At the Cancer Center

by Terry Ofner
The Waters
Second Place, March 2022
Judged by Terence Culleton

A man at the reception desk 
says he has put in an order 
for some warm weather. Everyone 

laughs the laugh they laugh 
in such circumstances. Even so, 
the voice from the video screen

overhead assures: Your chemo 
kills your healthy cells 
as well as your cancer. 

Everything here is yours, 
whether you want it or not. 
Then the nurse calls 

your name. She calls it again 
to make sure it is yours.

This tightly written poem dramatizes in its concision one of its central premises—that what isn’t said, both in the setting and in the poem’s stanzas, is where the truth hovers. In a piece like this, the white space between stanzas and lines is itself articulate, while what the poem, and the voices inside it, actually put into words embodies the human will to persist in spite of what is known. The receptionist’s joke, the others’ laughing “the laugh they laugh/in such circumstances,” the detached video screen, the punctilious nurse’s summons, even the speaker’s use of the second person pronoun, are all instances of a refusal to yield to the possibility of defeat—not the refusal to admit it, but the refusal to give in to it. Everyone knows it’s there, of course, and each faces it when his or her name is called, which, perfectly, is where the poem ends. --Terence Culleton