Ahead of Us by Dennis Haskell. Fremantle Press 2016.
Launched in early March, Ahead of Us is Dennis Haskell’s latest collection of poems, dedicated to his wife Rhonda. Broken into three sections, the poems shift from collected older poems, reflecting on metaphysical concerns and recurring motifs of travel, to a far more sombre and confronting series that details Haskell’s experiences of Rhonda’s battle with ovarian cancer.
The poems are unabashedly brave. There’s a steely focus on the minutiae of everyday struggles, wavering at the edges not into sentimentality, but genuine overflow of grief. Each poem is a moment of struggle, captured with documentary-like detail and dignity. To read the second section of Ahead of Us is to be confronted with direct, utterly compelling frankness about each stage of Rhonda’s diagnosis, surgeries, chemotherapy, symptoms of both illness and treatments, and passing. In addition, Haskell’s own “journey” continues, shifting purposefully away from the near-cliché of “our journey with cancer” to a more personal pilgrimage to places significant and joyous in his and Rhonda’s lives, as well as celebrating the lives of their sons and new grandson.
In an interview with Dennis Haskell, we conversed about his love for Rhonda, the importance of writing this book, as well as the mechanics of its production. The spectre of the cancer diagnosis and its pervasive presence in so many lives were at the forefront of our thoughts.
Haskell reflected: “When we were told about the cancer it was like a shot between the eyes.” A battery of scans had ensued – appointments with GPs, specialists, other specialists – not actually being told of the diagnosis, let alone its identity, until one eventual appointment with a specialist. “We were all still totally naïve, we had no idea – he just started talking about this terrible disease, and Rhonda asked him what he meant, and he said “well you’ve got ovarian cancer” and we were completely… we had absolutely no idea – his phone rang just as he told us, which gave us a chance to talk – it was like being shot between the eyes. I’ll never forget that moment as long as I live. I was just completely dumbfounded. He [the doctor] died of cancer himself not long after.”
Despite the dignity and precision of the poetry collection, Haskell is frank about the nature of entire, wrenching experience:
“You learn some things about yourself in this experience. Rhonda needed surgery and we were immediately keen to do that – again we were totally naïve. I’m reminded of a quote by Mary Gilmore: “But this loaf in my hand, this is my son’s bread” [“Nationality”]. I would have kicked someone off the boat for Rhonda’s survival, maybe not my own.”
On the subject of writing about cancer, and about life and death in general, Haskell is upfront:
“I don’t think grief has any numbers, there’s no mathematics for grief. George Bernard Shaw said something like that. Whatever might be said about the poems by way of literary criticism doesn’t matter one jot to me.”
Rather, the focus is Ahead of Us is on the importance of producing these poems, their dedication, and their future readers.
SH: The cover has turned out well. The photo is of Rhonda?
DH: “Yes. That’s the actual size of the original photo. I thought it wasn’t big enough to use! But Fremantle Press said no, it was fine. Originally there were these typewriter heads here as well, but they eventually removed them. They just drew the attention away too much. The place itself has been redesigned now. The same street sign. It’s more swish now, you couldn’t afford to rent there.”
SH: In reading the early poems, there are tussles with theory and reality. It’s not a rejection of abstraction, more like a criticism of the inadequacy of it, as if it has to be pushed to the side in favour of more direct engagements with each moment?
DH: “I guess I’m trying to do a lot of things if I think about it, I don’t when I’m writing of course. The metaphysics and the emotions and the ideas, the thinking how they belong together. I’ve said elsewhere that the best thing about poetry, which Ezra Pound pinched from the ancient Chinese: “only emotions endure” and in the end I think that’s what matters. Things like “my love is like a red, red rose” endures, because in the end it’s the emotional power that powers it. Poetry is a great unifying force – sensory, senses, emotions, rhythm and imagery- you couldn’t separate them, so that the rhythm and the imagery and the statement are all one. That’s what I hope is happening in the poems.”
“The “god” poems are all early poems. I wrote a number of them in my first book. I’m still interested in the idea of God, the concept of God, and I’m devoutly agnostic but my wife Rhonda was an atheist and was absolutely definite about that. One thing that I admired is that she never wavered on that, even on her deathbed. It’s a kind of strength. I don’t think anyone knows, really. I believe in metaphysics, but the idea that there’s a road map… I don’t think so… That comes into the poems in different ways.”
SH: I had heard at the launch that the narrative structure of the collection came later? It’s surprising because many of the poems really do read as though they were written with a narrative all along.
DH: “I said at the launch, it was never my idea! We had a lot of meetings and really thought about the order. We had this list that I drew up and they drew up of poems that might go in and those that might go out. That was much easier actually. I was worried at first when I mentioned this idea that the book would be all gloomy, because I always prided myself on having variety in a book, and even some funny poems. Hardly anyone writes those! But they did have a much more sensitive idea about it. Some of the travel poems don’t mention Rhonda at all in there. And some more light-hearted ones are in there.”
