Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2021

© Jonathan J. Sommer

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Last words

A Canadian poet wrote with honesty and courage about dying of cancer

Poet Richard Sommer taught the poetry writing at Concordia University in Montreal. He has several slim volumes to his credit, the best known of which is Sky Blue Notebook. Much of his work is in the pared down style characterized by his friend, Gary Snyder, who was part of the 1950s San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat movement. Snyder provided the model for Japhy Ryder, the main character in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums.

Both poets shared a devotion to Buddhist principles and a concern for the environment. More than 30 years ago, Richard and his wife, dancer Vicki Tansy, moved with their children to a property on Pinnacle mountain outside Frelighsburg in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. In addition to his teaching duties, he long served as a volunteer game warden in the rural community.

In 2004, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Never one to waste an experience, over the course of the disease he wrote the poems in Cancer Songs (Signature Editions, April 2011). The poetry book came to the attention of Dr Balfour Mount, the pioneer in end-of-life care, who established the first palliative care unit at the Royal Victoria in 1975. Dr Mount was so taken with the poems that he journeyed to The Pinnacle to meet the poet.

Richard died in February of this year. Cancer songs, and the poet, were recognized at the 19th International Congress on Palliative Care held in Montreal October 9 to 12 where Dr Mount gave the closing address.


Chickadee just landed on a twig
outside my window in crackling cold,
hangs upside down among long thorns,

looks around. Flies away.

Joy is where I find it:
a shaft of sunlight illuminates
my wet dishrag.

Each has its own kind of gleam,
porcelain & snow
& a white cat watching birds through glass.

November Letter

Water drops hang from the thorn tips
& circle the grey light within
while each reflects the sky.

What is life like here?
What is life like anywhere?
What is life like?

Nothing. Like nothing other.
Like nothing else anywhere.
Summer weeds along the shed wall lie low,

yet their prostrate stalks glow in the rain.
Radiation still takes a lot of my get up & go
but so far leaves my eyes alone.

What I see of this cold dark landscape
warms me. My eyes feast on rich reds & browns
& I am fed. Life here is –

life, here, & good.

From Cancer Songs by Richard Sommer, 95 pages. $14.95 Signature Editions,

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