ThirtyWest Publishing House, 2020
I started reading Laura Cesarco Eglin’s chapbook Life, One Not Attached to Conditionals in a doctor’s office waiting room. This felt fitting, as Cesarco Eglin’s poems in this volume focus on her experiences battling skin cancer. Poem titles like “Melanoma’s Lines,” “Waiting for Biopsy Results,” “Recovery,” and “Articulating the Changes in My Body” emphasize this context, and poems reference “my cancer” (13) and “the stitches” (11). The cover image, what we might initially perceive as a purple abstract, is actually a detail from “Malignant Melanoma,” a textbook depiction of cancerous cells. Reading this thoughtfully articulate chapbook about the failures of a body—while I was wearing a mask, sitting socially distanced in a waiting room, trying not to touch anything—made me feel more acutely aware of my own body’s relationships to physical health and the rooms it was inhabiting.
Impressively, the lyric poems here are able to locate beauty in “my scar… still red and / tender” (7). Cesarco Eglin identifies the poetic “rhythm” of “biopsy, surgery, biopsy, surgery, biopsy, surgery” (9) and draws her readers in. She invites us to think about what it means to live in a body whose exterior is painful, unpredictable, and perhaps uncontrollable. The speaker in these poems describes surgeries and doctor office visits: “I smelled myself being burned” (8), she writes; “My skin [crawls] out / from under me, away, / like leather on my body” (16). But our narrator is more than just a body, and mind and body are necessarily connected through these poems. The speaker is able to create agency over her physical body, comparing new scars to “tattoos” or “landmarks” and “wondering about the length / and shape of my next scar” (19). Melanoma’s scars are ultimately poetry; they are “two lines,” “a couplet that promises / to be the beginning of a lifetime” (8)
While Cesarco Eglin’s poems in Life are about cancer, they are also often about language, origins, and fitting in. The speaker in these poems articulates the literal problem of skin and body, but she examines issues of language and divergence as well, pointing out “the silence / of the H in Spanish that makes all the difference” (12). The narrator, recognizing “I haven’t lived there all my life— / there is still apart” (16), is always living in a sort of highlighted translation. But she doesn’t hide from difference; instead, she emphasizes it: “I choose my sentences carefully to be able to / use as many words with written accents as I can” (20). Connecting the idea of explicitly claiming variance through speech and habits, she recognizes her skin may similarly be “having its revolution, / demanding a seat at the table” (16).
Through a combination of prose poems and more lyric meditations, Life charts the journey of cancer from doctor appointments to fresh scars, from biopsies to surgeries, from sunblock to watchful care. Then, surprisingly and gratefully, “you are done” (30). In this collection Cesarco Eglin achieves her desire to “make real mean / something” (12). Her poems reveal the myriad ways that unexpected painful changes invite us to better examine relationships with our bodies and other surroundings. We are reminded that, though we may find our bodies in waiting rooms, on examination tables, or otherwise beyond our control, we should still allow ourselves to be “fascinated by the analysis” (19). Reading this chapbook, we are encouraged to recognize and even welcome the fact that “After all, today is the disarray in a bouquet” (31).
Genevieve Kaplan is the author of (aviary) (Veliz Books, 2020), In the ice house (Red Hen, 2011), and three chapbooks. She lives in southern California where she edits the Toad Press International chapbook series, publishing contemporary translations of poetry and prose. Find her online at https://genevievekaplan.com.