Monday, October 14, 2019

One Hundred Autobiographies, by David Lehman


There are many personal stories of cancer. Many self-help stories and many memoirs. And yes, there are even cancer poems.

But now we have a book that is both a cancer story and a work of literature that happens to be a memoir by a poet. We would not wish cancer on anyone, not even—as we say—our worst enemy, but now some gratitude because cancer has given us a gift in the new book:

“One Hundred Autobiographies” by poet and scholar, David Lehman.

It is true that for a writer everything is material, and that for a writer everything is examined through the lens of language, so of course from his first suspicions Lehman began to craft a story—the real and awful story --of his bladder cancer.

The “One Hundred Autobiographies” is one hundred short vignettes detailing and documenting diagnosis, treatment and into the start of recovery. 

While we, here is CancerLand,  may know some things about cancer, and some things about bladder cancer, Lehman takes us to new places only a poet can take us.

He brings popular culture into the rooms, (look there--Keith Richards and Patti Hanson--who knew?) and he also allows intellectual folk like Edward Said and Lionel Trilling to join in. 

But how else would a poet and scholar do cancer?

Lehman shows us his pain and fear, and he shows us his love, and his loving wife, Stacey who documents what Lehman cannot see or sense when he is under the spell of anesthesia and the recovery room.

But here’s the thing about this cancer book: You are also going to laugh when you least expect it, and you are going to scribble in the margins (hence, buy your own copy) all the quotes you want to save and the books you’ll want to put on your library list (“The End of the Affair” by Graham Greene was first on mine.)

Lehman’s book is smart and sharp, with a touch of literary celebrity, and beautiful language. And something else: You don’t even have to have cancer to be enthralled by this book.


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David Lehman is the author of: Poems in the Manner of...and Sinatra's Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World. Lehman is the editor of The Oxford Book of American  Poetry and series editor of The Best American Poetry. He teaches in the graduate writing program of the New School in New York City.

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