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.’