We all know we are going to die, but most of us don’t know when. After being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at the age of 37, Teva Harrison knew the end was coming much sooner than she wanted. By the time she died on April 27, 2019, Harrison had already documented her experience with cancer in her acclaimed graphic memoir, In-Between Days. In Not One of These Poems Is About You, she continues to delve into what cancer was doing to her in the five years between diagnosis and death.
The 29 poems in this slim volume are deceptively simple. Harrison’s style is direct, and complete sentences are deployed to create a sense of order and balance. But as the reader proceeds, it becomes apparent that any order is being exploded by the essential tension in the poems: life versus death. Contrast is one of Harrison’s main techniques, and it is developed exquisitely in “The Things I Do to Keep Cancer on the Down-Low.” Harrison opens with a comment someone (perhaps anyone) might think is a compliment: “You don’t look sick.” Her appearance is important to her. She wants to “feel pretty.” But, as she says, “the spreading, blooming decay under [her] skin” is what really matters.
In “A Pocketful of Stones,” Harrison writes about climbing Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, and collecting stones to memorialize herself, her husband, her mother and sisters, and her friends. As she ascends, the contrast between the stones she has collected and the ones she is walking on heightens the expression of sadness: “I am careless in my grief. / Slip on gravel, send / it tumbling down the cliff face. / I am careful in my grief. / Keep the precious rocks safe / as I climb.”
To live with incurable cancer means a person is close to the line between life and death. Initially Harrison could travel. But as the disease progresses, her strength ebbs and basic functions become challenging. In “Sustenance Song,” she points out that despite eating with other people more, she does not feel she is in company much. “So how long, how long, until I disappear?”
The most difficult poems to read are those directed to her husband. It is hardly possible to imagine how painful it must be to watch a young wife suffer. Harrison knew how her condition affected him: in “When I Become You,” she expresses a desire to slip into his skin and comfort him. “I want to breathe myself into you, / curve my body around your heart. / If I could, I know I could keep you safe, / safe from the inevitable end of my body, / my being.” She recognizes they will not grow old together and even imagines him falling in love with “someone new and healthy.” It is difficult to conceive of anybody reading these poems without tears in their eyes.
Harrison describes the pain, the medications and treatments, the sense of loss, the anger – “fucking cancer” – in short, the world of someone with so much to live for and so little time left. Incredibly, she used her diminished time to create a heart-rending depiction of disease and its effects, complete with many tiny, beautiful drawings of flowers, insects, stars, and birds. Facing death, Harrison still found beauty in the world and wanted to share it. The final illustration is a full page of butterflies, and unlike the previous illustrations, this one is in colour.