The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care by Anne Boyer
by Lauren Fournier
Anne Boyer understands that “pain doesn’t destroy language: it changes it.” As a poet, Boyer follows this maxim within the body of her latest book, The Undying, writing through the ways her recent experiences of pain surrounding triple-negative breast cancer—its diagnosis, treatment, and aftermath—change her language and her understanding of medicine, politics, livability, and community. This book is biopolitics after biopolitics, extending 20th century Foucauldian thought to the 21st century, with its literal-symbolic horrors of pink fracking drills.
Boyer writes from a place of relative neoliberal failure—as a cis, white woman, but also as a woman in her forties, a single woman, a single parent, an adjunct instructor and, now, a sick woman. But she does not remain there in any static sense. Instead she hovers slightly above the surface of facticity, like Saint Teresa of Avila, finding room for transcendence in and through socio-economic realities.
Boyer opens the book by naming a community of women writers and theorists who, in addition to writing texts that influenced her, died of breast cancer or related complications (including suicide following a diagnosis, as was the case with “The Yellow Wallpaper” author Charlotte Perkins Gilman). Alongside this literary community is an online one of vloggers and message-board posters who share their experiences of triple-negative breast cancer and their treatments. The jouissance or painful pleasure of the internet, with its (im)possible communities, comes into view. Boyer reads the comments on the vlog of a recently deceased vlogger, whose husband steps in to do one last video in the wake of his wife’s death, thanking the online community for their support. Boyer knows that this vlogger has just died of the very thing she herself is trying to fight.
As Boyer writes, she is in communion with women who are deceased and others who are still alive, or rather, who are still “undying”—at least for now. For all its vulnerability, the book refuses to be maudlin, even when it could be. Boyer theorizes, shares, and collectively organizes. She distills what she knows as a poet who knowingly writes within a long history of other poets and philosophers.
Boyer makes evident the disingenuousness of the pink ribbon as a stand-in for breast cancer and the possibility of surviving it. What use is awareness, she asks, when only five percent of the National Cancer Institute’s annual budget goes to prevention, and the majority of women who “survive” are left heartbroken and alone, unemployed, brain-damaged, and abandoned? She calls out the villainous Susan G. Komen, who took the idea for the pink ribbon from a grassroots activist named Charlotte Haley in the ’80s, an example of how the efforts of activists can be misappropriated and denatured to the point of standing for their antitheses. The now multi-millionaire Komen produced pink-branded commodities in the name of so-called awareness, such as a perfume later taken off the market because it contained known carcinogens.
For Boyer, breast cancer is an intersectional feminist issue. Lived realities such as race and class—as well as being single or unmarried, rather than married or partnered (an interesting, convincing addition she emphasizes throughout)—are hyperconsequential to survival. Black women in the US, she notes, are still dying of breast cancer at inordinately high rates: “These women’s deaths are racist and unnecessary, and our grief over them should tear open the earth.”
Boyer writes of the toll chemotherapy takes on the body-mind. That it may leave you partially brain-dead might be anyone’s nightmare, let alone someone whose livelihood depends on thinking, recalling, writing. And yet Boyer’s language is supple, sagacious. In her characteristic fashion, she writes on a foundation of anchoring texts, such as Aelius Aristides’s Hieroi Logoi (c. 170 CE), John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1623), Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals (1980), and Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (1974) —making them all relevant. For Boyer, the epistemology of late-capitalist breast cancer consists of what she calls “durable untruths.” She addresses some of them, including ones persisting in art and literary canons, such as the myth that Kathy Acker chose to die in a vaguely suicidal way when she refused chemotherapy.
Boyer is an intellectual’s poet with a very big heart, assembling her various references with the ease and non-pretense of, dare I say it, a true genius. This book is no exception, and feels especially needed in a time when the horrors of neoliberal (un)life can overshadow hope. Boyer extends a feminist politics of refusal to the end of life, within and outside hospital and hospice spaces. “But to live the last months of one’s life as a person, not a mere patient, is not easy,” she writes. “Refusal can be isolating: the social enforcement of medical compliance around a gendered disease like breast cancer, brutal.” Even short qualifiers in The Undying —“But despite how everything in the world seems set up to kill a woman before she is actually dead…” —heighten the book’s force, like a punch to the gut.
Still, Boyer takes care of her readers. She is aware of the need for catharsis, release. Near the end of the book, in the chapter “In the Temple of Giulietta Masina’s Tears,” Boyer shares the plan she had before she got sick to create a place for public weeping: “it would be like God’s Tabernacle in Exodus, a precisely imagined architecture of shared sadness.” This follows Boyer’s reflections on breath that close the preceding chapter (“Respiration is a refeeding of what is abstract into what is so tangible it changes our form, at least slightly”). She describes her time in chemotherapy as “the season of Cartesian weeping … an endless feelings-less weeping.” From Boyer’s experience and her readings, she now knows this is characteristic of the flooding, dead affect of a chemo patient—where what drips from your eyes is something other than tears.