Saint Agnostica: Poems
Anya Krugovoy Silver (1968–2018) died after enduring cancer for several years. Her poetry is about living with cancer, knowing that cancer would kill, counting months, days, and observing the coarse and subtle conversions that cancer brings to the person, family, friends, co-sufferers. And “Yet, wherever you go, people will gawk/at you without pity, just curiosity. Or worse, with pity.”
Terminal cancer is a relentless hunter, and the cancer patient shares the predicament of a powerless elephant. “Imagine being hunted—poached, illegally, /knowing how much someone . . . wants your body . . . You’ll wait for him to find you, /knowing there is no escape anyway, /hoping to get a bullet to the head/ before (the poacher) will extract the organs/from your body, one by one.” The poem offers an excellent analogy, except that cancer, like poaching, ought to be but is not illegal.
“I draw an outline for my life. / Of course, these are only estimates . . . I will watch my son turn fourteen. /This year, I will bake the cake myself.” Then there are the ifs tied to experimental treatments, X, Y, Z. “Y if I can get it. / (No guarantee that I can get it.) / If I do, I’ll celebrate my fiftieth.” The reader does not know whether she got X, Y, and Z, but Anya died at forty-nine.
Reading cancer poems sounds depressing, and writing cancer poems seems indulgence in morbidity. But that is far from the truth in reading Saint Agnostica. Silver’s poetry rakes through the subtle nuances of life, relationships, suffering, as poetry does, except that here the diegetic music is melancholy, delivered in soft decibels. “Anya did not get to hold this book in her hands,” says her husband, “but every word in this book is a witness, music before the silence coming.”
Humans are the creatures of habits. Cancer is no exception. A long illness takes on a schedule, and patients realize that “There is no heroism in (being ill).” As the disease progresses, “I pour the cereal in my bowl the same way/each morning because that’s how it is done—” There is existential freedom in knowing that life cultivates habits, no matter what we do and what ailments we face. What is once dramatic turns into routine, and what is once unusual turns into familiar. Habits and rituals, old and new, small and smaller, unstiffen the enormity of sickness, for “there is no bravery . . . in waiting for the doctor to arrive, / knowing she is holding scan results . . . It’s the only way I know to survive.”
Writing poetry as a cancer patient, for Anya, is a privileged experience. She has no patience for healthy poets writing about illness, for they are “like priests explaining the Trinity, / or children mispronouncing letters. . . . Lord, shut up these poets. Stop their pens.” Silver makes a defensible claim that writing poetry is not a cerebral process; it is an experiential grind where the poet humbles themselves before the mystery, crawls, pulls, strains, sweats, “Then, and only then, / should they write down the first word. Only one. / They must repeat the process till the entire poem is done.”
Seeing children grow tall and sturdy right in front of your eyes, while their childhood is still crisp in your memories, is a beautiful experience that Anya poetizes with exquisite finesse. Capturing the child’s insatiable desire to seek appreciation, says Anya, “My child wants me to watch his underwater flips. /After he vaults off the diving board, /he looks over to make sure I’ve seen.” Next comes fierce independence. “At fourteen . . . He’s stopped smiling for photos. And I’m no longer welcome to rifle his hair. . . His muscles are new, unfamiliar/on the child who so recently climbed/into bed with me after a nightmare.”
A sense of agnosticism permeates Anya’s poetry. She is Christian by faith, married to a Jew. “In the synagogue, the congregation prays/ in Hebrew, a language I don’t speak.” Anya finds no reason to hide disconnection. She mentions God in several poems, as if God is there but not really. There are moments when life had meaning and “I no longer needed God to house my suffering.” She is also not afraid to express robust anger. “Every time someone I love dies . . . I’d like to shoot the whole God-damned universe . . . and watch it suck/into itself.”
Saint Agnostica is “the saint of doubt,” the nemesis of belief, certainty, “dogmatic nonsense.” “She is a smart saint.” She would understand my desire to love God, / but shrug when I say I’m not sure I do.” Though drenched with doubt about a loving God, Anya’s poems are unwilling to cast away God as a needless construct. “I walk through my fear like a robed/priest through incense; whatever is offered /to God is holy. I am that offering.”
Not in cancer cases, but phenomenally, life appears to end with unfinished tasks. Even those who live long, long lives have things to do when they die. “I heave at the news that you are gone. / A friend tells me your work on earth/was finished. God . . . But you were not finished—/you still had books you meant to read/and shows to watch. . . .” Life may end, but work remains incomplete. “Even if I live to be two hundred . . . there would not be time to . . . completie the work, the poems . . .”
Many poets write about death and dying. Some poets write cancer poetry. For example, Audre Lorde—“black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”—fused her cancer poetry with revolutionary politics. Anya Silver—white, heterosexual, mother, professor, poet—blended her cancer poetry with existential agnosticism. The uniqueness of cancer poetry lies in articulating the literal closeness to death. From there, the paths to poetry are diverse. From there, Silver expresses love and longing for her son, husband, mother, friends. “Whoever thinks of love/as happiness hasn’t really felt it.”