Waltzing with Jack Dancer: a slow dance with cancer

'Waltzing with Jack Dancer' coverWaltzing with Jack Dancer: a slow dance with cancer
Poems by Geoff Goodfellow
Story by Grace Goodfellow
Wakefield Press

This review is dedicated to Guido Schivella, who lost to cancer in 2008, and to Charisse Mitchell, who will beat cancer in 2011.

Cancer is indiscriminate, picking its battles with seeming randomness. There are hypothesised causes: smoking, drinking, sun etc, but they are not definitive. Cancer picked the wrong fight when it tried to take on Geoff Goodfellow, the man HG Nelson describes as ‘tough nut’. Geoff’s boxing training, working-class background and teenage daughter were three things that cancer didn’t count on.

Waltzing with Jack Dancer: a slow dance with cancer is a collection of narrative poems telling Geoff’s battle with and ultimate victory over cancer of the throat.

Geoff’s poetry first punched me in Wet Ink 16 (September 2009) that featured ‘Blue Sky Mornings’. The poem starts with a 5-year-old boy in 1950s Australia stealing cigarettes out of his dad’s FX Holden before heading off to work with the local milkman, swapping full bottles for empties on front verandas. As the boy became a man the greasy milk bottles were replaced with solvents, sealants and 12-hour days on building sites without UV protection. And the cigarettes increased from sixty to eight a day. The poem ends and is left open:

& yet no one can tell me with any


just how i got cancer.

‘The Seventh Doctor’ is a 15-page tale of the fourteen doctors that Geoff met through the initial treatment and surgery. Geoff treats the reader to the levity of some situations, but also sends warnings regarding the doctors’ varying levels of people skills. This poem illustrates Geoff’s battle wasn’t only with cancer but also with the bureaucratic incompetence that infects the public health system. Geoff responds to one doctor with his battler’s poetry:

i told him to get fucked

met his eyes –

& said that if he didn’t look at me


i’d spread him over the floor

Quoting this stanza serves a dual purpose. Apart from highlighting Geoff’s struggles it warns the potential reader that if you don’t like honest, hard-life language, you won’t like Geoff’s work, but that’s ok because reading Geoff’s work (I feel like I know him, hence the first name basis) I know that Geoff doesn’t like anyone who can’t be straightforward.

Geoff’s treatment was captured in photos, and the collection is complemented with images by Randy Larcombe; a professional photographer who first met Geoff on a Good Weekend photo shoot in 2001. A friendship developed that is evident in the candidness of the photos – there is no posing just raw reality.

This is Geoff Goodfellow’s story, but he is not the ‘toughest nut’ in the book. That honour belongs to Geoff’s daughter, Grace, who carried him through his treatment, through his complaining (read ‘Too Many Complaints’), and took herself to the point of exhaustion. Grace closes the collection with her story ‘The C Word’. The story illustrates the effects of the journey on family members, the anguish a daughter feels watching her strong father battle an invisible foe, and the promise made, ‘they told me I’ve got up to five years. And I told them to get fucked, because I’ve got a sixteen-year-old daughter, and that I have to be at her twenty-first. I’m going to fight this. I will. I’ll fight it. I won’t leave you. I promise.’ At times through the story, you doubt the promise will be kept.

I haven’t analysed the poetry as individual poems to a great degree, because, although they stand alone as fantastic poems, they are better read as a collective narrative. Geoff Goodfellow writes like Bukowski but with a sense of purpose and a zest for life. The pace and flow of the collection take you into the mind of a man suffering; the language doesn’t waste time with any clichéd metaphors but delivers the message directly.

Dr Guy Rees, the seventh doctor, the one to whom the collection is dedicated (‘once you were in my corner I knew I could go the distance’) comments on the back cover, and I completely agree: ‘I recommend it to all patients, families and friends of those who have similar experiences. In particular I recommend it to all those who care for those with cancer.’

Mark William Jackson

Mark William Jackson is a Sydney based writer whose work has appeared in various print and online journals. For more information see markwmjackson.wordpress.com

More by Mark William Jackson ›

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  1. Thanks for this terrific review, Mark.

    Goodfellow’s poetry reads raw and angry and real. He sounds like a fighter in every sense of the word in that he doesn’t defer to the health bureaucracy nor that breed of doctors who like to be treated as if they have one foot in heaven.

    Goodfellow’s fighting spirit makes his poetry strong and resonant but the idea of winning or losing the battle with cancer always bothers me. There is an expectation that if you fight hard enough you will beat cancer and that is just not the case. In fact, I see ‘fighting’ cancer more in terms of succumbing to treatments that devastate the mind and body and medical interventions that are demoralising and disempowering, which in the end, may or may not save you.