“There are little bits of jokes. I like the idea of poems having a range of emotions and in them and a range of tones. They shift and move, because life is like that. It’s complicated like that. You do get periods of intensity, of course, even a minute of absolute despair or delight or ecstasy or whatever. So sometimes that works in poems. Even in the short ones. Some of them are more philosophical and less personal, but I guess I try to match the personal intensity with the philosophical thought, you know with the contemplation, such as in “Plato’s Error” and the shadows on the cave. This is kind of like rejecting god, rejecting Plato – this is the real life!”
SH: Do the light-hearted poems work as a kind of emotional “buffer zone” to fortify readers before the much more intensive, emotionally-challenging poems to follow?
DH: “Yeah, you’re not quite sunk into doom and gloom. Then the structure – of course, I did this on instinct until someone pointed this out to me in a conference where I gave a reading in Austria – one of the speakers said how it “came up into light at the end”. I wasn’t consciously aware of it, but I knew how I wanted it to come. The three sections were always there. The last two sections never changed. The last section was always going to be just one poem about my grandson: new life and hope. I’m not a pessimist by nature really, so I didn’t want to end so, even if I was gloomy.”
SH: There are hints of this optimism even in the more confronting second section, such as in the poem “Birthday Present”.
DH: “Well yes, there is a kind of thing there with him having grown, you know, and he’s his own person now. And it’s all true. I never knew Rhonda had it [son Cameron’s newborn wrist tag from the hospital, featured in the poem] in her purse all along! The purse was something that I found in a drawer and I never knew she had this from the time he was born.”
“I do have guilt, but it’s just survivor’s guilt. It all seems so arbitrary, so that’s why the poem “Chance” was there. When Hayley from the Cancer Council spoke at the launch, she mentioned all those symptoms and Rhonda had none of those! The survival rate is just so low. They now think it’s for different diseases, but it grows there and if you’re not having babies you don’t notice it.”
“I wanted to write honestly about it all. That seemed to be absolutely crucial, more so than writing a good poem, but that would be ideal! I have enough pride in myself as a poet to want to write good poems.”
SH: The second section is difficult to read, but you can appreciate this intensity. The moments that were being described are almost itemised – it’s an unabashed looking at these realities, not turning away. Was this intentional?
DH: “It wasn’t planned like that and they’re not written in the exact order that they’re presented. The first two I wrote I had in my head for five months before I wrote them down, and that was because I had no time to write. I was so busy. I stopped teaching. My colleagues were great; Rhonda’s colleagues were great as well. There were only two poems for quite a while, and then they all came through I guess. I realised then that there were more of them written after she died than before.”
“A number of them were in one sense very easy to write, they just erupted out of me. Life wasn’t chaotic because you were doing the same things regularly. I was endlessly going to doctors and chemists. Rhonda had to look after herself. You don’t realise how much is involved until you go through it! You spend a lot of time on the road, and a hell of a lot of time on the phone, communicating with family and friends, as well as communicating with doctors. I was at the chemist three or four times a week. All this kind of stuff.”
“One of the poems features railway tracks. I went to the shops on a Saturday morning and before I went into the supermarket I just sat outside and wrote it. It hasn’t changed from the first draft. A few of them were like that. The little one about the driver’s licence took more time.”
“Some of the poems feel too straightforward, almost not dramatic enough. Some of them just erupted out of me. Some were written on the moment, one was written the night before one of Rhonda’s operations, on her lungs. I did change a few little things eventually, but I never showed them to her. Most of the poems she never saw.”
SH: Was there always an intention to get involved with Cancer Council in launching Ahead of Us?
DH: “I wasn’t immediately intending to do so, but then decided later. We had been to the Cancer Council for things, so I thought to approach them because they have support services and a lot of reach. I think the amount of money that I’ll be giving is not likely to be huge, but one thing they told me, and which surprised me, is that it’s very unusual for a man to get involved. They said partly it’s because of lack of time or opportunity, but partly it’s because cancer is so prevalent because we have an aging population and men tend to die before women. So the link with poetry was entirely new for them, and so too was the fact that it was from a man!”
SH: The directness of the poems is very appealing to a broad audience. When I passed the book along to my non-poetry-inclined sisters to read, they were able to resonate very strongly with the second section (one was moved to tears just reading the first poem). It’s able to speak to many readers. Is this what you intended for the collection?
DH: “My biggest hope is that it speaks to and for people that have been touched by the cancer experience, or any kind of trauma really. People who might not be able to verbalise it themselves. That’s my big hope for it, that’s what I’d really like.”
SH: Throughout the book there is a noticeable “journey” motif. What are your thoughts on this?
