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Edited by liz gonzález

Don’t Turn Away:
Poems About Breast Cancer

by Patricia Wellingham-Jones

PWJ Publishing, 2000

Patricia Wellingham-Jones, Ph.D., RN, is a former psychology researcher, writer, editor and lecturer, now writing primarily poetry and short stories from her creek-side home in northern California. She has been widely published in anthologies, journals and online. A Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the Reuben Rose International Poetry Prize, 2003, she has ten other collections of poetry in print.

Reviewed by Sylvia Rosen

Currently in its third printing, Don't Turn Away: Poems About Breast Cancer has been honored by the literary community and medical profession, earning a Pushcart Prize nomination as it makes its way around the world.

In the 23 pages of Don't Turn Away, Wellingham-Jones takes the reader with her on her unexpected, personal journey. Starting with the discovery of the lump in her breast when she "wanted to bite off / those traitor fingers, / spit them out," through the biopsy, surgery and recovery, these poems are refreshingly honest in their imagery and scope, touching and well crafted, without any dollops of self-pity. Many nurses in different parts of the world keep a few extra copies of Don't Turn Away around to hand out to patients diagnosed with breast cancer because it communicates on so many levels.

Wellingham-Jones poignantly contrasts her childhood body image to that of her present, changing adult body in "Put a Sock in It." She recalls a childhood memory of being told "Put a sock in it" when she chattered away, annoying her family. Then, borrowing her mother's bra in much the same way that young girls try on make-up, imagining being grown-up, she "Stuffed socks smelling of yesterday's sweat into B-cups," borrowed her big sister's best sweater and "sashayed forth" to enjoy an "outraged shriek, mother's gasp" and "Tried to figure out father's twinkle." Two weeks after her incision healed, Wellingham-Jones revisits that memory and continues to explore her relationship with her breasts as she "stuffed an old bra with quilt batting. / Spent the morning tugging and patting, / checked each mirror I passed." Later she gets her first new bra fitted, emerging "weighted and balanced," adjusting her changing self-image to the perky one "bouncing from shop windows," wishing she had her sister's best sweater again.

In the title poem of the book, "Don't Turn Away," Wellingham-Jones shares an intimate moment, courageously placing the words on the page the way her thoughts must have hung in the air as she prepared to expose her scarred body to a new lover.

Now you want to undress me.
I don't know if I can bear it.
Sometime back, I told you
about the phony lump in my bra...

...when you step back and run your eyes
over my one nipple, across the dented
healing slash, up to my face,
will I see on your skin
the ripple of revulsion, a strained smile,
the cooling of heat?

Throughout Don't Turn Away we find the poet holding on to her love of nature as if it were her talisman against "these mornings of dark questions" when she "looked Death in the eye." Drawing on nature to comfort her is first evident in her poem about the biopsy, "The Body Knows":

I lie on the gurney, wrapped in blankets
warmed and snuggly, lift my mind
out of the hospital, try to wheel
with hawks in the sky.

In other poems she collects and savors images of "this quiet room threaded with purr of cat / the clear cool riffle of a creek purling among rocks" or picking apricots "giddy with spring, gulping fresh soft air" to keep her from focusing on the pain. The reader sits with Wellingham-Jones in a rocking chair under an elderly sycamore tree as her pace is slowed in the recovery process and "The spool of time unwinds / its long trail of sunsets. / Grass grows perceptibly from morning to / night."

At some point one can only hope that a major publisher will come along and reprint some of Patricia Wellingham-Jones' chapbooks in one volume, as happened for Diane Wakoski in her book, Trilogy. However, the short length of Don't Turn Away belies its importance. It has a lasting impact on those who read it.

Sylvia Rosen is a veteran L.A. poet currently based in northern California. Her first book, Dreaming the Poem, a Dream Journal, was published by Red Wind Books. A poetry chapbook is forthcoming in October 2004, and a volume of prose poems is due in 2005.

Poet, please send me a proposal of your review of a poetry book or chapbook at: liz@poetix.net. Write "Proposal for In Review" in the subject line so I don't think it's spam. - liz