Reviewed by Karen Robichaud
As a practicing oncologist, Marc J. Straus uses his own experiences to fuel his writing in his first play, Not God. Straus’ third book explores the hope, tragedy, and difficulty of communication felt when dealing with the effects of cancer. Though Straus’ first two books of poetry, One Word and Symmetry, also deal with human reaction to cancer, Straus enters new territory by creating a play in verse in Not God. The verse is simple and direct, sharing the stories of two people: the patient and the doctor. The subject matter of the poems ranges from the everyday gossip of the hospital to childhood memories to the nervousness of a patient following an MRI. To that end, Straus also explores the progression of a patient’s mental and emotional state nearing death, bringing his new and old work together under a different genre and connecting the poems quite differently. By alternating between doctor and patient, Straus depicts the concerns, fears, frustrations, and inabilities of both parties as they struggle with cancer.
Despite the absence of medical terminology in his writing, Straus depicts an emotionally charged medical world. The patient dying of cancer grows more overcome and frightened, while still trying to find dignity and comfort in the sterile hospital environment. The first poem, delivered by the patient, comments on the white lies told in hospitals to ease the shock of one’s own mortality: “She said he was old and frail / and his kidneys failed. / It is more than / she should say, but she is kind / to differentiate his circumstance from mine.” Straus shares what he has observed from years in oncology and never rationalizes the human behavior. His honesty creates very sympathetic characters, both of which grapple with the pain of cancer. The doctor, knowing that no easy answer exists, encourages himself to “say yes--a sliver of grace in an / excoriated world.” Straus strikes a balance between the direct ways doctors must find to deliver bad news and how one, as a human, must come to terms with mortality. By personalizing the doctor through descriptions of his own memories, Straus delivers a portrait of humans desperately trying to save each other and themselves.
Using natural language, Straus focuses on the lack of control one has over cancer, which emphasizes the value of the play. Neither the patient nor the doctor ever spins out of control, but both continually grapple how to exist in a losing battle. For example, in “Reward,” the patient reflects on the benefits of knowing one’s fate, as it consoles many, but decides, “I prefer not knowing. It sufficed / to know everyone died sooner or later.” Lack of control irritates the patient and the doctor as neither has the answers. Both learn each day how to understand a world in which cancer exists. However, in the final pages, Straus becomes rather heavy-handed with his metaphor in “Brine,” which sets up a nightmarish dream, a symbol of the doctor’s struggles to cure his patients, not always successful. Because the poem reflects the struggle, the reader understands exactly what Straus intends, but in the final stanza he shifts gears and alienates the audience by treating them like simpletons:
It is like this being an oncologist, and each time
I enter the brine I try to be buoyant. I try
to concentrate on the other side but the light
glares blindingly off that little girl in yellow.
This ending causes the poem to lose the momentum Straus maintains in the previous three stanzas. Without the final stanza, Straus’ message remains clear. In other poems, Straus does not create this problem. His final words often provoke new thought or add a twist to the overall idea rather than belaboring the point. Furthermore, Straus’ poems often reflect each other, though set pages apart, and his ideas about humans and cancer resonate throughout the whole book. In both “Luck” and “Say Yes,” both patient and doctor reference the quick fix people look for in bad situations. The doctors wishes he could “answer unequivocally, / to give patients a sense of purpose,” while the patient notices the tricks people play to fool away their bad fortune, “I have this itch under my arm. I’ll scratch it twice / in slow circles and my cancer is gone.” Both “Luck” and “Say Yes” represent Straus’ ability to look at human reaction slightly differently.
Straus continues to investigate human reaction as the two speakers, doctor and patient, explore human futility in very different ways, often missing connections, frustrating both speakers. Additionally, both characters explore the idea of God in different ways. The title poem, “Not God” explores the power a doctor holds as patients preface questions with “I know you’re not God . . .” but then ask the unaskable. The doctor’s pain becomes clear, “Do you say this to your lawyer, accountant / or mother-in-law? And if I’m not God, then / ask me a question that only God can answer?” In contrast to the doctor’s annoyance and his own inability to console, the patient references God in a completely different way. In “Humming” the patient hums to his/herself and all those around him/her try to guess what song the patient hums, yet, “I am confounded by these inexplicable noises / from my mouth that each recognizes as familiar. I think / God hears them as my prayers.” The final lines of Not God demonstrate Straus’ range of thought and emotion. The simple language does not stand in the way of delivering a powerful message about human beings in a chaotic world. Just as each individual tries to create order in the world, often through a personalized relationship to God, like in humming, Straus looks for order in a world where anyone could have cancer.
The book closes with a poem from the doctor, “What I Am,” explaining how he knows how long someone has to live, slightly apologetic for his proficiency in delivering death sentences. Straus openly confronts the gravity of his profession and reveals the heart behind it. Without sentimentality, Straus addresses the fear, loss, and purposelessness his patients feel and also expresses the doctor’s feelings of helplessness. A play like Not God is able to put its actors alone in space and allow the words to speak for themselves. Straus’ Not God is filled with potential and power, making it a compelling read, but under appropriate direction, breathtaking to watch.