64pp, April 2020,
To read Rosemary McLeish’s new book, Defragmentation, is to find yourself trapped
in someone else’s nightmare. You feel as if you’ve stumbled across someone’s private
diary or notes from a therapy session, and in typically instant karma for your
snooping, discover something more horrible than you’re prepared to endure.
In this instance, as the introduction makes clear, the unendurable something is cancer.
Spine cancer, which leaves Rosemary sleepless, in pain, frightened, angry. This book
does not record a journey, she explains; it contains no words of wisdom; it’s not about
the human spirit triumphing over adversity; it’s about recording the contents of her
heart as she lives with this monstrous disease. Other people’s reactions to her
situation have proven baffling and devastating; she’s needed to find a way through on
her own, and writing has offered a path, alongside her art – the collection is illustrated
with her drawings, cartoonish splatters, like gaudy emoticons, which she explains are
based on post-mortem photographs of cancer in the bones. It’s called
Defragmentation, which in computing seems to mean a way to keep all the important
bits of data, to prevent their being broken up to fit on a disc. In this book, Rosemary
is putting herself back together in one place.
I hated reading it but I’m so glad I read it. In parts, it seemed almost unbearable. I
felt guilt at being able to throw it aside, turn to something lighter, escape the
nightmare that’s her daily lot. On a second read, you see glimpses of dark humour, a
mischievous joy in saying the things that are never said, ideas more taboo than all
else – that life is horrible, painful, pointless, and once it’s over, you’ll be forgotten,
deader than the dodo she addresses. (“Who remembers your beautiful plumage now?
All we know is your extinction.”) She doesn’t spare her reader a single night terror,
nor moment of anguish – why should she? She wrote this for her sake. There is so
much she doesn’t know about her disease and its progress, so much that’s been kept
hidden from her, so much that no one knows – whether the cancer will move up her
spine to engulf her brain, or down to her bowels, and which would engender the
worst indignity. They won’t tell her what’s likeliest, declaring it unhelpful to
But in the quiet of the night there’s
no holds barred and my imagination
easily slips the leash and it’s yip, yip, yap.
yap, let’s nose out all those nasty
smells and blood-curdling fears, let’s
rootle around in the filth at the bottom
of the psyche, let’s slurp the dirty water
from the bowl, sniff out the rot and
suppurating sores, let’s wallow
in disgust at scenarios of agonising pain,
madness, cruelty, let’s open the door
and let in the whole shebang.
She writes things the dying aren’t meant to write. We are too keen to exploit their
fate, to make them stand in as metaphors for something we fear to face ourselves; to
conquer rage, then glide away serenely into the unknown, filled with wisdom and
contentment. Rosemary confounds her reader. She is angry, frightened, wretched,
making repeated references to herself as a haggard old crone, screaming at nurses and
carers. She doesn’t want her story to be a heart-warming life lesson. She wants it to
be brimming with unpalatable truth, shit-stained, agonising, unendurable,
undignified, and ultimately, meaningless.
The language is unadorned. You can’t mistake her meaning. This is less poetry, more
the snarled guttural mutterings of a cornered animal – an image she returns to
repeatedly – and she refuses to allow us to draw any neat, comforting conclusions
from her suffering. In Making Every Moment Count, she tells us:
I’m not going to make a bucket list.
I’m not going to be a better person.
I’m not going to learn a positive attitude.
I’m not going to fight.
I’m not going to make my peace.
I’m not going to be long-suffering…
because if I make every moment count
I’ll be reminded every moment
that I’m going to lose all this,
all this half-empty glass of misery,
annoyance, repetition, laziness,
sooner than they can say
metastasis, prognosis, end of life.
How I cheered for her. Why should the dying set an example to the rest of us?
Suffering doesn’t often purify, still less sanctify: more usually it makes us
unendurably bad-tempered. The dying aren’t metaphors for us to live by, they’re flesh
and blood bags of symptoms and misery, and should be allowed the dignity of
remaining so. There is truth in dignity. There’s much talk of the value of truth in this
book. Yet also there is a dignity in lying, as Rosemary mentions with regard to her
husband in Pants on Fire, lying about how cheerful he feels, how much he can cope,
how well he can bear her pain – for a lie told artfully, from kindness, is always more
revealing than the truth.
The “cancer as journey” metaphor is explored and exposed further in All the Long
Distance Walks I Never Took. She is unprepared for this journey, her back crumbling,
ill-equipped, unsure where she’s going, without any sense of triumph at its
completion, or of one chapter ending and another beginning. No. “All I’ve been told,
and even that’s provisional, is that my destination is death.”
It’s years since a book made me cry. This one got me eight poems in, at Romance
Never Dies, in which she compares the romance we see in old Hollywood films, the
glamorous starlet in draped white gown carried up the staircase to bed by handsome,
suited husband, to her current lot, in too much pain to countenance touch:
So perhaps instead you could go upstairs
and get me my hearing aids,
so I can hear once again Fred Astaire singing
“Just the way you look tonight”.
Romance isn’t always pretty. She imagines her husband after her death, ironing her
favourite kimono, furious at himself for his lousy domestic efforts, and tells him:
….I’ll haunt you
until you see the truth: you are enough,
you are good, you made my life
complete. Complaints are done.
Dash your self-doubts away.
You know I’m in your heart forever
as you endure in mine.
There are glimmers of hope and relief in this book, and particularly in her impatient
affection for her husband and family. There are more poems that offer nothing but
crippling despair. They seem to centre around the night, those hours before dawn
which crush all reason and hope. In Five Words About Cancer she tells us, “I am the
page my spine was written on…the words falling off the page one by one….There is/
no god, there never was, and human kindness/ is a myth made up to comfort the
Is there a comfort in thinking the unthinkable, then writing it? That there is only this
horrifying meaninglesss pain, then eternal blackness? There is at least the comfort of
And yet the truth can bring comfort too. In Kintsugi, the Beauty of the Broken, she
speaks of the breaks within her that can yet be filled with gold – “someone says “I
like your poem”,/or a doctor listens kindly, or the Hospice /nurse gives me a hug…
until the fragments of this faulty/toy live on in greater beauty.” It’s a joyful reminder
of the value of tiny acts of kindness even in the worst circumstance. Don’t look the
other way. Do what you can.
It seems criminal of me to try to explain Rosemary’s words, summarise them, change
them; against the very spirit of this project. These are her experiences and her words
and to read them is to be engulfed in her own personal private hell. Please buy her
book. If you’re young and healthy it will frighten you. Leave it on the shelf, for the
time will come when you will again seek it out, and acknowledge, with a sigh of
painful recognition, how much this woman understood.