Breast cancer forever changed the connotations of certain words for me – “staging” I no longer immediately associate with the theater; “fog” I am more apt to attach to a state of cognitive loss instead of the stuff of Van Morrison’s misty mornings or the cloud that can obscure parts of Pacific Coast Highway as we head north in the summertime; “cure” no longer the idiomatic “hair of the dog that bit you” but a confounding and elusive thing all wrapped up in a pink ribbon; “Mets” no longer the other New York baseball team, but a tragic abbreviation for metastatic breast cancer from which no one survives yet of all the millions of dollars raised for breast cancer research in this country, only 2% of it is directed to metastatic breast cancer.” Until cancer came to call, “infusion” was something done to transform olive oil into a gourmet gift, and I freely associated with “sentinel,” the cormorant.
What would I know of the sentinel node, the first lymph node to which cancer cells are most likely to spread from a primary tumor?
Watchful and still, a cormorant was sometimes the only point of distinction on a foggy morning in Morro Bay, perched on its post in the shallow water where the eucalyptus grove touches the South Bay. And I would think of poet, Dermot Healy. As long as the cormorant was there, surveying the bay, all was right in the world – a bit like Healy himself, on the edge of the ocean. Ever-watchful.
They fly over like flagships of the devil
with messages between the dead.
Fighting to keep a straight line
they bring news to Ulysses,
then back again to Lethe
with his letters for the boatman.
Only the cormorant is allowed into hell.
That’s why he stands with his wings out
on an unsheltered rock
imploring the heavens
to forgive him for all
that he’s seen and heard.
by Dermot Healy, writer and poet, (9 November 1947 – 29 June 2014)
I found out that Dermot Healy died, not from a newspaper headline or a phone call from Ireland, but from the beautiful tribute to him and to his craft, from County Down poet, Damian Gorman. Ironically, I first heard Damian talking about how my people had grown complacent – immune, even – to the violence in Northern Ireland on a TV in my American living room in the early 1990s. He was reading his Devices of Detachment “as dangerous as bombs,” and he stopped me in my tracks. He knew me and from whence I came. He knows all of us.
Since then I have come to believe that Damian always finds the right words at the right time:
Just a few words in tribute to Dermot Healy …
Because writing is such a construct it is always (properly) open to particular scrutiny around its tone and truthfulness. “Does this piece ring true?”we ask, and “has it anything to do with me?”
In relation to Dermot Healy’s work there was never any question; never any question about authenticity. This was, undeniably, the real thing.
I think there is a way of writing in which you make a shape inside yourself so that the writing emerges but rarely touches the sides of you on the way out. This was not Dermot Healy’s way. His was the opposite. In truthfulness, giftedness and craft he has few equals. And,though we have the work, this is a very big loss.
All the best to his loved ones.
Rest easy, Dermot Healy