Dale Smith
from Cento magazine

A Paramount Interrogation
Chemo Sábe. Edward Dorn, Rick and Rosemary Ardinger, editors
Cover by Ray Obermayr, Limberlost Press
17 Canyon Trail, Boise, Idaho 83716,


Here's a strange and beautiful document of death. I mean, this is an account of living with an alien whose death only comes with the passing of its host. Like some ancient Gnostic heresies, modern oncology presents a terminology and strategy for addressing Evil. Only, cancer is not entirely a spiritual battle. The physical process is all too real, too terrible in its consequences. But in the Church of Big Science and Industrial Medicine, the tumor is that great Space Invader attacked by the fire and brimstone of post-modern pharmacology.

"On My 28, 1997, Ed was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer after exploratory surgery," writes Jennifer Dunbar Dorn in a preface to this letterpress chapbook. "From now on," he wrote, "I'm under House Arrest— / I only get out for the job: / Then, Death—the ultimate / House Arrest, the ultimate durée— / But it was worth it."

Mostly, the 23 poems here were written in a spirit of tendence and aversion, archaic Greek practices for diverting evil and tending what good there is available. Despite submission to the medical industry, including four chemotherapies, these poems, some written in heightened or altered states, function as archaic penetrations into the cultural and personal meaning of his disease. By archaic, I mean there are no higher forces for Dorn to call on, no absolute vision underlying the rude and mundane core of his experience. There were just the words and actions of his professional healers, their practices and his reception of them within a greater frame of State. This Empire too establishes and maintains an industry devoted to pain and suffering, releasing carcinogens and then spending massive amounts of money to push toxins from dying hosts. The poet here leaves a record of perceptive living in actual conditions, even if those conditions are made of the psychopathology of contemporary state medicine.

One of the few poems not directly about his cancer relates a social and hereditary genealogy. "My tribe," he wrote, "came from struggling labor / Depression South Eastern Illinois / Just before the southern hills start / To roll toward the coal country / Where the east / west morainal ridges / Of Wisconsin trash pile up…." It's a great American poem in that it relates an unsettling geographic description of a people through the places they live and the work they do. It is also an indictment against the state on behalf of those people. "Governments always conspire against / The population," he writes, "and often / This is not even malice; / Just nothing better to do."

The final stanza identifies his American tribe with "every defiant nation this jerk / Ethnic crazy country bombs." Kurds, Serbs and Iraqis are a few of the countries he names. You get the idea. The enemy is this State, America, Europe, the Big Money guys and the Big Cancer Producers.

World leaders can claim

What they want about terror,

As they wholesale helicopters

To the torturers—


But I'm straight out

Of my tribe from my great grandma Merton

Pure Kentucky English—it would take more paper

Than I'll ever have to express how justified I feel.

This poem is a kind of testament, a final relation of where he stands against State proposals of land division, political economy, social engineering and ethnic chicanery.

Dorn, following his teacher Charles Olson, engages in his work the world, rather than more domestic or local spaces. Poems in this collection like "Tribe," continue this same level of engagement and revolt. In an interview several years ago in the Chicago Review, he said:

...there's a huge politic in Olson and a huge knowledge of it. With Oppen, those are small, pretty unpretentious, quite well-crafted objectivist poems, but they don't engage the world. They engage a personal, local reality. I think actually that's a Romantic inheritance insofar as it's personal. And all of the Objectivists actually are probably mini-Romantics in that sense.

With this commitment to the world over domestic and personal localities comes also a fierce and unyielding indictment and attack on the state and official state concepts. You might say with Dorn that everything mankind has accomplished since the late Paleolithic has been a mistake, particularly where agriculture and civilization are concerned. In the same interview, he said:

…the fact is that the Theogony was a pastoral scene, with shepherds and nymphs and all the real life of a non-pernicious order. That is, there's no supra-national state; it just goes back to the hearth and, well, the real Romantic tie, actually.

... ... ...

And then you get into the hideous thing that apparently will never go away, which is the rise of the state and the shifting of people off the land to the city which started then, and nevermore will people ever be left alone to do what, presumably, they ought to do. And they will be slaves forever, as they are now. Slavery simply shifts its terms. It never ends. There's one kind of slave that's black and came across on a ship, on a shelf, and there's another kind that was born in Manchester in 1710.

These words help frame for us the poem "Tribe," which is a more condensed and sympathetic articulation. But the fuckery of state is central to his world engagement.

"I think that the state is the most pernicious invention, after God, that man ever perfected," he said. "I'm just against everything because I know it's bad. If it's proposed by mankind, then it's gotta be fucked. Which is not a politics, actually."

