The pathology report was terrifying. It said the primary tumor was ugly: highly aggressive triple negative breast cancer, necrotic, reproducing at a rate beyond fast. And my friends, many of them poets, most too young to know what to do—who hadn’t even really taken care of sick parents yet—had to invent a new something (art? politics?) that could keep someone (me) alive and safe through all that.

My friend Laura came from Oakland for the second chemo. We went to the woods and I shook my head, pulled out hair by the handfuls, let the dying hair float away for birds. Then my friend Cara came over and we cut most of the rest of my hair off, cut Laura’s hair, too, and collected some of the hair in locks tied with ribbons to give our friends, drove around with the rest of it for hours, leaving handfuls in parking lots and banks and intersections.

I wanted to stay upright through the waves of sickness in the days after a treatment, so Laura and I began a collaboration. We studied every text of radical illness we could find, read Socialist Patients Collective while I was burning with steroids, pain, chemotherapy’s other inventive tortures, my skin cracking, my mouth opening into sores, my stomach brutally churning, worked on what we called “a communique from the exurban outpost of a cancer pavilion named after a financier.” Some anarchists came over with a tool and fixed the messed up leg on my kitchen table.

By then my friends had started an email list, mostly of poets. I am naming them here as a discipline. I told my friend Matthew yesterday that I was writing something for the Internet that might not be good—that this might not be good, at least not like I wanted, but that sometimes what is “not good” is also what is necessary. I just don’t know how else to make a history of the minor history of what people do to keep others alive, and also how they were poets.

David Buuck was mostly in charge of the care list. Lauren Levin started a calendar. Some of the writers I’d taught in a Small Press Traffic online class started a fundraiser and Samantha Giles, a genius organizer, took it over. “Money is like a prayer that can put gas in your friends’ gas tanks” is what I tried to tell myself when the panic set in over its arrival. Money was a thing I’d never been good with or rarely had enough of and so often resented. Money’s arrival seemed to always be announcing that something was really up, that this was serious, that people would just give me cash like that. And my denial about my illness was heavy. Despite what the money made possible (my care), it was hard not to be surprised each time I saw my name linked to cancer, hard not to interpret every dollar towards my care fund as an arrow pointing to my impending death. I could barely look at the internet for fear I’d see this needy stranger who had become myself.

Later, during the last major surgery, I asked Cassandra Gillig to turn the comments on the cancer fundraiser site into a book manuscript to submit to Troll Thread, but only while I was anesthetized—it would be a book made from my deepest immobility, without lifting my own hand, a poetry made of the contents of goodwill, pity, sentimentality, social media, and dollar amounts. And Cassandra did put the book together, but no one ever published it. I still wish they would, though, because it would also be a poetry made out of the most embarrassing thing ever, which is gratitude during history, a most extravagant and disbelieving thanks, that mixed up feeling of love for everyone I’d ever known and also horror that love had to take the form of trending, that money has to exist at all.

Cassandra came for the next chemo: I’d only met her once, briefly, that darling, complicated spring before in which she opened at Segue for Alice Notley and I remember, in NYC, hanging out so much with Dana Ward, Brandon Brown, Frank Sherlock, Josef Kaplan, John Coletti, Andrew Kenower, some us riding in a cab and “The Tide is High” coming on the radio and the cab driver turning it way up, his jam, our jam. There were taxi rides with Filip Marinovich, taxi rides with Karen Weiser, a funny supper we didn’t pay for with Jackie Wang. That was the weirdest month, April 2014, like my whole universe as an electrical system about to burn out—which is another story, just like it’s a whole other story, too, me and Cassandra. But she bought me Ghostbusters donuts, and we read the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Then Dana came and we sat in a teepee installation on a museum lawn, weeping and vaping and talking about John Donne, while across the street, in a park, grown people rolled around in hamster balls to electronic dance music. My high school boyfriend came, and I passed out in IKEA, then, with him having to watch me fall onto a loveseat near the knives. A stranger, a woman who could have been my mother, sat next to me all the time I was out, gently touching me and talking me through it, waiting for the ambulance she had called. I remember how this benevolent woman smelled and how her flip phone looked, if not much of anything else, and I was moved through the IKEA crowd on a stretcher carried by six firefighters while I was wearing a Cleopatra wig. Then it was more hours in the ER, masked up, isolated because of the immune system risks, to find out I’d passed out mostly because chemotherapy was hard.

So many people sent me things—books, music, mixes, jewelry, flowers, apologies, food, personal care products, emails—like how a handful of poets in NYC had gotten together and worked with Paige Taggart to design and create for me a special necklace—one I wore to every treatment. Some of the women poets of the Bay Area sent me cannabis popcorn wrapped in Diane di Prima’s yoga pants. Bhanu Kapil sent me unicorn socks. Carol Mirakove sent me recipes. Nada Gordon sent me Vegan protein powder. Eileen Myles sent me an email with advice on how to find financial help when I needed it. Josef Kaplan sent a conceptual gift, a 60 minute mix of “Ride with the Devil” (the nickname of one of the chemotherapy drugs I was getting—the Red Devil, or sometimes the Red Death)—and a copy of 1001 Nights. So many writers who had been through cancer sent me advice. Ryan Eckes sent a piece of paper with my first name written on it a lot. Aaron Kunin sent me money for my first wig. Joshua Clover sent a copy of book I’d always wanted: Mayakovsky and his Circle. In Kansas City, my colleague Jordan Stempleman organized a fundraiser, and in the Bay Area, Steve Dickson and some other people did.

Maybe you sent me something— a note, a gift, an email, some money, an offer to drive. Thank you. The whole saying-yes-to-Harriet thing was for you, for saying thank you, for helping me out of a situation for the feeling so big it makes the words—“thank you”—microscopic. I didn’t know before this how gratitude was a sensation: how it overloads your nervous system, makes you feel nothing but it, how it can rearrange your perceptions of all else, too, registering what all of what is and especially yourself as what someone else has made and sustained. 

Originally Published: January 7th, 2016

Anne Boyer is a Kansas City-based poet and essayist, and a professor at the Kansas City Art Institute. Her works include The Romance of Happy Workers (Coffee House Press, 2006), My Common Heart (Spooky Girlfriend Press, 2011), and the 2016 CLMP Firecracker award-winning Garments Against Women (US: Ahsahta Press, 2015; UK:...