Cancer Angel

by Beth Murray


CANCER ANGEL is Beth Murray’s lyrical documentation of healing as pilgrimage. CANCER ANGEL shows that our bodies and their perhaps not-so-foreign inhabitants aren’t battlefields but ecologies, that healing and living in the world with vulnerable bodies is an opportunity for listening and exchange rather than battle, force and catastrophe.

We are very pleased to release this challenging cancer narrative; it is a necessary song of feminist resistance and physical wholeness.

Is this a book? Cancer Angel is a book but it is also a partially dissolved rectangle of gold energy passed from one person (Beth) to another. Art like a ‘lit room,’ a ‘red syringe,’ a ‘fishy, toxic bay.’ I can’t write here how Beth, the Beth who wrote this book, transmutes the yellow electricity, the blood, the figure of water itself—but she does. Red becomes gold, and gold is always red before it, too, dissolves and eases off into something no longer called the ground but, rather, is ‘undone.’ A ‘blossom stem.’ A ‘burning.’ This vile ‘softness.’
—from the Introduction by Bhanu Kapil

Beth Murray’s final work constructs a complex system of lines between health and illness, the mystic and the domestic. … The words jump out, paradoxically, in full celestial outline, like the map of the stars in the sky the ancients made. …
—Kevin Killian

Beth Murray asks, “Who are you without breathing in the habitual direction?” And her fierce and forthright inquiry proceeds to create a new current, a new kind of lyric understanding that disrupts the stasis of received language—and of life itself. … The loss of this poet to our community would seem a site without consolation, but for this: Murray’s troubling of assumption, the risks she takes, are a mode of faith and healing. Here, she sings the “songs to which I do not yet know the words.”     
—Elizabeth Robinson

I loved Beth’s autonomy, her independent bright presence. This posthumous book is just beautiful – also innovative, with an invention of a peculiarly lively notational language, a sometimes hilarious dialogue of tumors, and a final oh-so-undidactic absortion into the Heart Sutra. Poetry is the only language for the end.
—Alice Notley

For several years before her death one year ago, Beth Murray, a homeopath and poet, enacted a holistic process of healing from tumorous growths., and that by this mode of engagement, her illness enabled her to “let the hunger fly out,” that is, to achieve a transcendence she both describes and incants through lyrical engagement with her tumors:

we have tea

fall into a sleep that sorts

lines of happenings from

before this birth, that makes

sense of our parents’ free fall and the circling before it

Possessor of a body world, rather than passive recipient of treatment modalities, Murray does not entirely reject the cancer industry. Although the “belly reels with fatigue and dying cells” from chemotherapy and from an overwhelming system by which “the burning in your blood / makes the nurses basic pay / makes doctors who sign the order a new car with each treatment,” Murray negotiates with it, prays:

lay the mask of anesthesia over my face

let all my cells agree, let lymph and blood say

we trust

let all dogs around me, all dogs peacefully sleeping

let doctor enter, let scalpel cut


make trouble for the one signing red vile orders.

Beth Murray was born in Chicago on September 22, 1967.  She grew up there and in Ohio until age nine, then moved to Lake Villa, Illinois, where she lived until she graduated from college. She received her BA in Studio Art from Carleton College and her MFA in Photography from the University of Illinois in Chicago. After moving to the Bay Area in the 1990s, Beth refocused her creative practice on poetry and became active in the small press poetry community there. Beth’s creative work was deeply entwined with her interests in alternative healing, spirituality, and the natural world. Beth completed her training to become a Certified Classical Homeopath at the Pacific Academy of Homeopathy and maintained a practice treating people as well as animals, ranging from domestic pets to African Veldt animals at the Oakland Zoo, for ten years. Her work with animals was especially important to her, and helped to advance the acceptance of homeopathy in veterinary care. Beth also led meditation groups and was involved in Constellation work with other Bay Area healers. She was an avid hiker, open-water swimmer, and cross-country skier, and held a second degree black belt in Aikido, which she practiced for over 20 years.

Beth is the author of several chapbooks, including 12 Horrors (Belladonna*), Hope Eternity Seen on the Hip of a Rabbit (A+ bend) and The Night’s Night (Noemi Press), and the book-length poem The Island (Second Story Books).  She began writing Cancer Angel shortly after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in June of 2011.  In 2013 Beth participated in the Poetics of Healing conference in Berkeley, California, “Vital Forms: Healing and the Arts of Crisis,” where she performed an excerpt from Cancer Angel. Her experience with illness is also chronicled in her blog Healing My Cancer.

In her writing, as in her life, Beth practiced spiritual inquiry grounded in deep awareness of the body. In Cancer Angel she found healing and epiphany even in the trauma of illness. She died on Wednesday, October 8, 2014 from metastatic breast cancer in her home in Midpines, California, under a full moon.