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Poetry and Medicine
May 23/30, 2012

The Atoms in the Cancer

Author Affiliations

Poetry and Medicine Section Editor: Charlene Breedlove, Associate Editor. Poems may be submitted to

Author Affiliation: Seattle, Washington (

JAMA. 2012;307(20):2131. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.461

On the left side of my father's brain,
in the core of the glioblastoma,
the cells reproduce so fast
they crowd, press, get crushed like grapes,
and create a pool, a necrotic gemisch,
in which, yet, every atom remains
pristine—electrons in faithful orbit,
nucleons tireless in their quantum
vibrancy, mesons ecstatic
in their quiverings—just like each atom
in the intricate neuron lattice
on the right side that lets Dad think
What's this trouble saying November?
Every atom equally happy,
none in the least impaired,
whether it lives in the chaotic nation
of new decay or abides in the elegant
strands of the opposite hemisphere.
These tiny immortal pirates! They
dance in and out of reckless alliances—
we are their shipwrecks. They couldn't
care—they’d be glad in the jaws
of ants on a monument-studded hillside.
Our atoms, I imagine, will shimmer
as joyfully in the void between planets
as in the murderous density of Earth's
core. The atoms in the cancer
liquefying once-conscious terrain
on the left side of my father's brain—
they’d be thrilled to join in composing
mushroom spores drawing moisture
from the ground in the shade of an oak
on that slope overlooking the river, or
to take part in the blackness of crows’
feathers flapping in the oak's limbs.
And those atoms won't mind being torn
to plasma in the hearts of stars.

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