“Mary Oliver, MBC and Me” by Katherine O’Brien – A #MetsMonday Featured Post
It’s my pleasure to share this next #MetsMonday featured post by Katherine O’Brien. Katherine was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2009. She is a terrific (and often outspoken) advocate and sits on the board of Metastatic Breast Cancer Network, one of the premier organizations working to educate us all and to improve lives and outcomes for those impacted by MBC.
I know you’ll appreciate Katherine’s wit and humor in her writing. I always do. Thank you for sharing your voice on Nancy’s Point, Katherine. Scroll down to leave a comment or to ask Katherine a question (about MBC or poetry perhaps?).
Mary Oliver, Metastatic Breast Cancer and Me
by Katherine O’Brien
After going on 12 years of living with metastatic breast cancer, it’s time I got something off my chest (so to speak):
I don’t like Mary Oliver.
There, I said it.
I can already feel the relief washing over me. I never heard of Mary Oliver until my 2009 MBC diagnosis. After that, she kept turning up like a bad penny. At conferences or on social media, people seemingly could not not get enough of Mary’s “The Summer Day.”
If you don’t recognize the title, you probably are familiar with the last line: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
That is certainly an appropriate question for anyone, let alone a Stage IV cancer patient, but c’mon Mary, lighten up. Always with the questions! Who made the world? The swan? The black bear? The grasshopper?
Yo, Mary, do I look like Jack Hanna?
“The Summer Day” has probably supplanted Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” as the go-to poem when someone is actively dying or has in fact died. But there are millions of poems out there and even more being scrawled in angsty teens’ journals or Instagram stories even at this very moment.
Why not look a little further?
My Poetry 101 teacher, J.D. Daubs, often invoked Archibald Macleish’s Ars Poetica: A poem should not mean/But be. I have a much more pragmatic take: Just go with anything by someone named “Robert.”
Consider the following:
Robert Burns: The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men/Gang aft agley.
Robert Louis Stevenson: The world is so full of a number of things, I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
Robert Browning: Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?
Robert Frost: Nothing gold can stay.
Robert From The Cosby Show: Hello, Vanessa.
There are a few exceptions to the Robert’s Rule of Poetry: Any poem incorporated into a Bullwinkle & Rocky episode is surely a classic. (Or, if nothing else, in the public domain.) Perhaps you remember the “Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam”? (Or perhaps not.)
“The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” is the title that Edward FitzGerald gave to his 1859 translation from Persian to English of a selection of quatrains (rubāʿiyāt) attributed to Omar Khayyam. You probably have heard bits and pieces of it such as, a loaf of bread a jug of wine and thou…
How about: The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on : nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
Since my 2009 MBC diagnosis, I have gone from “You have cancer” to “Now you have a lot more cancer and a lot fewer treatment options.”
Over the past 11 years, I have been on eight different drugs for ER+ breast cancer. I’ve had some years of instability interspersed with progression to my bones and liver. I have been truly fortunate to have an overall great quality of life.
But as we know, nothing gold can stay.
Living with MBC is fraught with uncertainty. Along the way, this verse from the Rubáiyát has often popped into my head:
Yesterday This Day’s Madness did prepare; To-morrow’s Silence, Triumph, or Despair: Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why: Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where!
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mary!
BIO: Katherine O’Brien was diagnosed with ER+ metastatic breast cancer in 2009 at age 43. She edited trade magazines for many years and belongs to the Professional Organization of English Majors (P.O.E.M). In her spare time she nurses grudges, harrows up old grievances and broods over the many injustices perpetrated against her, up to and including the time her sister took all the red knee socks, leaving Katherine with the perpetually drooping green ones.
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Do you have a comment or question for Katherine?
Are you a Mary Oliver fan?
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