A review of A Random Caller – Cancer Poetry by Heather Cameron

Reviewed by Beatriz Copello

A Random Caller – Cancer Poetry
by Heather Cameron
Ginninderra Press
April 2023, Paperback, 126 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1761095252

Having recently gone through the experience of having someone very close to me go through everything associated with having cancer I was a bit reluctant to review this book. I was expecting sentimentality, tears and dramas. I put aside my anxiety and got on with the task of reading the book. I was not disappointed, very soon I became engaged with Cameron’s poetry.  it was an absolute pleasure to read such well-written poems.  The poems in this collection are about the poet’s personal experience as well as that of other people through knowledge gained as the result of her experience as a health professional.

The poems in A Random Caller are divided into six sections, some illustrations accompany each section. The first section is titled “Hearing the word uttered, then uttered again” and includes poems about the first experiences resulting from the diagnosis of cancer. 

Cameron is very creative and is able to reveal a lot in the different ways she writes and sets the poems. For example in one poem she utilises pieces of dialogues which are obviously spoken at the time of the diagnosis. In this section there is also a very poignant poem titled “A Letter to my Body”. We sometimes see our body as a different entity and we question ‘it’,or get angry with ‘it’ thinking or saying “how can you do this to me?”. Then we become guilty and start questioning whether it is out fault we became sick and we hypothesize maybe I became sick because I drank too much or ate too much or did not exercise enough.

Cameron’s poems are very true to life, for example she writes about the struggles of a mother who although is sick and suffering needs to deal with the demands of her family and children.

The second section in the book is titled “Cells shifting, mutating, shifting, mutating, shifting” and includes poems about different surgeons, their attitudes, their approach, their humanity and talents. In here we also read about the experience of being in hospital, about chemotherapy and about all the stages of cancer from the discovery to the shock of hearing the bad news to the treatment, resignation and acceptance. The poet is also able to bring humour into this challenging topic, combining humour with truth as in “Note to the young doctor”:

Doctor, oh doctor, doing your rounds,
Your voice carries when you walk the ward.
We lopped off the breast you say to the students,
Who nod and scribble and scurry around.
There you are; an arborist in some parallel universe
Carelessly loping the branches from trees.
Dis-en-gage, dis-en-gage, dis-en-gage
I chant to myself in three four time.
How are you today, you ask, pseudo adult-you,

In the sections “Saw the doctor today, he is sorry but honest” and in “I listen, hoping to hear, forgetting you’re not here” some of the poems are about death, because the threat of death is always a possibility when cancer makes an appearance. Deep and profound are many of the poems included in these sections.

In the section “Now you can get back to normal, you haven’t changed a bit”, the poet brings to light the impact on the body and the changes that take place after suffering from this disease.

In the final section titled “With my heart I listen to the waves; my karanga” (Karanga is a Maori ritual chant of welcome) takes the reader to the ins and outs of what happens after diagnosis, the shock, the treatment, the recovery and the hopes. Again, here Cameron demonstrates her writing skills and insights. The following poem titled “Caught between” says it all:

Those waves lapping down at the shore,
Once ran themselves up against the black bones
Of Moeraki; were thrust back across the ocean.
And this moon, sullen in the crack between
My open window and the broken-down fence,
Turned pale, insignificant before Aoraki.
Before now I believed I could join them.

A Ramdom Caller by Heather Cameron is a fascinating book of poetry, different, insightful, interesting and so true to life and of course well-written to the point that this collection was the creative component  of  Cameron achieving a Doctor of Philosophy Degree. 

About the reviewer: Dr Beatriz Copello is an award-winning poet, she writes poetry, fiction, poetry reviews and plays. The author’s books are: Women Souls and Shadows, Meditations At the Edge of a Dream, Under the Gums Long Shade, Forbidden Steps Under the Wisteria, A Call to the Stars translated and published in China and Taiwan, Witches Women and Words, No Salami Fairy Bread, Renacer en Azuland Lo Irrevocable del Halcon (In Spanish).  Copello’s poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many feminist publications. The author has participated in international conferences, has taught Creative Writing at W.S.U. and other scholarly institutions, she has read her poetry at Writers Festivals and other poetry events in Australia and overseas.