DH: “The Cancer Council has it as a motif: “your partner in your journey against cancer”. It’s become this cliché. This one is a journey in a way, I suppose. The railway tracks poem is a pretty despairing one, but there is a kind of journey motif there at times. I wasn’t conscious of it. I can show you the actual railway tracks, they’re out at Guildford and I drive over them all the time. I used to go walking and I stopped there once and watched them. They do run off into infinity. The title poem is about the freight trains running at night.”
“The “Ahead of Us” poem has stayed as the title and I always knew it would be the last in that section, but it does have a relevance to cancer that is not specified. We lived in Maylands in this townhouse and eventually had to move while Rhonda was having her second bout of chemo – she couldn’t make it up and down the stairs – so we moved and built this house out in Guildford. We went out there before we bought the block to listen to the planes and find out how noisy they were, but when we moved in, we woke up at night hearing the freight trains! But we both loved the sound. I don’t hear them any more, but I wish I did. That’s where the imagery comes from in the poem. It’s there ominously.”
SH: The intensity of the writing experience is definitely echoed in the tones of the second section.
DH: “I couldn’t write a lot of the poems now. The poems I’ve written since are much more subdued, melancholy, resigned. Not exactly accepting. I lost my anger about it first of all. One of the earliest stages of grief. I was angry before Rhonda was angry. Interestingly for her she got angry towards the end. I had it before and for longer, but once it was gone that was it. It is a different experience for me than for her. I was driving around while she was in hospital for a month, about a few weeks in. I turned a corner in Maylands and it hit me suddenly out of the blue: hang on, I don’t have cancer!”
“There are so many elements of the experience but despite having almost that complete empathy with her, it seems almost stupid that I had this revelation that I didn’t have cancer, but it’s true. The poems aren’t about my wife’s experience with cancer. I wish it were. I wish they were poems about my wife’s experience with cancer, but I can’t write them. They’re about my experiences of my wife’s experiences with cancer, and I wish I could write them, but I couldn’t and be honest. I’m just not good enough and I would love to. My experience of it is different. There’s a mention of this in one of the poems, “It’s worse for you than it is for me”, but I don’t believe that.”
“Another odd thing is when it was over, after the funeral is done and everyone leaves, and I realised that I didn’t have to do this running around any more. I had all this time. And I should have felt free, but I felt adrift. I didn’t feel free at all, I felt lost. I drove away from the hospital after leaving her body and thought “where do I go?” – but I felt like that on a larger scale.”
“I went, just on instinct, to Sydney to see family and then I went overseas to see people and places that had been important to Rhonda. I went to London to see her friend, and to Narvik which is where we always wanted to go back. We caught the train from Stockholm to Narvik with Eurail passes and we both thought it was on that train trip that I talked her into getting married. We thought it was the furthest you could get on a Eurail pass (I later found out that wasn’t true!) but it was on that trip there that we rang our parents. We always wanted to go back but never made it, so I went on these pilgrimages. I wrote a lot of the poems there.”
SH: Definitely an evolution beyond the journey motif! How was the experience of writing the poems away?
DH: “It was six weeks and very lonely. I had cheap rooms. The one in Stockholm had no windows, so they’d done it up like a ship’s cabin and it was in this room that stuff started pouring out of me. It was a tough trip, but it was very good to do. A number of the poems came out of that. And then when I put them in order, and they are in order more or less of how things happened. I usually had the idea of mixing poems up so you could get a bit of variety. The second section mostly dictated its own structure.”
“Seamus Heaney’s “Republic of Conscience” was probably in the back of my mind for the passport poem. The “Who or Why or How or What” poem was after the first bout of chemo and the nurse said all clear, and we just sat there weeping. That’s written earlier than some of the others, but seemed to belong there in that place. It’s very much the agnostic’s poem. I think it’s an agnostic poem. I did show Rhonda that one – it’s not an atheist poem. So there were bits of the book I was sure about and others I wasn’t. The long one about that night… I can’t go back and read it…Freud said somewhere that all art is therapy, and you hope it’s more than therapy, but I’m sure he was right.”
To read Ahead of Us is to be caught in a completely relatable and achingly personal experience of love and loss. The collection is poetically sophisticated and bluntly confrontational, easy accessible and an admirable poetic legacy for a very much loved individual.
Proceeds raised from Ahead of Us will be donated to the Cancer Council. Purchase details can be found here: https://www.fremantlepress.com.au/products/ahead-of-us
– Siobhan Hodge
Siobhan Hodge has a doctorate from the University of Western Australia in English. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. She is an Associate Editor at Rochford Street Review, Reviews Editor for Writ Review, and contributing reviewer for Cordite. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. Her chapbook of reflections on Sappho, Picking Up the Pieces, was published in 2012 as part of the Wide Range Chapbooks series. She has also had poetry and criticism published in several places, including Limina, Colloquy, Cordite, Plumwood Mountain, Page Seventeen, Yellow Field, Peril, Verge, and Kitaab.