Lawrence, Kansas

31 October 2007

Five Poems

from Cancergate: An Amneoir
from Cancergate: An Amneoir
from Cancergate: An Amneoir
from Cancergate: An Amneoir
from Cancergate: An Amneoir
from Cancergate: An Amneoir

About Joseph Harrington



[A]  I watched the Senate hearings in the summer of 1973.  My mother lay in the hospital, away, doing nothing.  I remember Daniel Inouye and Howard Baker better than I remember her. 

[B]  Records indicate she wasn’t in the hospital in the summer of 1973, therefore the Senate hearings must have taken place during the summer of 1974.

[C.]  We watched the Senate hearings together in the summer of 1973, I on the floor in front of the TV, she on the rough avocado-colored upholstery of the couch.  She smoked but spoke little.  I probably jerked my head around, buck-toothed and cowlicked, to make what I thought were snide and knowing remarks for her approval.

[D.]  We watched the Senate hearings together, I on the floor in front of the TV, she on the rough avocado-colored upholstery of the couch.  I probably jerked my head around, buck toothed and cowlicked, when she could not resist an arch and knowing remark.  She had stopped smoking by then. 

[E.]  “This has all been a hoax.” No one died, no one resigned.  The hearings merely foreshadowed a collective, creeping insubstantiality.  From the 1970s on, everyone in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands was born a ghost.  Still, the dog kept weeping when he couldn’t sit next to her on the couch; Senator read it into the Record. 

[F.]  “Betty Ford’s breast cancer, picked up in a routine physical checkup, hit the headlines in early October 1974. The announcement came just months after Nixon’s resignation, following the most egregious demonstration of presidential nondisclosure that Americans had ever witnessed.”




STATION FIVE: The Patient Is Stripped of Her Garments and Given Gall to Drink.

                   Underneath the




                                     one day you will have to might as well look:

                                                                                                   What’s There.

It will be Ugly, and it will be Red
so absent you can’t ignore so different

                   a terribly offensive sight.                   flinching—

                   “. . . a puckered, ugly slit—like a fiery red shirred seam.”

Oh my god,

May god-O why

O my

                   “We didn’t think that probably much would come of it; but on the
                   other hand, something may come of it and I think it was one of
                   those decisions that unfortunately—”

                             Between the I and the O           Beneath the O
                                                                          shredding, shredding



STATION SIX: The Patient Falls for the First Time.

1.)  My mother, dressed to the 9s, designer of her own wedding dress, paragon of elegance, gloves, hat, Jackie look, terribly hot and itchy . . . thick, reptilian hide that shed gray flakes for a year, burned skin mush of flesh entire side of torso, making sure they looked symmetrical . . .

2.)  “Just about the time that I started to feel the true quality of the uphill climb before me – of adjustment to a new body, a new time span, a possible early death – the pains hit.” 

            2a.) Back and shoulder; insomnia; extreme sensitivity                   of affected; touch triggers.

3.)  In spite of this, there the three of us are, in Washington in March of ’73.  He in loosened tie, indicating we’d tagged along on business trip; she looking enormously tired, but there, simulating a smile. Good for us?  A Southern Lady never complains of her own body, at least not now. I am holding a picture of George Washington and grinning.

March 28 – Started X-ray treatment for ispot [?]
April 18 – Saw Dr. Nickson [!]
April 23 – Resumed treatment – chest wall
April 30 – Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Kleindienst, Dean.
May 1 – Dr. Long took x-ray
May 14 – Rose Mary Woods tells us that “Jeane Dixon tells us that May and June are going to be pretty bad. June may be worse than May. But everything will turn out fine and to be of stout heart and all that.”
May 15 – Completed 16 treatments – Dr. Long took X.Ray
                I am to see him in 3 or 4 weeks
     So how come he’s not getting Alpo Beef Chunks Dinner?

4.)  Something about “OK, so Lib’s had a little too much to drink tonight,” something semi-weepy, head-in-handed, not-to-be-heard.



"Kids will know.  Children are so perceptive.  Even if they don't know all the details, they know something's wrong."

"Kids will know. Children are so perceptive. Even if they don't know all the details, they know something's



MS. GAITAN.  Well, the cancer didn’t kill her, the chemo killed her.

MR. FRIEDMAN.  I’m sorry, ma’am, but the President has made his decision.

