Poems by Sasha Steensen


Strippings: An Apologia



To read the journals Susan Sontag kept during her breast cancer diagnosis is to read between the lines. For the most part, she goes about her journaling business—keeping track of observations and conversations, making notes for pieces she is writing or hopes to write, compiling lists of books she has read or hopes to read, listing films she has watched or hopes to watch.  No declaration of diagnosis. No accounts of appointments, procedures, pains, healings.  Above a 1976 entry, her son/ editor made note of these absences: “[SS made remarkably few notes about her surgery and treatment for metastatic breast cancer between 1974 and 1977.].”


Lonely, I read this not as omission, but permission.  I befriend those I read, we

share initials, nationalities, we
inhabit a world made of others’ words, we
set up death so that we
——————————————————“Death is the opposite of everything…”
might write it into its opposite, we
——————————————————“explode one’s subject—
——————————————————transform it into something else”
want life to be more than being, we
——————————————————“want to write something great”
want to do more than speak, we
——————————————————“ want to sing”



The closest SS comes to writing about her diagnosis was to write about death transformed by gender: “thinking about my own death the other day, as I often do, I made a discovery.  I realized that my way of thinking has up to now been both too abstract and too concrete.

Too abstract: death
Too concrete: me

For there was a middle term, both abstract and concrete:  women. I am a woman.  And thereby, a whole new universe of death rose before my eyes.”

What does she mean, both abstract and concrete?

Is this the condition of living in a body continually subjected to the violence of synecdoche?

I propose belonging: this sea of entities within & around me.



In what ways is/ are
the words put down
sent out
to those
who have known
what it means
to carry many
my cells, mycelium
In what ways is/ are
our bodies
over those
who have
also known
this middle term
I’m reaching
always towards them
like letters
deep inside
and I’m receiving
the body’s teeming
mouth & ground
foot & feather
breast & biome


4. Language explodes in the face of diagnosis.

SS struggled with the relationship between the notebook and the essay.  She did not know how to admit the fragment she felt so pertinent to the experience of illness.

“Decline of the letter, the rise of the notebook!  One doesn’t write to others any more; one writes to oneself” (1980).

Her notebooks say what the essays assay.

“The Aphorism.  The Fragment—all these are ‘notebook-thinking.’”

While working on an essay on the German writer Elias Canetti, SS wrote a note to herself to keep a notebook of “strippings,” or notes not used in essays or stories.

Later: “Yes, an essay on aphoristic thinking!  Another ending, wrapping up. ‘Notes on Notes.’”

An essay SS never wrote, or her Journals / Notebooks.



Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor without once mentioning her own breast cancer.
Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring without once mentioning her own breast cancer.
Audre Lorde wrote about her breast cancer directly and continuously.

If “metaphoric understanding…belies medical realities,” what plain speaking, what apologia, what literal language might speak metaphor away? (1978)

Rachel Carson: a letter to a lover-friend.
Susan Sontag: a letter to oneself.
Audre Lorde: a letter to the world, whatever the form.


Dear world
that wrote to me on a sea

—————–I have nothing but hope for thee.


Open a door let the dawn in.
Open a notebook and sketch it.


Dear year(s) between,


Dear Years Between



I will not say how I knew
I’d lose you


The world?

There are organisms
that lack
a limiting membrane
like algae
housing herds
of urchins.

Rachel Carson
studied them.

“So intimate
the union,”

she wrote,

the periwinkles
little patches
of pink on

The body is
the primary image.

Imagine it otherwise
and find

“their growth giving
the illusion

of thousands
of blossoms,

each as large as the tip
of my little finger.”

In the notebook,
my handwriting

is such
that window

may be widow
but I know

a writer is complicit
with her hand

I am a pupil


her hand less

when there is a




Bergson said the body

is the primary

but what is the basic ground?

The soul in the cells
The soil
The everywhereness of life


We live in what Rachel Carson calls
a “sea of carcinogens”

Some kinds of fish live
on others

others on others

I send you out then
to the word

kin of mine
be well

be bucket
be pulley
be rope



It is spring and it is blooming
all these birds and their racket

and yet the body-self is still
permeable,  continuous

with the world
all these nuthatches gone

might sing me a song
of healing

a hymn

not just
to praise gods

but to heal them
by which I mean Paean

Physician of the gods




It is autumn

I am among the dying leaves,

the person who utters the word

dies, not before my eyes
but before my breath

I am now unable
to do the most basic

tasks, like shitting or
thinking without also

being dead myself
to the very day

the birdfeeder goes
empty by the grace

of one darkeyed
junco at its foot.

Along the way
to fill it

in this altered state

I, obedient to the body of some
more important creature—

one bluebell unafraid
one oasis of beryl

one grouse cock of the plains
—open wide,

the only way to be alive.


Sasha Steensen is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Gatherest (Ahsahta Press) and Every Thing Awake (forthcoming Shearsman Press). Recent essays can be found at Essay Press and Interim. She teachings Creative Writing and Literature at Colorado State University where she also serves as a poetry editor for Colorado Review.


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