The English Cantos is a horror tale told in beautiful, lyrical style. Based on his near-death experience in Ward 17 of Royal Bournemouth Hospital, James Sale takes us on a journey into a contemporary vision of hell and heaven modelled on Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. As Virgil guided Dante, so too Dante will guide James on this incredible journey.
I admit poetry is something I usually avoid like the plague. The poetry I was force fed during my GCSE years to pass exams had put me off poetry for life. The stuffiness of it all was like a migraine that wouldn’t shift. I promised as I wrote the final sentence on my English exam that if I saw another piece of poetry in my lifetime that it would be to soon.
Yet a few months back I came across a poem called Hellward by James Sale. An epic poem that dives into the nightmare that is cancer. This poem was a light in the wilderness stripping away my previously held negative thoughts towards poetry. Gone was the pointless verses that complicated the meaning of the poem for the sake of it. Instead James took you on a journey. Every word seemed to explore cancer in a new perspective, from the pain of the diagnosis, to thoughts of how you can possibility recover from this life changing experience.
The narrative felt like your own personal conversation with James as he detailed his experience with this illness. I couldn’t help be reminded of the line ” Hello darkness my old friend I have come to talk with you again.” I know that song was detailing the loneliness of depression, but James’s narrative showed both the dark and light moments you encounter as you walk a certain path with this unrelenting creature. He didn’t shy away from the fact that it can be a lonely road. That at times it can simply come down to battling thoughts of giving in, to fighting to live with every breath you take.
As I continued reading these interlocking poems that unfolded into a narrative that left me spent. I couldn’t help but be returned to my nana’s cancer diagnosis when I was twelve. I don’t mind admitting at times I had to take a break from the narrative as I had tears in my eyes. James does an incredible job of capturing the entire experience not just from the perspective of the person with cancer, but the devastating effects it has on everyone involved. James isn’t gentle as he guides you into the unforgivable beast that is cancer, and what invisible scars it leaves in it’s wake that triggers every primal fear we have as humans about our own mortality.
As you read each individual poem you can’t help but notice the influence of Dante on James’s writing. As the narrator descends into different sections of the disease. He binds the reader to every face that cancer wears, detailing every stage of the journey as if cancer or illness is becoming different personality. To amplify it’s bone chilling horror. From vivid images of no man’s land to the calmness of a crystal blue sea we are shown how every stage manifests itself to encompass all thought, but at the same time to celebrate the small victories that emerge throughout this harrowing ordeal.
Hellward is a double edged sword. It captures both the darkness, and the light of illness. Showing every emotion that humans experience when confronted with a life changing problem. The fear, the denial, the pain, the acceptance, and the redemption that can occur once you leap the final hurdle. Hellward is more than just one person’s journey through cancer. Its for anyone who has suffered trauma no matter how small. Its unapologetic in its rawness, and that’s what kept me reading. However it isn’t all doom, and gloom at it’s heart it is a human story, displaying a spectrum of truth that we can all learn from.
It receives 5 stars. It is a must read just for the prose and rawness alone. Well done James. I never thought I would say this but you had made me enjoy poetry.
I received a copy of the book from the author in exchange for a positive review. This doesn’t effect my views.