Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1138
"At the Cancer Clinic" begins with a character who is identified by no other designation than "she." The body of the poem does not identify the setting, which readers already know from the title. The woman being described moves across the waiting room of the cancer clinic with...
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"At the Cancer Clinic" begins with a character who is identified by no other designation than "she." The body of the poem does not identify the setting, which readers already know from the title. The woman being described moves across the waiting room of the cancer clinic with the help of two other women. She is young, or at least young enough to be taken for the sister of two young women. They are helping her through the waiting room toward the examination rooms.
Readers can infer a couple of things from this brief description. For one, the woman being observed is so weak that she needs help walking: not just the extra strength of one person but, indeed, a person on each side of her, to balance her. That she is walking at all and is not chair-bound or bedridden indicates a sense of pride and inner resolve. Finally, the fact that her sisters are willing to take time to attend her doctor appointments with her shows that she has a loving family and implies that she is a person who deserves their affection. Line 3 introduces an observer, the "I" who is narrating the poem.
In the few words of these two lines, Kooser reveals much about the three sisters whom the narrator sees. The main one, the woman being helped, is apparently not too decayed from her illness: though she cannot walk without help, her body is still substantial enough to pull down on the arms that are supporting her, which bend under her weight. All three women are described as reflecting the same sort of attitude, which the poem describes with the words "straight" and "tough." Although illness is clearly a burden on them, they face it with resolve and with a unity that makes the bearing of the helpers indistinguishable from that of the person who is actually ill; even though only one body is stricken, all three are struggling with the disease.
Line 6 begins with the narrator's interpretation of the bearing of three sisters: it is courage. There are other things that it could be, other ways that readers could imagine this scene if Kooser did not describe it that way. Their "straight, tough bearing," described in line 5, might have been read as resolve, anger, resignation, numbness, or fear. Using the word "courage" spares the poem all of the description that it would have taken to get this concept across through imagery. The statement that the sisters' stance against cancer is courageous affects how readers imagine all of the rest of the actions in the poem.
Lines 7 and 8 introduce a new character, a nurse who is holding the door for the sisters as they approach the entrance to the examination area. Kooser emphasizes the difficulty that the three sisters have in moving across the room by telling readers that the trek, which cannot really be that far, must seem like a long distance to them. He reiterates that idea by having the nurse "call" to them across the distance.
The nurse is nothing but supportive: smiling, calling encouragement, and holding the door. In this poem, all of the people surrounding the cancer patient are selfless and supportive. While other poems might focus attention on the ways that hardship isolates individuals, "At the Cancer Clinic" concerns itself with the ways that people pull together with support and kindness.
After being identified by her kindness, the nurse is described in a way that contrasts with her actions. Her clothes are called "crisp white sails"; literally, this image refers to the stiff, starched points of her uniform cap, but figuratively it implies rigidity, unyieldingness, sterility, and impatience. She is, in fact, quite patient, as Kooser makes a point of noting with a slight hint of surprise in line 9.
Line 10 refers to the woman being observed as "the sick woman." The word "sick" is simple and direct: Kooser does not try to intellectualize her condition with a more complex description, nor does he try to wring pathos from it by using a word that is more graphic or disturbing.
In keeping with the tone of the rest of the poem, the narrator does not try to disguise the woman's condition. She is wearing a hat, probably because, like most people who take chemotherapy to combat cancer, she has lost her hair at the same time that her white blood cell count is diminished, making her vulnerable to disease. Chances are that if it is a "funny" hat, the sick woman has not been expending much thought on her wardrobe or caring about how she looks. She might also be exhibiting a sense of humor in the face of duress.
Line 12 looks at the sick woman's movement from her point of view, as if she is an objective observer and not an active participant. This estrangement from her own body gives readers an idea of what it must be like for her to be ill with cancer. Her weakness is shown in the awkward motion of her feet: each foot swings forward, as if by chance and not by its own volition; when it lands, it has weight put on it, taking the weight off the other foot. In these few words, the poem captures the awkwardness of severe infirmity and the lack of coordination of a body that is no longer under control.
Having directly characterized as "courage" the attitudes of the sick woman and the women who are helping her in line 6, the narrator makes sure that readers understand the situation by pointing out emotions that one might expect to be involved but that are strangely absent: restlessness, impatience, and anger. The lack of these feelings is extended to include the whole range of what the narrator can see: there are other patients in the clinic's waiting room, as is implied by the poem's final line, and the narrator is crediting them with having controlled emotions as well.
The moment of watching this brave woman walk, with help, toward her examination is called a "mold" in line 16; it is an empty form, waiting to be filled with a meaning that will then take on its shape. Kooser says that this mold is filled with Grace, which he capitalizes.
This moment of Grace, with a capital "G," is not noticed just by the poet but is also palpable to all who see it. The magazines mentioned in line 17 are shuffled by people who are trying to wait their turns, impatient to see the doctor, to find out prognoses and get on with their own lives, but they fall silent as everyone there notices the sick woman accepting help. They all feel the Grace, and it takes them away from their small, ordinary concerns.