A VOICE FROM THE AUDIENCE.  Why isn’t the President being impeached for war crimes? Aren’t lives more important than tapes?

MR. HARRINGTON (Kan.).  Yes, but the squirrels in the yard didn’t seem to care what went on in the House. I hold that against them, though we didn’t care about them either, I’m sure. But did I watch them, too?  Things go on without you, whether you watch them or not, nuts hid, eggs planted.

MR. HESS. I must admit, I haven’t liked wallowing in this filth. I feel unclean even listening. . . .  as I leave you, I’m distressed and I’m burned out and I salute you for performing a useful though distressing service, and I wish you fortitude and a strong stomach.

MR. HARRINGTON (Tenn.).   But there toward the end . . .  incontinence . . .   [grimaces and shakes head]

MR. DOWNIE.  . . . we felt small. . . . Most of us were dysfunctional the night . . . It was hard. . . . at the time it was dirty. People weren’t sleeping, people weren’t showering . . . it was difficult to figure out what was going on . . . 

MR. HARRINGTON (Kan.).  . . . yet we didn’t camp out in the lounge like the other animals. We only dropped in for our nightly visit after dinner at Morrison’s Cafeteria. 

MR. HARRINGTON (Tenn.).  Well, I had to work – I had to support you. . . .

A VOICE FROM THE AUDIENCE. How you must have felt! –

MR. HARRINGTON (Kan.).  I often had fried haddock with a side of black-eyed peas.  Or perhaps carrot-and-raisin salad.  I had ceased drinking chocolate milk at this point in time.

A SECOND VOICE.                   . . .  Verily, a blunt instrument! 

MR. NIXON.  [sighs audibly]  It’s all such a bunch of Goddamn dirty shit.




“Betty Ford’s breast cancer”:  Ellen Leopold, A Darker Ribbon: Breast Cancer, Women, and Their Doctors in the Twentieth Century. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999, p. 232.

“Scare the shit out of them”: Richard Nixon on White House tapes, Aug. 3, 1972. 

“Underneath the,” etc.:  Based on statements by breast cancer patients in You Are Not Alone [radio program], Edward Janus, producer. Voice Arts, 1998.

”a puckered, ugly slit”: Rose Kushner, Alternatives (Cambridge, Mass.: The Kensington Press, 1984), p. 348.

“We didn’t think that probably”: JEB Stuart Macgruder testimony to Senate Select Committee, June 14, 1973.

 “terribly hot and itchy,” etc.: Rosamond Campion, The Invisible Worm: A Woman’s Right to Choose an Alternative to Radical Surgery (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 13. I have also echoed the words of “D.M.” in a letter to Campion, quoted in Barron H. Lerner, M.D., The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), 159.

“Just about the time”: Audre Lorde. The Cancer Journals (San Francisco: aunt lute books, 1980), p. 38.

“Jeane Dixon tells us”: Woods to Nixon, on May 14, 1973 tape.

“Kids will know”: Rev. Amy Snedeker, in “Will Mom Be OK?”: Families Talk About Breast Cancer [television program] (Lemont, Ill.: Bosom Buddies, Inc., 2003).

“MR. FRIEDMAN”: Milton Friedman, then a White House speechwriter, to free-lance reporter and breast cancer activist Rose Kushner, re: First Lady Betty Ford’s impending radical mastectomy. Quoted in Kushner, 372.

“A VOICE FROM THE AUDIENCE”: Debate on Articles of Impeachment, p. 140.

“MR. HESS”:  Steven Hess, upon leaving Public Broadcasting Service’s coverage of the Watergate hearings, July 23, 1973.

“MR. DOWNIE”:  Leonard Downie, Washington Post editor, quoted in Michael Schudson, Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past. New York: Basic Books, 1992, pp. 108-109.

”MR. NIXON”: Nixon on tape, Feb. 6, 1973.



Joseph Harrington is the author of Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern US Poetics (Wesleyan, 2002). Re: Cancergate: An Amneoir : “Since the dates of the Watergate scandal and the dates of my mother’s last illness coincide almost exactly, I find it impossible to separate the two.” Harrington’s poems have appeared recently in First Intensity, Tarpaulin Sky, and on screen at the University of Victoria, B.C. He teaches at the University of Kansas.