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The Radiation Sonnets: For My Love, in Sickness and in Health

A Poetry Book Review

by Ruzha Cleaveland

The Radiation Sonnets: For My Love, in Sickness and in Health
by Jane Yolen
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003

It was the book’s size—hardback, it could almost fit in my purse—and title—wasn’t a radiation sonnet oxymoronic—that made me check out this book from my local library.

I have tried off and on to write sonnets, and I have been spectacularly unsuccessful with that fourteen line form of three rhyming quatrains and a rhyming couplet. I soon learned that these forty-three sonnets are in the best emotional tradition of Shakespeare. His sonnets, after all, are about love, and so are these poems.

Jane Yolen is primarily a writer of children’s books, some of which I read my children when they were very young. When her husband of forty years, David Stemple, was diagnosed with a brain cancer, Yolen decided that one way to cope with the whirling emotion of her life during Stemple’s chemotherapy was to assign herself the task of writing a sonnet each day of his treatment. So we have forty-three sonnets. The first is titled A Promise to Eurydice, where Yolen vows, like the Greek myth, not to look back if allowed to bring her love home from his Hell. The book’s final poem is properly, and amusingly, titled Graduation Day. In between we are shown the wordless emotion that exists in the chemo waiting lounge, the reactions of the couple’s children, how friends help, Stemple’s childish ways of dealing with unwanted food, and Yolen’s frustration and exhaustion.

Here is a sample:

Mapping the Skull
Another day, another scan.
How well mapped is your skull.
The hemispheres are plotted full,
Both north and south. How then, can
Any traveler make her way
Across your cartographic lawn?
This which was once my sole domain
Is charted, graphed-out, planned, and drawn.
What once was lush is arid, sere,
And yet the noted sculpture stands.
See—I can put my warming hands
Above your forehead, here—and here—
So that on this dear ruined head
I map a drive that’s not yet dead.

There is a famous Countee Cullen poem, Incident, that couches the theme of racism within the carefree rhythm we know from our favorite childhood poems (alternating lines of four and three stresses). Yolen employs this same technique in many her sonnets. While a sonnet purist would disapprove, I strongly believe that this pattern of rhythm relieves the unrelenting stress of what Yolen wants to show us—and what we as voyeurs need to hear—while giving the poems greater power. I very much admire the honesty and vulnerability of these poems, and because of Yolen’s cleverness, both thematically and artistically, I find myself willing to go wherever she takes me.

I did ask myself how I would use this book? If I gave it as a gift—and I think it would make a fine one—for whom would it be appropriate: the patient, or the family? Yolen writes in an afterword that she did not show these poems to her husband, but that her daughter, who reads all her work, cried after the first reading and then refused to look at the poems again. I think I would give this book to someone who is in Yolen’s position as caretaker. I know I would take comfort in reading these poems if someone I loved was going through the trial of chemotherapy. I don’t think it would give it to a chemotherapy “victim” unless that person were a very close friend, and even then I’d be hesitant. Most of all, I would like medical people to read this book. It offers a view from “the other side of the river” by a writer who is honest, wise, and skillful.