, drained, radiated fourteen years.
Truly, if not for love, I would choose oblivion.
Sweet love, a stone jammed in my jaw.
Yet for all the painful, honest moments, there is a latent transcendence that emerges when she talks about her child or the depths of truly seeing the world. In “So Look, So See!” she says:
How little looking I do—
this early autumn could skitter by
with scant notice. But my pen
grounds me like a plum line…
I don’t know what bliss is,
but it could be as simple as late
September, this chewed-up armchair,
Memory of summer, and my pen and paper—
an inexpressible fortune.
I felt I was truly living as I read this book where death lurked behind every page. I was granted the privilege of traveling far into the center of a life so well-observed. And what was there was divine. Thanks be to God.