Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of The Radiation Sonnets: For My Love, in Sickness and in Health

by Jane Yolen

(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $14.95, 104 pages, October, 2003)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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If you like Jane Yolen's work, you might also be interested in the Science Shelf review of Take Joy: A Book for Writers.

Cancer. Radiation. Chemotherapy. These words strike fear into each of us -- fear of a life foreshortened, fear of pain and suffering, fear of the unknown. A cancer diagnosis affects not only patients but also their loved ones who find themselves unsure of what to do next.

When the husband of famed storyteller Jane Yolen, David Stemple, was diagnosed with an inoperable but treatable malignant tumor at the base of his skull, Ms. Yolen responded with the power of poetry. She chose the sonnet to wrestle the illness, writing one each day during his life-saving radiation treatment. The Radiation Sonnets: For My Love in Sickness and in Health is Ms. Yolen's gift not only to her husband but also to all families who are struggling with the disease and its emotional toll.

The sonnet's disciplined fourteen-line form, "three quatrains and a couplet that sums up the whole," gave Ms. Yolen a measure of control that otherwise seemed lost in her life. These forty-three poems are not written in the iambic pentameter of the classical Shakespearian sonnets, but rather in a variety of rhythm and rhyme schemes befitting the up-and-down moods that are familiar to anyone who has experienced the long haul of cancer treatment. It is not a drama, but rather a struggle to continue day-to-day living with one more burden. If it weren't for the dung to sweep away, cancer patients and their families might occasionally forget the elephant in the living room. Still, as they man the brooms, many often find ways laugh about it.

Humor and wordplay is an enduring source of joy in the Stemple household, and both abound in this book despite many sonnets that describe loss of hair, beard, taste buds, and teeth -- collateral damage of the high-tech war against Mr. Stemple's unfortunately placed tumor. So when he dubs his wife "the Food Dominatrix," she uses it as the opening of "Food Wars: Third Front," adding, "I have ordered the boots and the whip."

The most difficult sonnet? "Words," from Day 38, which opens "There is one word we have not spoken: Death. / We are experts in circumlocution."

And the sweetest? Day 35's "Bird-Watching."

The birder goes once again to the woods,
The sites and sounds of his delight.
Weakened, still on liquidized foods,
He takes his granddaughter to watch the flight
Of hawk and dove and phoebe in the grass.
They mark their books, they talk of birds.
She helps to make the hard day pass,
She gives him more than comforting words;
She gives him back his sense of worth
His old strength, which I take away,
So worried about his lessening girth
Or the loss of hair totaled day by day.
There's nothing so strengthening than to be told
That you are a god by a seven-year-old.

The reviewer is the author of numerous science books for young readers. He recommends this book and the American Cancer Society's "I Can Cope" workshops to cancer patients and their families (www.cancer.org).