The word violence comes from the Latin violentia, which holds other words like fury, ferocity, and impetuousness, all words that someone who's dealt with cancer well understands.
“Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write your self. Your body must be heard.”
— Helen Cixous
This morning, wind raged through the trees, a storm hurtling by, swift, vehement, and then the forest grew quiet. But out of the forest’s quiet came a yearling black bear with silver tipped guard hairs on his back, and he walked up the stairs onto my porch and licked a baking dish my husband had left out for the dog, a baking dish stuck with strips of cooked salmon skin. It was a salmon my husband had netted from China Poot Creek, a salmon I’d bled, ripping its sharp, white, blood-engorged gills with my bare fingers. And then this bear stood up, and his ears perked up and he placed his front paws on the teak table and looked around, then dropped down and ambled back toward the stairs, and as usual I stood there gaping, in the midst of a phone conversation, too paralyzed to reach for my camera until it was too late and the forest had swallowed him up again into its quiet waiting.
I’d been sitting by the fire all morning and afternoon reading a grad student’s poetry manuscript, poems of witness to her years living in Palestine, or, as she calls the place in her poems, “no country,” and at first I was reading it with my professorial eye and mind, the critical mind, until I just got sucked in to the necessity of those poems, their writing-for-survival impulse, poem after poem after poem. They were written by a woman who many nights lay in her bed listening to gunfire, listening to the sound of rocks being thrown at her dwelling place. They were written by a young woman who sat in her living room evenings listening to the news on TV, news of violence occurring on a street she’d walked down two hours earlier. She wrote poems of violence taken in with her morning cup of bitter coffee, violence taken in through her skin while being stopped at check-points, observed by unseen eyes, through gun sights, from guard towers. In her poems, whether it was mentioned or not, there was always a wall, always a war. And it stopped mattering, if the line breaks or the meters were right, it stopped mattering if this poem or that felt unfinished or too easily drawn to a close, because they were poems of witness, and poems of survival, of being in over her head, a twenty-five year-old heart too serious to stand apart from violence, to honest to let the violence wash past or over or under her. She let it in, she let it out. In that way, her poems were like breathing. And so I withheld the violence of my critical response.
And then my friend called, and then the bear came, and then these migratory-
restlessness-driven flocks of robins and warblers and kinglets came, flinging
themselves against the windows of my house, and the bang of a robin right near
my ear, against the glass, was so loud I jumped. I watched it fly off into the trees,
apparently unscathed. But my heart banged hard in my chest. Not long after that, I happened upon an essay by Lidia Yuknavitch in The Rumpus called “Explicit Violence.” Her article was prompted by a male friend half-jokingly saying, “Enough with the sob stories, ladies,” imploring them to tell no more tales about “fucked up sad violent shit that happened to you.” And it was like that bird hitting the window again; my heart pounded, but this time, violently. This time I thought about another kind of violence, which is cancer, which I had, in 2010. How there’s that unspoken edict, too, after a certain amount of time has passed: “enough with the sob stories.” There’s a violence to being told (or telling yourself) you should be past the fear, the trauma. You are a survivor.
But there’s the violence of what happened to my breast, what's still happening. There’s violence in the corporeal-memory in the skin cells of the flat bony place that’s left now, in the breast's stead, where I laid my hand all last night because it ached so much, even after two years. A new electrical twanging, shooting pain, maybe from yoga, maybe from some dead nerve reawakening, had zinged around just under my skin all day, and my pectoral muscle had throbbed. I salved it myself with arnica because I don’t want to ask my husband to do it; I was afraid he’d be turned off or think I was trying to get him to prove something to me. (Is that a violence I do to myself, the not asking, the shame?) He doesn’t want to dwell in Cancerland anymore, that I know, and the flat bony place is Cancerland's very geography. But there I dwell, and it dwells in and upon me. I have come to know well the shape of my chest wall, each rib and the bony prominences of my sternum, and the groove of the scar, and the tenderness of bone so close to skin, and the violence of my not speaking anymore, or writing much anymore about cancer, because there, I’m told, I must not dwell; I must move on. The violence I do to myself is maybe what I’m talking about right now. The “wipe that cancer look off your face” when you’re talking to him/her/them I say to myself now. But my chest wall has its own voice, its own rules, its own language of zings, electrical charges, aches, throbs, and it speaks a lot, and in the dark, my hand listens and responds, my palm flat upon the skin, salving an answer, salving away the pain and shame and doubt.
It’s a violent earth, some would say, an earth of hurricane, predator and prey, cancer, earthquake. But there’s nothing like violence of the human kind, the violence of father to child, husband to wife, the violence of words, the violence of silence, all the violence that isn’t about survival. There's the violence we do, daily, to ourselves. The violence of me, with a sponge in my hand, swiping counters of crumbs instead of writing about the violence I’ve known. The violence of me reading other people’s courageous words, not writing my own. The violence of me, plugging in a vacuum cleaner, filling a sink with soapy water, stuffing clothes into the washer, the violence of not writing, the violence of me hiding. The violence of me, typing at the kitchen table, stopping just before the truth comes out. The violence of my unspilled angers and fears.
carcass in the gulch behind our house.
The one antidote I know to the fear of my own body since cancer is the habitation
of my own body, so I put away my computer and get dressed for a run. Today, I
leave my fake breast at home. I don’t slip the silicone-filled device into the pocket
of my running bra. With a loose capilene shirt on over my t-shirt, no one can tell.
After my run, half way through yoga class, stripped down to the tight blue t-shirt, I
remember: it’s not there. I stretch and bend my body into triangles, into trees,
into garlands with a class full of people, with a wall of mirrors, and it’s plain for
everyone to see, my body’s strange mis-shape, one-breasted, lop-sided, violated.
Let it be so, I think. In the locker room after yoga, usually, I turn to face the wall
when I undress so as to spare other women and girls the shock of my scar, my flat
chest wall, the missing breast. To spare them a vision of mutilation. To spare them
the violence of too much unwanted news. To spare them the violence of, perhaps,
their own deepest fears. But not today. I stretch my arm up in half moon pose
and turn my flat, bony chest to the ceiling, my girl-half. Is there a way for violence
be holy? Yes. Today, I let truth be a kind of holy violence, a fury, yes, a fierceness
of wild birds, an impetuosity. Just today, I let my body breathe and speak its
truths. I let myself be wholly embodied.