Dino Digs

Two months ago, I developed the nastiest cough of my life on Temodar. And had my lungs X-rayed. And stopped taking chemo. Got tested for flu, COVID-19. That was April. I know that because my CareNow visit has apparently resulted in CareNow reconsidering their acceptance of Missouri Medicaid. Insurance shows still pending.

There was this TV in the exam room displaying the start menu for a children’s movie called Alpha and Omega: Dino Digs (2016). The same three notes of music and crap animation repeating until I stuck my head out and called to the receptionist. She started the movie.

I must have written this poem from Sonnetizer in the throes of this first cough:

The Cough

I develop my chemo cough like a photograph
in the dark room of my chest. I keep
the cough in my chest of drawers,
out of reach of the children, my rattling bottle,
gravel road. My old neurooncologist
once suggested to Mom it would be the treatment
that kills me, not the tumor. The thunder
of my body gathers in the branches of the lungs.

Something is forming in the dark, or some
one. My children are right to feel afraid. My dog
is right to scamper under the grand piano.
What the end is I cannot conclude from the now
available data. April’s outburst of rain, ice,
all hand sleight, mixed signals. Killing kindness.

Maybe May was my month off, but my reading at Marcus Myer’s on June 11 saw the return of the cough. After about 10 days I tried CareNow but ended up at Urgent Care of Kansas City. Again. I have a long and illustrious history with this friendly little clinic. In the Shadow of Nature’s Grocer’s.

At the reading I began coughing during my reading “The Cough.” Rain fell on my head when I read: “before the rain / breaks its fist against the wall.” And again, I remember, at some other mention of rain, so that I wrote and sent to Marcus the following jokey poem:

The Reading

Eventually it would start to rain
when I said, “rain.” Deer
would appear, as if responding
to the sound of their own
names, a possum coaxed out
of the woods to be killed

in the bright lines of my notebook.
I knew the reading was over
when the words soaked through
my beard and my eyes ran.
I knew someone had spelled my name

in a smear at the bottom of the stairs
at the gritty end of the drive-
way with the sky gone
suddenly bright yellow after night fell,
a double rainbow
like the arches of a gloomy cathedral.

The strangeness of conjuring … I told the story at breakfast the next day and Theo understood and internalized it: He was bringing it back up again this morning as a joke.

In light of the onslaught of the new cough, I imagined Dr. Tuncer would want to take me off Temodar until it went away. And he has. Pending chest X-rays. I went off last night and felt better this morning as a direct result. I need to be more flexible in this therapeutic dance. To retain the freedom to dose or not dose before bed. And maybe next time just stop at the first symptom, the first sign of wrong, and not press on, ridiculously. Stupidly. Soldier on. There’s no real evidence of recurrence anyway beyond the loss of function Tuncer has suggested to be the result of “invisible tentacles” of tumor cells. The loosening up on my nightly dose, coupled with the fitting for Optune (tumor treatment fields) Monday, probably suggests the way forward is going to be a bit dicier than I expected. Less clear-cut.


The journey continues!

Thursday’s appointment with Dr. Tuncer has left me with an interesting predicament: how to maintain the body I have. To keep muscle mass without function. Halt degeneration.

I am supposed to be doing core muscle exercises, squats and Lili ordered a Velcro weight strap for my left wrist: I still can raise my left elbow even if the hand just flops.

Reading at the Sprung Formal Magazine Release Party on May 9, I felt a lot of tension in my left arm, as if it were going off in its own direction (though this isn’t in hindsight a visible distraction) so yesterday evening I wore a sling at Marcus Myers’ Informal Back Yard reading. Which eased tension, I think, by removing the arm from play. This sling thing I’m still wondering about for September 16:

But the brain scans show no difference since April. Certainly no progression, or growth. I asked why am I on Temodar if there has not been a tumor recurrence and Dr. Tuncer replied that tumors have tentacles that don’t show up on MRIs, implying that one of these invisible threads must have impacted the motor strip, as far away as it is from the tumor …. And Temodar “is killing” tumor cells. Not just interfering with their signals and ability to reproduce.

Eventually only Temodar-resistant cells will remain and populate.

Dr. Tuncer also lifted the two-year limit for this current regimen of Temodar, explaining that we’d play it by ear. Keep an eye on the blood counts. People have gone off chemo, taken “vacations” that allow bone marrow to bounce back, then restarted, but there’s no data to guide our decisions beyond a year back on Temodar.

When I asked about treatment fields–which I was surprised to hear him say “work” at our last appointment–because he hadn’t mentioned them in our discussion of future treatment options Thursday last, Dr. Tuncer went to grab his mannequin head bust. Which turned out to be missing.

