Poem of the Week | December 20, 2021

This week’s Poem of the Week is “Oddfellows 215” by M. Soledad Caballero!
M. Soledad Caballero is Professor of English and co-chair of the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at Allegheny College. Her scholarship focuses on British Romanticism, travel writing, WGSS, and interdisciplinarity. She is a Macondo fellow, a CantoMundo fellow, has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, has been a finalist for the Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith poetry prize, a finalist for the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award, was winner of the 2019 Joy Harjo poetry contest sponsored by Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, and winner of SWWIM’s SWWIM-For-the-Fun-of-It contest. Her poems have appeared in the Missouri Review, the Iron Horse Literary Review, the Crab Orchard Review, and other venues. Her first collection, I Was a Bell, won the 2019 Benjamin Saltman poetry prize and will be published by Red Hen Press in 2021. She is an avid tv watcher and cheese eater, and is a terrible birder. She splits her time between Pittsburgh, PA and Meadville, PA.

 

Oddfellows 215

Here is where the tumor grew, a small hill with wild ants, browns and blacks
the size of grains of sand, or maybe the size of grey water-worn pebbles. Yes

it grew here in this yellow and brown second floor room, where students come
trudging up the stairs in the bleak light of winter, sit and cry in my purple chair

about mothers, exams, insurance bills. In this room, where I hand out Kleenex,
it grew, like kudzu along the walls, lace of green, thick veins and tendrils, like

the curl of a question mark. When did it start to bloom, this tissue, this mound
of fat and cells with teeth? When did it burst through the walls, thick like rope,

a tight, hard rock pulsing heat? I grew here too, young scholar, bright from
the trenches of graduate school, arrived already bruised after battles with

theory. In this room, I started reading again, for the first time it seemed.
Gathered up books, blood, wanted to remember the joy of the thing. How

much I longed to find more than flaws in metaphors after graduate school.
In this room I tried for magic. I tried to be more than being lost. I tried for

something like love. Now two decades in what am I exactly? Not as new.
Not as tender. Not as. But words seem small for this metamorphosis. As I

learned again to feel what time can do for the scars of learning, this tumor
grew. A silent bomb, a shadow coal creature without light. These cells found

life inside me, made whole universes with mitosis, clung to the soft parts of
my body and flung themselves into living like wild fire in a parched forest.

After all the months of poison, of mouth sores and night terrors and sweat, I am
back in this room again. There is an aching, silent hole inside my right breast.

The room is still the color of canaries after rain, the books and words seem never
to have left, as if they burrowed a place inside the shelves, a home of black ink and

paper. Again, I sit here in this room of my life, after the war with raging cells, waiting
to find the world new again, waiting to see what this body and love and time can do.

 

Author’s Note

For me this poem is a love poem to what happens as we gain wounds and suffering and look at them after they have happened or been formed. As I thought about how to write this poem, I wanted to think of the way small moments between people can be as magical and as tragic as anything that might be considered epic. I chose couplets because they seem to contain an idea of order but couplets also can create the idea of a staircase, of staggered ways of building images and of linking memories, like this poem links memories of learning to teaching and then to illness. I was also really attracted to the idea of simultaneity as I wrote and rewrote this poem, which is why I liked the structure of ‘as I was doing x this other thing was also happening.’ Cancer for me in this poem functions as that kind of dramatic irony, that more than one thing is happening at a time. This poem was my quiet attempt to think about that and use the seeming order of couplets to create a structure for that ‘as this is so is this’ framing.

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