Defragmentation: In Memory of Rosemary McLeish

Photo by Gashif Rheza on

A few weeks ago I got an unexpected email from Rosemary McLeish’s husband, Richard, who very kindly let me know that Rosemary, who had been living with cancer, had reached a point in her illness at which she was expected to die, imminently. Richard was kind enough to let me know how much Rosemary had enjoyed being a participant on my online courses, and that several poems in her collection, Defragmentation had started out as prompts on the courses. I was very moved that Rosemary would have thought of me, and that Richard had too.

To work with people on their most personal poems, to help them to find a way of expressing pain and joy through creative writing is an honour, it is humbling and I don’t think I have felt more humbled than when I read Rosemary’s collection and could recognise poems in it, poems that Rosemary and the small, supportive groups that have been a part of my life now for some time, had discussed and chatted about within the closed groups. I am slow, and only just getting round to putting into words how much I will miss her, how much I will miss her poetry and her wry voice and her unapologetic style. Rosemary wrote about lots of things, she created beautiful art too, and whilst I don’t want to define her life by her death, it is through the poetry which explored her experience of terminal cancer, that I personally know her best.

Richard sent me her collection, Defragmentation, with a very moving note in which he talked about Rosemary’s experience of writing on one of the courses I’d run. It is easy to imagine a group of people attending a writing group or course as almost uniform; a series of people who are here to write, all here for the same purpose, but there is so much more to a writing group than that. Writing within a group environment can often feel like an almost communal act of creation. But it is a very individual experience too. People come with individual needs and individual difficulties and it is the facilitators job to spot those and draw the poems out. It is both a communal, group activity and a very personal activity. I’m rambling, but I guess what I wanted to say is that seeing Rosemary’s experience, relayed to me by Richard, helped me to reconnect to that feeling of creative writing being an aid, a necessary way of dealing with trauma on a very real level. I am grateful for the happy accident of Rosemary being on my courses, and grateful that she got out of it what she did. My life has been enriched by her humour, her style and her kindness. I think the word ‘humbled’ is bandied about a lot, but in this case it is absolutely right. I am humbled by this experience.

I would urge you to buy Rosemary’s collection, which is published by Wordsmithery. Follow this link:

The collection has an foreword, which says everything about the collection itself, far better than I could ever, and is written by Rosemary herself. It also touches on one of the hardest things when dealing with trauma, and that is other people’s reactions to it. As Rosemary says – other people’s fears. Anyone who has been through a life changing illness or event, anyone living with terminal illness, dealing with a very visible change in appearance, anyone who has had their life altered forever by trauma will recognise the reactions Rosemary talks abut. These reactions, this fear, can only ever be addressed when people talk about it. Fear is addressed by bringing it into the open, by sharing and understanding experiences. It’s why writing about traumatic experience, writing about pain is so important. Far from being ‘good subject matter’ for poetry, with the poetry as the end point of the creative process, it is a way of passing on the information that allows us, as a society to break out of the unhelpful heroic story line that trauma survivors, and those that will not survive, are met by constantly. The story line that is more comfortable is not the actual story. Here is Rosemary, in her own words:

In November 2017 I was accepted on an ’emerging writer’ scheme in Medway. I had belatedly realised that I needed to change the name of my game from Procrastination. I wanted to be a published poet even though I knew I had for various reasons missed the career boat. I was 72.

On December 23rd 2017, my doctor phoned to give me the result of a bone scan I had had two days before. She couldn’t go into detail, not being a specialist, but told me the breast cancer I had had eight years before had metastasised to my spine. I didn’t get a proper confirmation of the diagnosis until mid-January, when my oncologist told me that regardless of mastectomy, lymph node removal and radio therapy, my cancer had already metastasised eight years before, even though I had been discharged after three years as cancer-free. After this, I never saw that oncologist again. Maybe every cancer sufferer feels this in their own way, but I am not a person who can deal with cancer. I am allergic or hypersensitive to practically every drug going. I’d had two mastectomies to dodge this bullet; chemotherapy was not an option for me; all other ‘heroic’ treatments failed or had to be stopped.

I could not relate to the accepted cancer story of the heroic fight. I found people’s reactions shocking, hurtful, devastating. Other people’s fear is not part of the public story. My dealings with medical staff were fraught with misunderstanding, lack of education, empathy, their exasperation at being unable even to give me palliative care. Friends disappeared. My husband was consumed with rage and grief.

I realised that I was on my own with this.

This book is the result. I discovered that writing was the best medicine for me. Writing my truth on the page cut through all the falseness of the great grinding cancer machine. It was a way in which I could sustain my essential self.

This is not a misery memoir. It is not a journey. it is not a story of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. It is the record of one person’s experience as it happened. All I ever did was write down as clearly and honestly as I could what i was paying attention to on any particular day. It has no moral, no meaning, no ‘life lesson’. It’s just me, listening to my heart while living with tis awful disease. I hope you might find it worth reading.”

Rosemary Mcleish, Selling, Feb 2020

One phrase in particular from this foreword has stayed with me: Writing my truth on the page cut through all the falseness…it was a way in which I could sustain my true self’ This is something I have felt in my own writing, something that many, many people feel about their writing and why creative writing is one of the tools that can help so much. Not as a way of healing, but as a way of recognising and sharing the human experiences that shape us.

I want Rosemary’s words to speak for themselves, so I will share this poem, which came from a prompt about the blue whale skeleton (see picture at the top of the page) in the Natural History Museum.


The skeleton of a blue whale, called “Hope”,
is suspended over the hall of the museum,
dominating everything.  I marvel at its
stupendous size, its delicate symmetry,
its grace, and wonder what my bones
will look like when I’m dead.  I’ve seen
the flares on CT scans, read the grim reports,
but never looked up images of what ails me.
This feathery, fragile, honeycombed
beauty is not what I expected.  I thought
of growths, Elephant Man-like spurs
and gross misshapes, excrescences.
I cannot power through krill, mouth
agape, eating as I go.  I need to protect
my frailty for fear of breaks, not even
a dip in the local pool.  But I can at least
stop a while, contemplate these ever-
changing patterns from dense to filigree,
as ephemeral as spiders’ webs, frost
fairies on winter windows, the tracery
of bare branches against a grey sky;
or notice how the frills and furbelows
are so like those of underwater lives,
the blue whale’s home, of sea anemones,
sponges, coral.  There’s an odd kind of
strength in fragility, as powerful in its
way as this great leviathan of our age.
We spend our lives picking and choosing
amongst what nature offers us,
but we need, I need, to embrace it all.
Cancer, making lace out of my bones,
traces all the beloved patterns of my life.

Here’s Rosemary reading the poem herself:

Thank you Rosemary. You are missed x

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