CANCER [+POP PUNK]. Dean Rhetoric. Broken Sleep Books, 2022. 42 pages.
An absence pervades the short poetry pamphlet (a collection? Or a single linked poem with movements?) entitled Cancer [+Pop Punk] by poet Dean Rhetoric, an absence whose poignancy is mapped out, at times poked at like a sore wound, at others deliberately jabbed at with a fork hard enough to make the poems and the reader cry out in pain. The disease of the title has claimed a life and the poem explores that loss and that pain from sometimes oblique angles, sometimes direct. If you’re getting a sense of the variation of strategies within the poem, that is good, because while it is about one subject, death, and seems to be a unity (I have reasons to suspect so), the directions and styles employed to address the subject have a difference and a practiced “sprezzatura” quality of varying tempos and expressions. Music is an underpinning of the poem—the sections of the poems are divided by musical staves with a treble clef to the left—and pop songs are referenced and quoted throughout, almost as if serving as the material of some kind of tender nostalgia that the speaker of the poem shared with the deceased person (it seems to be a woman, although I could be wrong).
The poem begins with a section in which the song titles from Weezer’s 1996 album Pinkerton are interspersed and integrated with the text. Likewise, in an act of near symmetry, the poem ends with a passage in which the titles from R.E.M.’s 1992 album Automatic for the People are used to separate the text into further bits. Another part of the poem utilize the titles of pop-punk bands and songs such as Screeching Weasel, Face to Face, “When I Come Around” by Green Day, and New Found Glory as puns with which to end one line and pivot to the next one a la some of the poetic maneuvering of Matthea Harvey’s 2000 collection Pity the Bathtub It’s Forced Embrace of the Human Form:
“I’m not a huge / fan of goodbyes but I should’ve seen you one last time, I should have met you / Face to Face are underrated too, and they never really got the big break they / deserve what I got and there’s a reason no one can even look me in the eyes / When I Come Around by Green Day is a great one…” etc.
This segment of the poem (or, if you like, this individual poem) ends on a killer line, as do many of the segments on offer here. This kind of grace note to me is the signal of a really fine poet, and Rhetoric proves this again and again. Then he doubles down by often beginning the next section with some reference to how the last one ended. This is the unity and inter-linkage that I perceived.
I don’t want to quote much more from the pamphlet and risk breaking some of the elegant icicle formations that this book is hung with, which the reader will have to gaze up at themselves. Death and guilt and regret have really sharpened the poet’s skills to a scalpel’s edge, and as readers we are taken to an uncomfortable place, but not without flashing edges of humor and a ghostly residuum of perhaps once living love.
Royalties from sales of Cancer [+Pop Punk] will go to a charity called Widowed and Young, a UK charity that “offers a peer-to-peer network for anyone who’s lost a partner before their 51st birthday—married or not, with or without children, inclusive of sexual orientation, gender, race and religion.” The poetry’s subject matter, not needing to be lent anymore gravity, fits with the explicit cause it’s attached to in a way that is rare for poetry books: the reality of loss reverberates through the poem inside and out like bells in a churchyard, yet bells with a recognizably modern toll.