Anne Boyer’s The Undying: A Poet’s Novel About Breast Cancer

“Breast cancer is a disease that presents itself as a disordering question of form” (7) begins  Anne Boyer’s 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer and Care.

An essayist and poet, Boyer has written an emotionally and intellectually challenging novel about her diagnosis at 41 with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) and its aftermath. Throughout my reading of this novel, at times I was confounded, at other times deeply moved. At some points, I cried and at others, rushed to the extensive Notes to find out more. This intellectual and emotional rollercoaster is exactly what it means to live in the “disordering question of form.” 

Anne Boyer is the 2023 Poetry Editor of the New York Times Magazine. Her books include A Handbook of Disappointed Fate and Garments Against Women. In The Undying, Boyer is brilliantly unapologetic about: her diagnosis; surgeries; pain; exhaustion; the racist capitalist cancer system; and death. “Triple-negative strikes black women disproportionately, and because of medicine’s institutionalized racism, I think, has been the last breast cancer left with no targeted treatment. It also disproportionately afflicts the young, is a cancer that appears to operate with the logic that the healthier the body, the more aggressive and deadly it will be” (173). Boyer also explores what it means to be part of the “undying,” someone who has had a complete response to toxic chemotherapies and painful deconstructive and reconstructive surgeries. 

Poem-making is an intimate way of shaping the length of lines and stanzas, sounds, patterns of repetition, and language into form. Diagnosis, on the other hand, is the alienating feeling of “tak[ing] a thing or set of things from one system and reclassify[ing] these elements in another…which takes information from our bodies and rearranges what came from inside of us into a system imposed from far away” (14). And yet, as Boyer sardonically admits the “…databases would be empty without us” (51). 

The “I” exists as a “we” in full databases. I love this image–I am not alone–and find it terrifying. After I read, “A patient’s file is, like a lived-in home, the site of work that lasts the human eternal” (55), I had a nightmare that everyone read my cancer file, which felt like being robbed. My file, an epic story that begins on 03/27/2012, begins with NAME and BIRTHDATE. I’ve said both of these so often, that I sometimes have to stop and question myself. Is this still my name? It sounds so odd in my mouth. And is this the date I was born? It feels like this date does not exist on any calendar. 

When writing a poem, a poet’s prerogative is to make choices about what stays and what goes. But when you are diagnosed, “There is a choice, of course, and you make it, but the choice never really feels like yours. You comply out of fear of disappointing others, a fear of being seen as deserving of your suffering, a hope that you could again feel healthy, a fear that you will be blamed for your own dying, a hope that you can put it all behind you, a fear of being named as the person who cannot cheerfully submit to every form of self-preservative self-destruction written in popular instructions” (85). 

I often feel like this and not surprisingly, I am drawn to writers like Boyer, Alicia Ostriker’s The Crack in Everything, and Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals, who use language and form to bring order to chaos.  

Toward the end of The Undying, Boyer explores cancer’s maddening and frustrating reality. “Cancer kills people, as does treatment, as does lack of treatment, and what anyone believes or feels has nothing to do with it. I could hold every right idea, exhibit every virtue, do every good deed, and follow every institutional command and still die of breast cancer, or I could believe and do every wrong thing and still live” (198). 

Not much to say after this truth. For now, I consider myself part of the “undying” and will take it! Next week, when I am back for treatment, who knows. I’ll be back on the rollercoaster, white-knuckling the rail and screaming my head off. 

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