Cancer Center, Northampton, Fred Pelka

Laurie Doctor, In the Eaves of These Ruins,
Oil on Wood, 12” X 12”



Cancer Center, Northampton


The diminution of her short term memory,

her mental fog—

the way a prism might be swaddled

in white cotton.


Her hair is long again,

a joy not to be taken lightly after

twelve rounds of chemo.

I can feel that, she says,

and the sound, as I brush, is the whisper

of an old friend.


Now her thumb moves to squeeze my hand

as if to say—I’m still here,

Are you still there?

Where stillness is a state of mind,

a pond of our own making,

where under the tiniest ripples

the clever fish still swim.

Fred Pelka


Review by Devon Balwit

That a poem speaks to me hinges on how artfully it refracts my interests and concerns. I want both to recognize and resonate with the content and feel a mix of admiration and jealousy at how a poet’s rhythm, stanzas, line-breaks, typography and word choice make me want to read and reread.

Suddenly finding myself past middle age and inhabiting a body prone to painful break down, I tend to linger over poems like those of Fred Pelka that mull over how we live in and through our final years. Words like “Cancer Center, mental fog, chemo, and wheelchair” pull me in—not as a rubbernecker of someone else’s tragedy, but as one who catches a glimpse of myself in the life of a stranger. How does one “do” terminal illness and death? How can one lose what is most precious to us and create art about it (or how might our survivors)?

I assume that Denise is a spouse rather than a close friend as the narrator takes on the intimate task of brushing her hair. Italicized conversation is both reported and imagined, suggesting dailiness and familiarity. These two spoke of weighty matters—of the spirit, the afterlife, the soul, god with a small “g.” We have clever thought-fish, elusive in the mind’s pond, starlings, agents of the upper realms, and Time, a pitiless pirate urging us on. Rich in humorous insight, she is a woman I would have liked to have known.

Pelka sets all this in rhythmic lines attentive to melody. For example, look at his alliterative “m’s” in the first stanza of “Cancer Center, Northampton”: “the diminution of her short-term memory / her mental fog / the way a prism might be swaddled…” Or his “s’s”: “the sound as I brush is the whisper…” Assonance, too, appears, as in this line from “For Denise on This Winter Solstice”: “though with the snow now so deep…” Pelka’s poems are also metrically interesting—as in this example of repeated strong beats: “her hánd on the tóggle of her pówer wheélchair…”

Finally, any poem that ends

Existence I might say is like a ruined church

to which she might reply – we only need music

to coax the god out from it.

is a poem for me. Pelka has used his art to make a bittersweet loveliness of loss and embody the divine.


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