Reviewed by Sara Hughes
When offering advice to writers, Henry James said, “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” In her second collection of poetry, I Watched You Disappear, Anya Silver demonstrates that she is a poet “on whom nothing is lost.” Constantly observing life through the lens of memory and story, Silver writes poems that grapple with illness and faith in a candid, refreshing manner. She does not shy away from presenting the realities of suffering, yet many of her poems are infused with joy and gratitude. Just as she did in her first collection, The Ninety-Third Name of God, Silver writes about living with Stage IV breast cancer, but a reader does not have to be familiar with the first book to appreciate this stellar second collection. Though Silver writes about breast cancer, she should not be known simply as “The Breast Cancer Poet.” Rather, her poems explore art, religion, motherhood, memory, and love, while always hinting at the universal truth that binds all humans: we will all die.
In “Sexually Explicit Lyrics, Ash Wednesday,” Silver presents a woman listening to explicit rap music while driving to church. The speaker explains that due to her cancer, she will never again have sex the way that the rapper describes in his song because “tumors freckle [her] right lung, / sparkling on the PET scan like tossed confetti.” However, the speaker takes pleasure in the momentary illusion that this song presents for her; this act of singing along with the rapper is its own type of communion. While singing the rapper’s words, the speaker asserts, “I can pretend that I’ll get whatever I like” and “I can dream of how it was when I had decades / left of sex and of somebody wanting my body.” The irony of the confetti simile is not lost on the reader, yet there is still delight to be found in the image of a woman singing along to hip-hop in her car, reveling in her sexuality, if only in a brief fantasy. Similarly, in her ode, “New Dress,” Silver celebrates feminine desire in the form of an extended metaphor. The speaker’s new dress is likened to a new lover; the speaker claims, “When no man will want me for a lover, or dream / of pulling you over my head, you’ll caress me, / won’t you?”
The poems in the second section of the book reference images from classic fairy tales. By displacing the subject matter of cancer, Silver can write more openly about the primal fear of separation between mother and child. The poems in this section adhere to a non-rhymed sonnet form. The poem that ends this section, “The Hazel Tree,” is loosely based on the German version of Cinderella (“Aschenputtel”). In the Brothers Grimm’s version of the story, Cinderella’s birth mother takes the form of a hazel tree after she dies, and whenever Cinderella visits the hazel tree, the tree provides the young protagonist with what she needs. This poem, dedicated to Silver’s son, is the most poignant of the sonnets in the section, and it is the only “sonnet” that does not have fourteen lines. In the poem, Silver reappropriates the image of the hazel tree to create her own myth about a mother who takes the form of a tree after her death in order to provide for her son. Silver describes the tree:
In time, her body fruited, rich and brown,
each nut a word she’d grown to tell her son
now that her speaking human voice was gone:
that she’d chanted stories in his blood,
sown language in his eyes so he could dream.
This “unfinished” sonnet (falling three lines short of the traditional fourteen lines) mirrors the theme of the poem – that a young mother’s death leaves the rearing of the child “unfinished.” While the subject matter for this section (as well as the whole book) has the potential for bathos, Silver masterfully avoids schmaltz and writes poem after poem that contain sentiment without being overly sentimental.
In contrast to the uplifting tone of many of her poems, the titular poem, “I Watched You Disappear,” begins, “That fucking doctor killed you. Killed you.” This is the one poem in the collection that expresses the speaker’s anger about death in an explicit way, yet the rage she explores is not limited to cancer patients and their families. This seemingly “found” poem (which in actuality is a very well-crafted poem) reads as a series of snippets from email correspondences or support group message boards, but the poem eschews self-pity and instead delves right into the gritty reality of watching someone die from an extended illness. In some lines, the poem seeks to find humor in the most desperate of situations; to one woman who has already died, the speaker says, “You should see the way [your husband] matches your daughter’s clothes. / You would snort water out of your nose laughing.” But by the third stanza, the speaker begins cataloguing all of the things “left behind” when someone dies. Silver enumerates:
You left three translations of Akhmatova.
You left your Lady of Guadalupe by the window.
You left your lungs, liver, spine.
You left in the thinnest hours of the morning.
You left on your last out breath.
You left into silence.
You left me. You left them. You left us.
In her enumeration, Silver hints at the frightening truth that most people prefer to avoid thinking about—that the “you” in the poem could easily be any of us. In fact, by the end of the poem, the addressed “You” no longer refers to a specific woman dying of cancer, but to each of us, including the speaker. In the poem’s haunting last line, “I watched you disappear,” the particular becomes the universal, and the reader understands the transference that has taken place. One day, someone will watch the reader disappear.
In 1991, Dana Gioia famously asked, “Can poetry matter?” Anya Silver’s book answers Gioia’s 23-year-old question with a resounding yes. I Watched You Disappear is at once vulnerable and strong, compassionate and intellectual, urgent and lingering, haunting and serene. To steal a phrase from former Georgia Poet Laureate David Bottoms, Silver’s poems express necessity. These are poems that needed to be written, and they need to be read.
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