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Review in web-based Sphinx 2012
by Peter Jarvis

Negotiating the Days by Lizzie Madder (Soundswrite Press, 2012) £4.00

The convention that poems should be read ignoring their provenance simply cannot hold with this collection because these poems are Lizzie Madder; Lizzie Madder is these poems. They form a record of her experiences confronting anal cancer over more than five years. Each poem is dated—a milestone along the way —and the structure of the whole is so integrated it could be taken as a single long poem. It amounts to a journal, but never a prosaic one.

Madder’s superlative image-making gives her collection terrific vibrancy. The day before chemotherapy she is out walking with her lover and at a craft sale spots a wooden vase which they buy:
and at its centre there was a hole,
a wound of burnt wood
puckered and black, the size of a bean

which seemed appropriate

(‘Walk in Wandlebury Park 1’)

This extraordinary correlative for her condition is followed by others: “What’s up my bum” is “a cave where bats are hanging/ They’ve arrived unannounced” or “a rock pool where a hermit crab/ shifts sand to bury itself deep in a shell” (‘Preparation’). Two years later, in recovery, she compiles a list of her cancer’s characteristics in terms of human tormentors—cruel kid, thug, bully and, worst, stalker who’s “waiting at the end of the road” (‘Stalker’).

Madder has described elsewhere her devotion to Leonard Cohen’s poems and there are traces of similar syntax and rhythms in this collection: a little run of if-clauses in ‘Preparation’; a deft character-sketch in ‘Perpetua’; a catalogue of same-structure clauses in ‘Toxic’:
I’m the grub in a cherry
I’m the birthmark on a perfect skin
I’m the bruise on a peach
I’m the falling petals of a rose

In ‘Negotiation’, perhaps the key poem, Madder discloses her fruitless strategies for coping in the ward with enduring pain. Yet always at night “the horrors that have been pushed aside/ come squealing in”. Just as when in childhood she was ill, confined to bed enjoying “small attentions”, so now she is sustained by the professionals— “a hierarchy of cockerels and hens/ busy-bodying, circling the ward” (‘Bed Four’)—and by her lover, friends and family, for whom she hopes to “live up to their view of my worth” (‘Friends’).

Lizzie Madder’s consummate collection is suffused with courage, humanity, good humour, gentleness and grace. It is most moving.

Peter Jarvis
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