Review of The English Cantos Volume 1 Hellward by James Sale Written by Dan Stubbings

Book Synopsis

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.

Review

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.

Extract from Lifeshocks by Sophie Sabbage Posted By Dan Stubbings

Extract

Just In Case

As the targeted radiation continues to strike my brain, the hours replenish themselves. I am no longer judging this experience one way or the other. It is what it is and I am in it. Letting go. I have entrusted my beautiful brain to a team of strangers who are monitoring it every second to ensure I am still Sophie at the end of the procedure. And as I recognise this reality, gratitude dawns and spreads across my chest. This is what cancer does. It repeatedly brings my need for control to its knees.

All my life I have encountered Something Greater in the ebb more than the flow. From early on, I needed to march into the world not away from it, to find the sacred in the slime and grace in loss and peace on the other side of pain. I have never encountered the divine by going to a church or temple. I find it in those ‘lifeshock’ moments when what is really so confronts what I believe is so – until all the bullshit is shaken loose.

This is what Dr Brown, whom I knew as ‘Brad’, taught me: to look for specifics in a shit-storm; to pick one crest of one wave out of the rolling surf, the one that picks me by catching my attention more than the others; to hone in on a precise moment within the whole cascading experience. Not cancer, but ‘twenty-seven brain tumours’; not the loss of my books but the words, ‘I threw them away’; not date rape, but the bruises on my thighs after a night I couldn’t remember; not Gamma Knife radiotherapy, but the sight of a metal helmet screwed to my head like a vice when I looked in the mirror.

This is a lifeshock: a moment in time when something happens that you didn’t want or expect.

The specificity of these moments is very important. The mind loves to analyse events retrospectively, interpreting what happened by looking back on it and drawing conclusions. This is why some people spend years in counselling, trying to figure out the causes of their pain (which is a great way of not feeling the pain). Analysis does not reliably access the unconscious mind, which mostly stays hidden because that’s where it likes to stay.

When Brad was a practising therapist, he realised that taking people back to a specific lifeshock moment, and asking them to re-experience it, instantly unlocked their emotions and unconscious ‘mindtalk’ (what we tell ourselves about any given thing). It is like opening a file on a hard drive. This is because the thoughts and feelings we had at the time, which went unnoticed, are sealed in the memory of a single instant. You may have observed those occasions when you tell someone a story about something that happened in your life and, as you speak about the particulars, your feelings surface again, sometimes with great force. What I am describing is a way to invite emotions and mindtalk to surface very deliberately so that we see them in the clear light of day. This is a way to access the unconscious at will.

We get dozens of lifeshocks a day, some more significant than others. We allow many to bounce off us, unnoticed. We perceive them through our senses: we hear, see, smell, taste and touch them. They are external to us, appearing as empirical data and colliding with our internal expectations of how things should be. They are out of our control. Through lifeshocks, factual reality knocks on the door of personal reality, inviting us to realign with it, like sailors responding to sudden changes in the

wind direction by adjusting their sails. Discovering how to do so on a daily basis, while awakening and evolving in the process, is one of the primary purposes of this book.

Sometimes lifeshocks need to get very loud before we hear them. Sometimes we need to look death in the eye to realise what we want to make of living. Sometimes we don’t keep our promises until it is nearly too late. We think we have time. We get distracted. We doubt we can live up to our self-imposed standards. Until now, I haven’t known how to write about what Brad taught me and do it justice. He didn’t even do that himself. I’ve tried a few times and came closest in my first book, The Cancer Whisperer. But that didn’t express its true essence, just as it didn’t express the most sacred aspects of my relationship with cancer.

Lying in this machine is a thundering wake-up call to remind me I am ready. I don’t need to write the book he might have written or attempt to emulate him in the process. There is a story to tell that integrates various wisdoms I have collected along the way, including my own. I have found my own voice.

My mind quietens and something stirs in the stillness. I breathe. I listen. I wait.

Extract from Lifeshocks by Sophie Sabbage, published by Hodder, priced £17.99.