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East Sacramento poet Brad Buchanan’s latest book chronicles his quest to survive cancer By Scott Weiss

the alphabet once scattered through my blood has metastasized producing a poem —from “The Differential Diagnosis” The quotation above opens the second poem in East Sacramento resident Brad Buchanan’s third collection of poetry, The Scars Aligned: A Cancer Narrative, set for publication in early 2019 from Finishing Line Press. These early lines announce the importance of language in Buchanan’s quest to understand the onset of cancer and its impact on his life and family. A professor of English at Sacramento State and active in the Sacramento poetry community, Buchanan remains sidelined from the university classroom by his bout with lymphoma, which has, however, drawn him into the thick of the action as a poet. Having studied under Buchanan at Sac State, I befriended him through a monthly poetry


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workshop we helped co-found. Naturally, I was stunned by the news of his cancer diagnosis and anxiously followed news of his treatment and recovery. Recently, the opportunity arose to ask Buchanan about his new book for this article. My first question focused on the title. He said that “the title is a pun on the phrase ‘the stars aligned,’ which suggests an astrological position that precipitates or allows some earthly event.” Of substituting “scars” for “stars,” Buchanan said, “the reference is to the poems in the book, which are like the scar tissue left behind by all the procedures, tests, treatments, and injuries incurred because of my physical encounter (some might call it a battle) with cancer.” The pieces in this collection “were written at various points over the 2-year period from my pre-diagnosis suspicions (or paranoia) about my having lymphoma to my slow recovery from the stem-cell transplant,” he said, adding that the poems “have been ‘aligned’ into as linear and logical a narrative as I could manage.” But this book is no mere journaling of events, as we embark on a compelling journey filled with emotion and suspense. “I wanted the book to read like a kind of medical thriller,” Buchanan said, “with all the key elements of a good plot: background, exposition, rising action, climax, and dénouement, with a coda at the final poem.” We accompany Buchanan through tests and procedures aimed at finding answers or a cure. But in bringing his writing to bear upon his illness, he seems to be running tests of his own, from one poem to the next, poking and prodding back at cancer and all of its fallout. When asked about this observation, Buchanan said that “each poem in the book could indeed

be seen as a kind of self-diagnosis, a sort of emotional temperature-taking to see how all of the twists and turns are landing on me and my family.” Emotion at times runs high, as Buchanan writes his way through matters of mortality in revealing scenes that lay bare cancer’s impact upon him and his relationships. Another compelling feature of this book is Buchanan’s collaboration with poets like John Keats and William Butler Yeats, alternating lines of poetry from their works with his own. He sees “an experimental side to the interlinear poems,” adding that they provide “a sort of litmus test for my own writing.” Buchanan also imitates his poetic forebears in pieces that “try to answer questions like, ‘How would Wallace Stevens handle saying goodbye to his daughter before leaving for a necessary but lengthy and potentially fatal medical procedure?’” He admits, “I’m not sure my answers really tell us anything about these earlier, amazing poets, but they enabled me to say what I needed to say, somehow.” As one who lost both parents to cancer, the personal experiences of cancer patients have been unknown territory for me. But Buchanan’s poems seem to guide us to a better understanding of this frightening underworld. When asked about comparing his role as poet to that of Virgil, Dante’s poet-guide in Inferno, Buchanan said, “if I am functioning as a guide like Virgil, my message would be something like this: However bad it gets, keep writing about it. The strength you gain from taking that literary distance from your body’s weakness might just be what saves you.” Readers can preorder The Scars, Aligned: A Cancer Narrative at Valley Community Newspapers, Inc.

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