I remembered him saying it would have to be either Optune (treatment fields) or Temodar, but he denied that and said they’re almost always used together, and would I like him to put me in touch with the Optune rep?

I said I don’t see why I wouldn’t say yes. You have to shave your head, I’m already bald. Biggest side effect is skin irritation, a piddly thing in the face of death. So here’s what I’m looking at:

New Book Announcement: Sonnetizer

This morning I signed a contract with Kelsay Books for the publication of my ninth collection, Sonnetizer, a 60-plus-page book of unrhymed sonnets (that is, all poems are exactly 14 lines long). Structurally, I have arranged my solid-block sonnets at the beginning of the book, then those broken into an octave and a sestet (inspired by the Petrarchan sonnet) followed by three-quatrains-and-a-couplet sonnets (inspired by the Shakespearean). And the book peaks with these, then returns to the two-stanza ones, and ends with more solid-block sonnets.

Here are examples of one of each:


The leaves are still dead but not
the breeze that moves in them
and I was here, too, once:
One more breath in the leaves.
Defying death briefly in the afternoon
on the last day in February
a breeze stirs. I may be ready to ask again
some of the old questions. I may be
warmed into knowing. Cool air cups
my ear, a handmade funnel,
paper cup. I used to be good at hearing
through a crowded room.
I was good at being born, not just dying
all the time. I could be born, too.

Grief Is Talking

I stop dead at breakfast. Break off,
grief is talking through my four-year-old.
He remembers the basement we used to
play in, our LEGOS on the unused
changing table. Our Hot Wheels rode
the ramps of leftover floor planks.
In the basement, Daddy sang and played
the guitar. Not so anymore, the contra-

diction I can observe at breakfast opening
an unshuttable door in Theo’s brain
to the beautiful basement of lost things,
melodies. I still have the cracked Alvarez
Dad had ordered for my 16th birthday.
As it splits apart, the songs escape.


The difference is not that it is light
when I wake but birdsong
added to the darkness
lets me know I am no longer alone.

Lili is usually not in bed beside me
when my iPhone vibrates
on the nightstand. One of our children is,
or no one, and I have to go searching

for my wife, passed out
somewhere with the newborn
clutched to her chest, Gigi,
who wakes often to check on us

and make sure we haven’t wandered off
in the dark: lost, among stars.

May 5, 2019/May 9, 2022

May 5, 2019! Jordan Stempleman​ hosted this Sprung Formal Reading Release Party. Later, said he always thought Brian Compton​, seen here behind the giant lens, was my dad!

My younger sister Mariah had driven me because I still wasn’t driving again since my seizure in July, 2014, and I was getting ready to celebrate my five-year cancerversary, as I mention in the video: long-term survivalhood! And still peddling books, my first two collections (This was after Father Me Again but before I released Terminal Destination and did my reading at Inklings’ Books and Coffee Shoppe, which is now closed, over the summer, about our trip to bury Lili’s dad in Guizhou in February-March of the same year).

After the reading we sifted through a truckload of untouched fruit, I remember a vegetable platter, etc., among the leavings. Among the 2019 readers, I remember Peter Mishler, Jermaine Thompson​, Kara Lewis, and Ruth Williams. I also chatted with Marcus Myers​, whom I’ve more recently enjoyed getting to know and finally contribute to his wonderful Bear Review:  


Tomorrow I’m excited to be returning to read live at this event after two years of contributing poems at a distance because of the pandemic.

An Unclear Thesis

Recently received my first copy of a collection by the illustrious Charles Simic whose poems have followed me everywhere since 2009: The World Doesn’t End. I devoured it in two sittings! May have done my library copy of Come Closer in one.

Here beside my newest book is one whose very presence on my shelf is a true pleasure: Oblivion Banjo by Charles Wright! Gorgeous in every way, the cover itself, its smoothness, delights me.

Placing these two poets side by side gave me an idea about myself. A kind of thesis resulted. As entertained as I obviously cannot help but be reading Simic, I feel the fable in his work as a step away from dailiness, that is, the day to day rhythms of writing in the midst of my children and the once natural world (my back yard is I-70, not the Blue Ridge Mountains, or whatever). Franz Wright, a student of Simic, whose work I have at times proclaimed to be by favorite, may have had a similar effect: Fun! I have to add James Tate to that darkly comedic bunch.

What Charles Wright has going on is different. His project is dailiness itself, glumness and mundanity, and mimetically cuts closer to the bone. I long for those depths but at the same time I am enchanted by the lights that glitter on the surface of the water.