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Into the Rumored Spring
by Joannie Stangeland
50 poems/ 63 pages/$11.95
Ravenna Press

Reviewed by Ed Bennett

There are few diagnoses that can stun a family the way cancer does. Reaction can vary from stiff upper lip optimism to utter helplessness as the patient goes through the rigors of surgery and radiation or chemotherapy. No matter what the reaction, there is a wall between patient and loved ones as the patient moves alone toward the fated outcome. Certain cancers are gender specific. From my own experience with my mother’s breast cancer in the ‘70s I felt totally powerless, unable to help the most important person in my life. I was unable to understand the magnitude of the disease or its effect.

Joannie Stangeland’s collection, “Into the Rumored Spring”, deals with the physical and emotional effects of breast cancer. The 50 poems in the book deal with her friend who was stricken with the illness and walked the long path to recovery. In the early poems, like “Caught”, the cancer takes hold of the body, announcing itself with pain and a host of other symptoms. The patient, strong willed but weakened, observes

“The ladybird has flown home.
Her children are safe.

Only her chest is on fire.
Her daughters tend her.”

As the poems move forward in time Ms. Stangeland’s observations take us into the patient’s new body as she learns to navigate the same world with a different physicality. At the gym, other women look at her scars, her missing parts, yet say nothing. In the interim, the patient struggles to pull on her shirt, “a workout in itself”. It is agonizing and takes too long but the patient is persistent.

“Someday, she says, I will do this,
and she hopes the shower is kind.

Anyone who has seen a breast cancer patient struggle with combing their hair or removing a coat will empathize with the narrator. It is the simple things that are a struggle, each struggle making the day its own purgatory before falling into an exhausted sleep. There are several poems that capture this brilliantly, telling us as much about the poet as they do about their subject. Ms. Stangeland captures the hope as well as the fear within her unnamed subject.

“…she feels her real body
solving its mysteries, rising
to write its own ending.”

Aside from her considerable ability to understand the interior dialog that goes on with someone facing such a dreaded disease, Ms. Stangeland’s poetry is superb. She uses everyday language to create crystalline images that occur in her poems like diamonds on a beach. The second strophe of “What She Hears” is typical:

“The spider spins its history,
stories purling from its body.
The moth stays quiet,
wings fanned across the window.”

Many of the poems are written in short, two line strophes with declarative sentences. In the hands of a lesser talent this would become boring and the reader would lose interest. With these poems, however, the poet creates a rhythm that can be related to the patient. Earlier works are short and enjambed, like the thousand thoughts and fears running through a patient’s mind in the early stages of the illness. The last few poems, though structurally the same, are more fluid, as if the patient has finally grappled with the disease and triumphed.

The last poems are paeans of hope. Again, the cancer patient needs to let time pass before they can be sure of a cure. The last lines of the collection capture that feeling when it seems that the terror that has lived so close has vanished. The patient finds herself on the water, thinking

“The hull skims across the lake.
The sun is in her hair…

Spring streams around her.
She is blooming.

The shell is a cradle.
This is a birth.”

I would recommend buying this book on the poetry alone. The entire structure of the work, from each line to each poem to the book itself is flawless. Ms. Stangeland is an award winning poet and it shows. More importantly, all author proceeds are donated to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. There are very few instances when writing poetry can make a difference in other people’s lives. This book is one of them. Joannie Stangeland is a fine poet and an even better friend.


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