Radiant is a poetic exploration of one hopeful person’s healing journey through cancer—from missed appointment, to mammogram, to diagnosis, to surgery, chemo, and radiation, through hysterectomy, genetic testing through to wholeness. Kate Marshall Flaherty’s luminous poetry is raw, honest yet radiant and life-affirming. The poems are chronological, yet timeless; they are courageous and graphic, yet tenaciously realistic and positive. These poems are unflinching in their exploration of “fear, death, the whole shebang.” They vary in form from odes to eulogies, from free verse to prose poem to “notes to self,” “welcoming angels,” “lighting up the night,” voicing, blessing, questioning, raging, and eventually settling into a radiant space, of acceptance and gratitude.
Reviewed by Lesley Strutt
Kate Flaherty’s collection of poems in Radiant is an uplifting treatment of one of life’s most excruciating experiences – cancer. Rather than drifting into self-pity, Flaherty finds a moment in almost every poem to celebrate being alive.
When she faces radiation, she says “I envision the radiant sun, / think of its healing rays” or “Envision love and light / emanating from the source of all” (37). She treats chemo as a gift. “And so I will see you / ruby drug / as liquid love – / / trust you are spreading the good news” (17). It takes courage to convert what is poisonous and painful to an expression of love.
It also takes courage to treat recovery with humour. Flaherty’s poem Just a Tich (79) has audiences belly-laughing in their seats. As she describes stroking her newly grown hair, “these soft tassels” (60), she elicits smiles of compassion, laced once again with courage:
I want to stand
on this mountain’s bald top
in the fierce, refreshing wind
waving my flag in the light (60)
There is hommage here, too. For the women who didn’t know that their handling of the paint that illuminated the numerals on clocks would lead to their deaths. For Margaret, the friend “of the red balloons” (31) “of wings and wine” (31) who never “fulfilled / her dream of a wellness studio” (32). Of her own journey, Flaherty writes, “I, too, have known baldness – / known vomit and yellow flesh / baggy as sackcloth” (77).
But through tragedy comes a profound appreciation of her children, her friends, of life itself: “you could go back… to the musicians in the wings, / hug the front of house…your lovely, lonely luscious life,” (89). Cancer is a lonely journey. No one can walk the road but you. I say this as I walk my own cancer walk. But we can lay our “quiver and quarrel down” and forgive, like “the shore forgives / the moon nightly / for ripping her out / to sea and back” (55). Our lives are can be lived “fully here now” (47), “out beyond the what-ifs and could-be’s (74).
Flaherty has gathered together poems that seek to sustain and nourish, poems that clearly have been written with the heart of a warrior. Though she doesn’t call cancer a battle, she has the courage of a mighty heroine in this epic journey to the edge of life and back. Readers of this collection will know they are holding words of deepest wisdom, whether they have experienced cancer or not.
Kate Marshall Flaherty’s been shortlisted for Arc’s Poem of the Year 2019, Exile Editions Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Award 2018, Descant’s Best Canadian Poem, the Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize, the Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Prize, the Robert Frost Poetry Award and others. Her Georgian Bay poems won the 2018 King Foundation Award. She’s been published in Vallum, CV2, Grain, Trinity Review, Saranac Review and numerous anthologies. She was part of “Poetry in Union” in 2019, and guides StillPoint Writing Workshops in schools, youth shelters, senior centres, universities and hospitals. See her musical about dementia, “Losing Will,” at Alumnae Theatre and her performance poetry to music at http://katemarshallflaherty.ca/kmf/
Lesley Strutt is a prize-winning poet, playwright, and novelist living in Merrickville, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in anthologies, e-zines, as well as journals such as Montreal Serai, CV2, Prairie Fire, Ottawater, The Literary Review, Bywords, and The Canadian Woman Studies Journal. Her full-length collection of poems, Window Ledge, will be published by Inanna Publications in 2020. Her first YA novel On the Edge was published by Inanna in 2019. Lesley sat on National Council for the League of Canadian Poets from 2014-2018. She is an active member of PEN Canada.
“Kate Marshall Flaherty’s Radiant inspired by her cancer journey challenges us to confront our own mortality and to live in the now of each sacred moment. Visceral, gut-wrenching yet affirmative, her luminous, courageous poems uplift and hearten us even as she tastes the bile rising from somewhere sterile and white, dreads chemo’s red-electric juice stung into my veins, and blisters from a medical sunburn. Daring to ask, Am I a burnt offering, she glows with love for her family, friends and valiant self, worthy of the medal of honour she pins on her own wounded chest.”
—Donna Langevin, author of In the Cafe du Monde and Brimming
“Radiant perfectly encapsulates Marshall Flaherty’s poems about cancer. Her oceanic images describe a pilgrimage which suffuses her tumour with divine light: By the time you saw me – / bright as a silver lure in an ocean mound/ I shone out from darkness // Wanted to be found! (“Tumour”). I will not see cancer as an enemy/ nor foreign intruder (“Welcoming Angels”). Her compassionate cadences, emotionally resonant sound-combos and evocative forms— evidence of poetic mastery—invite the reader on a sacred sojourn. Darkness, as in genetic markers, pain, fear, loss… becomes a light-infused blessing, a spiritual discipline requiring courage, surrender, and faith. The omnipresence of cancer in our time, almost an epidemic, and the poet’s skill and slant make Radiant a must-read for everyone.”
—Katerina Vaughan Fretwell, author of Dancing on a Pin and We Are Malala
“Kate Marshall Flaherty’s collection, Radiant, emanates optimism in the face of cancer. The narrator returns to that positivity often, even after intense fear and anger. In “Welcoming Angels” her narrator refuses “to see cancer as an enemy / nor foreign intruder…” There is even empathy for the disease. But Marshall Flaherty is aware of the journey she’s on. She moves from rational consideration of a family history of cancer to desperate bargaining in “Moon Tides, IV Hysterical” where she insists she does not “…need a womb to love, / only a place / to lay my quarrel down.” Wonder, even at her own process, makes the narrator radiant and perhaps even saves her from the darkness which envelops her as she endures the intensely difficult treatment for breast cancer. Kate Marshall Flaherty rebounds from despair with playful humour, resilience and wisdom.”
—Kate Rogers, author of Out of Place and Foreign Skin