Sunday, November 8, 2015

Dancing on a Pin - Katerina Vaughan Fretwell (Inanna Publications)

Today's book of poetry:
Dancing on a Pin.  Katerina Vaughan Fretwell.  Inanna Publications.  Toronto, Ontario.  2015.

Susan McCaslin called Dancing on a Pin "a powerful threnody."  I sent out the Today's book of poetry research team on a fact finding mission and they came back with this definition: "a mourning song or hymn, performed as a memorial to a dead person."

Well, Dancing on a Pin is certainly that.  Katerina Vaughan Fretwell's sad litany is a report from the front lines of a cancer story.

Fretwell is unremorsefully candid in this prolonged banshee wail.  If there is beauty she finds it - but these poems are not for the weak of heart.

Cancer en camera

Lung cancer was still the biggest killer among cancers...

     No 'Dear' for you -- tap-rooting inside Jack. Dr. Crusher
opens our teleconference, Stage IV, no chemo, your heart can't take it.
Nor mine, the news a steaming cow plop. Lung tumours are kernel
size. Cornfield disguise, clever. CA, Jack loves corny jokes.
Pinhead-size ones hide in the liver?

     As we hoe that row, he adds, Come in two months after
another CI scan. Screen blacks out nurse smiles, Didn't suggest making
a will.

     So Cancer, how many devils line-dance on a pinhead? It's
you I hate, not Dr C beholden to his Oath. But you lousy garden of
loose strife. I'm Jack's wife. He envisions you yanked out. No matter
what, we allot you not one God-particle of our fertilized love.


Fretwell is an open book as she details the climbing of a very difficult mountain.

The cover of Dancing on a Pin is a detail from one of the many paintings Fretwell painted during her perilous trek.  These paintings appear throughout this collection of poetry and many of them are sadly beautiful detailed explorations of cancer cells.  Fretwell is nothing if not full frontal and full speed ahead.  These paintings become very poignant markers of the confrontation Fretwell and her dying husband endure.

Free Ride

But of all diseases, cancer had refused to fall into step in this march of

You're Kokopele in a gangster's fedora, the rabbit that stomped the
magician's top hat, the sly undercurrent in a cat-tail swamp.

May you slow down, smell the rosebush and forgo shape-shifting.
Eschew the temptation to be a giant Cineplex.

Content yourself as a cornfield kernel. Please yourself as pinhead for
jitterbugging angels and vermillion-devils.

Bromeliad to Jack's Wise Oak, bacterium to his intestinal fortitude --
attest to the truth, you symbiotic parasite.

Guests don't abuse their hosts. It's rude to clog up the plumbing or
the fan, short the circuits  dim the halogen.

If you bulge like a tuberous begonia, beware Raid, Weed Killer, and
above all, my Meditation Book and Prayer Wheel.


Fretwell inserts as much humour as she can find into this battle.  And it is a sad story with just the one ending regardless of how brave Fretwell remains.

We care because these poems work.  We are, in our small way, beside Fretwell and her stoic husband as they suffer, as they endure, and as the fates make their final play.

Fretwell remains clear eyed and crystal clear in her frank confrontations.  To make art out of this much sorrow is a gift to both her beloved husband and to us grateful readers.

Jack, My Heart

     The question ... will not be if we will encounter this immortal
illness (cancer) ... but when.

     That sunless afternoon, face roseate, signs vital, surgery set.
I kiss your blue lips, our devotion voiced, you're trucked to OR.

     Your Isolation Room bereft, I race for java. Two best friends
bolster me in Family Wait Room. We crawl up the clock. 7pm,
Dr Decker

     diagrams upcoming re-section past your gut's inoperable
golf-ball. More waits, more updates. Code Blue Code Blue Code Blue

     our pin-drop silence. My heart-on-ice. More waits, more
updates, sprinting docs & nurses. Eons later, we pilgrimage

     to ICU. No heartbeat for twenty minutes, on life support and
clunky respirator, coma. Major brain-damage?

     Jenny prods, Touch him! I cup your cold shoulder, promise,
We will share eternity. It's okay for you to die.

     To nurse, friends, your eyes stay shut. To me, they open.
Your Spirit's final code for me alone. Us, winners, cancer loser.

January 29, 2013


I've read that poem six or seven times now, makes me weep, every time, I'm crying right now.

Today's book of poetry loves it when a book of poetry knocks us on our arse.  We love a book that kicks you awake, makes us feel something real.

Katerina Vaughan Fretwell

Award-winning poet and professional artist, Katerina Vaughan Fretwell’s poetry and art reside across Canada and in Denmark, Japan, and across the United States. Recent poetry collections include Class Acts, Angelic Scintillations and Samsara: Canadian in Asia and Shaking Hands with the Night. Her poetic sequence “Quartzite Dialogues” was set to music by Michael Horwood and performed at the Festival of the Sound in 1999 and 2004 and at the Takefu Music Center in Japan in 1999. She is a member of the feminist caucus of the League of Canadian Poets. She lives just south of Parry Sound, Ontario.

Dancing on a Pin is a powerful threnody for the loss of her husband to the ravages of cancer. It is also a cultural, ecological, and spiritual inquiry into the history of the disease. This poignant process work, complemented by Fretwell's masterful sketches and paintings, spare us neither a direct gaze into cancer's ravaging maw, or an easy dismissal of hope. We become fellow travellers as we dance with Katerina and Jack on the head of a pin, the pin both of the first tiny cancerous tumours and the pinhead of pain and loss. The poet's render ironies guide us into the abyss and back.
     - Susan McCaslin, author of Into the Mystic: My Years with Olga

Katerina has translated the broken DNA codes of her husband's cancer, and the broken chains of love it tried to make of their lives, into life. This is mastery: rhyme, metre, space, timing, air, sound and silence, are laid out in DNA strings and sprays of all shapes and all the spirit and physicality of a poet at the peak of her craft. There is the intensity of Emily Dickinson here, the physicality of Ted Hughes, the radiance of Kathleen Raine, the transcendent mourning of Phyllis Nakonechny, and now, I must add to this list: the full presence of Katerina Fretwell.
     - Harold Rhenisch, author of The Spoken Word

Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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