Another poem in this collection, "Chemo du Jour: The Impeachment on Decadron," shows how world engagement and state hatred can be articulated under chemotherapy.

The butterfly needle. The nurse patting the vein,

searching for a wall to carry the load of Decadron.

Decadron sharpens the senses

around the optic nerve and the neocortex,

enabling one to see through walls and into

the present—


... ... ...


Yet behold! I see W.J. [Clinton]

light up a beeg Stogy from Havana Viejo

and take a call from a Congress person,

while receiving joint rejuvenation from below.


I see him in the Taxol pooling over my brow

move his arky hand from the arm rest

to the Iraqi button and then my

supercharged vision bends and stabilizes

an image of a white woman's severe

and Germanic demeanor in the Senate Well

Harold Ickes lied I see graffiti-like on the back

of the Volvogarbage collector vehicle plus

a list of renowned same-sex freaks whose names

cannot even be uttered.

The unit ponderously passes through the securigate

and way beyond, reflected in the surface

image collector of the steroid, the curvature of the earth

from the obscure Islet of Diego Garcia East of

the Arabian Peninsula an experimental

missile vibrates and flames and then launches

from the carrier, and Oh Good Lord, minutes later,

as the nurse strips away the Medusan tubes of my oncology,

American dumb missile arrives with punity

in the southern suburbs of Baghdad, ruined Cradle of civilization,

just north of the Garden of Eden which looks, I must say,

rather abused and tacky now that Bill has had his way—

in the Celestial Light of public approval

and Lo now the Taxol infusion clears the atmosphere

where I see the Superbowl completely superseded

by the superblow, O yes, praise the Tree Lord,

now it is time to go.

This visionary reading of world events is heightened by the altered physical state established by Taxol treatment. It's interesting to see how televised images are translated almost alchemically into spiritual or daemonic energies. It may be that any comment on the world is a religious or mythic one. It's certainly no longer a social one. The social would be those eroded structures that systematize Dorn's Taxol infusions. The famously cock-sucked president though is an image of a secular order of power in conflict or competition with the "ruined Cradle of Civilization" and the "Celestial Light of public approval." There is a precision of seeing here, a visionary disorder that presents meaning along a vertical axis of perception and relation. The reception of chemicals and images affect the patient, one feeding the tumor while the other poisons it. By using the horrific accumulation of images in the oncology lab, Dorn transforms his environment to make a penetrating revelation of the world, as it is, through the screen or magazine photos.

Other poems, like "Linear Acceleration," continue to look at his condition with unflinching sincerity, seeking relations of meaning. It's not just a personal disease for Dorn, but an esoteric socio-ritual performance where Los Alamos and the volcanoes of Meso-America are linked in the topology of his treatment. Other poems are from direct, inner experiences with radiation blasting the "seat of the soul." In "Iodine Fire," he writes:

Throat ripping

Ball torching

Fire balling

Gut trenching, war—

The Iodine drift

In the trenches

the blasting of the seat

of the soul, loading

Iodine fire, barbed

Wire snaking through the veins.

It's only fitting, I suppose, that this chilling documentary of disease should be so based in faith in the world. When to me there seems to be so little world left, that he could continue through cancer to interrogate those social and political relations is remarkable. That our world is reduced to an argument with a television on a table in an oncology ward is terrifying as the cells quickly spreading unchecked within the corruptible body. It is with profound effort that Dorn insisted on the world, on a world. For there was a world as long as a man like Dorn engaged it. That difference of engagement he mentions in himself and Oppen, of world address vs. local realities, is one that will be with us—with myself certainly—for a while. There is a tension between the fallible and the infallible, between the domestic range of the self and the greater communal phenomena of the world. If decline is its state, what is its terminus? And where did it begin? I'm not talking about a hunk of rock, but an ability to act within the confines of geographic or political space. The responsibility to and for the world is individual, a puritan polytheism. The terms love and hate are essential. Without them, certainly, there's nothing, for even hatred keeps the world from seizing under the pressures sucking it dry with good intent. Only to perceive an actual condition is paramount now. Chemo Sábe is a paramount interrogation.

Finally, there's "The Garden of the White Rose."

Lord, your mercy is stretched so thin

to accommodate the need

of the trembling earth—

How can I solicit even

a particle of it

for the relief of my singularity

the single White Rose

across the garden will

return next year

identical to your faith—

the White Rose, whose

house is light against the

threatening darkness.


Dale Smith edits Skanky Possum with Hoa Nguyen. His books American Rambler and The Flood & The Garden are available through Small Press Distribution.