    To fight can also translate into expectations that the person with cancer be always optimistic when maybe they want to talk about how terrified they are of death or make plans for a good death. Too many people die of diseases such as cancer without doctors, family, and the person suffering, ever acknowledging that death is inevitable. Rather, they fight to the end.

    And while some people ‘fight’ in that they rally against the diagnosis others respond very differently. Some people do not fight at all but go quite gently or they may grieve its terrible intrusion or they may rage against it. Or they might survive.

    In July, I’ll be free of breast cancer for 5 years but I see this more as the result of early diagnosis, a wonderful (female) surgeon and a bit of luck. I researched treatment options and asked a lot of questions but I didn’t fight much if at all.

    So while I don’t agree with all the assumptions that go with fighting cancer, I like it that Goodfellow doesn’t pussyfoot around the C-word and that his poetry feels real and energetic and full of life.

    1. Thanks Trish, and it’s great to read you’ll be 5 years free in July.
      It’s very difficult for me to write about cancer without a string of expletives, but since this isn’t my blog I’ll try to contain myself.
      I use the term ‘fight’ because I am a control freak and I refuse to believe that something can take control of me. Sadly, I know in reality that this is not the case, but, in spite of the predominately pessimistic tone in my poems, I am an optimist.
      I have a good friend, to whom this review is dedicated, who is battling at the moment. She is 18 years old and has suffered for the past two years. She has had to deal with a string of arsehole specialists too busy polishing their BMWs to spend time giving her any glimmer of hope. She received further bad news today, again delivered coldly, and I feel like going up there (Brisbane) to ‘talk’ to the doctor myself. Unfortunately all I can offer her are words, so when I refer to cancer, apart from the string of expletives I mentioned earlier, my favourite verbs are ‘fight’, ‘beat’ etc.
      Geoff’s collection talks of hope, he refuses to listen to defeatist doctors, he goes through the treatment and faces the realities. I’m ordering a copy for my friend, just another small gesture, may be futile but can’t hurt.
      Thanks for reading, Trish.

  2. Mark, I really liked your review for a number of reasons not least that it was written from the heart.

    My response was in no way meant to be critical of your review (I do hope it didn’t sound that way) but more a critique of what seems to me a popular expectation of the positive attitude we should bring to a diagnosis of cancer:

    ‘…women coping with cancer diagnosis and treatment are swamped with messages that cancer is an opportunity, a gift that should be embraced. Women are told the key to survival is to stay positive – if the cancer comes back, you just weren’t positive enough http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/always-being-positive-can-become-a-negative-20100128-n1rn.html

    My partner who works in a major cancer hospital that has a magnificent reputation has frequently to debrief with me about the attitude of people trained to deal with the body but not the emotional needs of people of all ages struggling with or dying from cancer. And then there are those in the medical profession that are much more callous – sadly they exist.

    I wish your friend and you who must be such a support to her all the very best. I too, would be ordering a copy of Geoff’s collection for her to read – his defiance is inspiring.

    1. Thank you for the compliments, Trish.

      I didn’t take your comment as being critical, on the contrary, I thought it was a very well thought out response and I appreciated it very much as it gave me a different perspective, as does your quote from the Age article.

      Thank you for your wishes,

      all the best,


      1. Hi Mark

        I agree with Trish in that for every so-called “victory” over cancer or those who have “beaten” it, there are those who have “succumbed” or “lost the battle” as if somehow they are complicit and have ultimate control over their fate – my dad fought and raged against it to the point where his oncologist eventually told me that it was time that he accepted his fate for his own peace of mind. So these war metaphors do not sit well with me. But, having said that, I enjoyed your review and see Jack’s feistiness and sense of humour in the face of such adversity as something to be greatly admired. bb

    1. Thanks BB, similarly, my father-in-law fought for 13 months until my wife and her sisters had to tell him to let go. I use the war metaphors simply to say ‘don’t give up’, as I wrote in a previous review regarding poems with a death theme, in general I don’t play with flowery metaphors (my version of ‘hang in there’ is ‘tell that fucker to fuck off’).

      I’m glad you like the review and I’m sure you will love the collection, if the world had more Geoff Goodfellow’s cancer would be too scared to visit.

      1. Am so enjoying the collection, Mark – funny, harrowing and confronting, in words(and photographs)- Geoff’s observations in ‘The Seventh Doctor’ about meeting the ‘big c’ had me in hysterics and really highlight the way his sense of humour prevails in nightmarish circumstances. Thx. bb

  3. I used to work here, in the bookshop: a place where ‘never say die’ or ‘live till you die’ make a lot of sense and having cancer is the great challenge of a life well lived. http://www.gawler.org/ *They* told Ian Gawler to go home and die of his cancer about thirty years ago.

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