Yeah, I know. When you hear that phrase, you’re probably thinking about certainly unfortunately documented incidents in Russia. Wrong president, wrong micturition, my friend. Wrest your mind from the gutter and prepare to go back in time. Not only because we’ve all heard way too much about the wet yellow memories of our current head of state, but because going back in time is what Cancer does: Cancer is the Zodiac’s historian, the Pied Piper of Memory, the Documentarian of Distress, and both proof and proponent of the fact that nobody outruns the past. (Anyone who’s ever been friends with a Cancer can attest that this is literally true, as Cancer is the sign most likely to start a conversation “You know that thing that happened six months ago that I acted totally ok with, if a little silent about, at the time? Well, it’s been bothering me ever since, has slowly grown to the size of THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT, and I need us to talk about it for six hours or until one of us literally drowns in their own tears, whichever happens second. I just need to feel okay about things with you. Okay?”)
Girl, you know it’s true. If Gemini is the trickster who manipulates time, Cancer, Cardinal Water, child of the Moon, is not just the ocean but all the water in the world, in every stage of purity and pollution, of beauty and horror. In Cancer’s encyclopedic emotional catalog is contained all the damage ever done to any being, an empathic understanding of every slight ever felt, a coexistence with the now and every moment leading up to it.
Just like water. You know the story about George Washington’s pee: how all the water in the world is constant and constantly recycled, from lake to ocean to cloud to rain to the Snapple you drank half of before realizing it really had too much sugar, and therefore we are all, at any point in time, drinking the pee of any and every historical figure who has come before. Most of us hear this and go, wow, cosmic, I get it, water is just flowing in and out of everything all the time. Cancer hears this and is instantly transported into the horrible discomfort of that Delaware crossing and those ill-fitting dentures. They’re not making it up. Their mucous membranes are being assaulted by those human and animal teeth and the spirits of the beings they were stolen from, not to mention the slow leaching into their bloodstream of the lead used to solder the whole mess together.
Don’t laugh. That shit is real and it’s gonna take a long time before they feel all right again. And though sad sackery is a particular risk for Cancer, this ability they have to feel everything at once is essential to their genius. Hemingway was a Cancer and exemplifies Cancer’s propensity both to remain conscious of the past and to be critical without being petty: “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” Thoreau was a Cancer and points out the necessity for natives of the sign to go down the rabbit hole of poor George’s blood lead content and gum abrasions: “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” The great Octavia Butler was a Cancer, and she reminds us that Cancer’s constant dredging up of old silt has a purpose: “I have a huge and savage conscience that won’t let me get away with things.”
Cancer can give us gifts beyond measure: feeling the pain of those eighteenth-century dentures, Cancer goes on to create a world in which they are no longer necessary, sparing us the pain we can’t even imagine, and they mostly don’t even care if we thank them. Malala Yousafzai, youngest ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, survivor of a Taliban assassination attempt, is a Cancer. So were Frida Kahlo, Mildred Loving, Helen Keller, Stokely Carmichael, and Missy Elliott. Don’t try to imagine a world without them; you don’t want to live there.
When Cancer is not evolved, instead of integrating the past into a more beautiful future, they dissemble, lie, compartmentalize, conceal, and avoid it. Cancer can let its empathy turn into selfishness, its conscience into vengeance, and its vulnerability into aggression, making the mistake of thinking that subjective conscience represents some universal licence: Ken Starr. Julius Caesar. Lil’ Kim. ’Nuff said.
I have extensive life experience in Cancers, partially because Cancer almost never lets go, and this can be a strength: it is true that we cannot build on the past if we deny it. It is also true that many of us (Gemini, Aries, I’m looking at you) move on too quickly, not giving the impact of feelings their due. Several of my closest friends are Cancers, and I am the beneficiary of their constancy and their concern, their pathological need to help anyone they perceive as an underdog, their nurturing ways. But the iron clamp of the Crab can also be a punishing weakness: Cancer the hypochondriac (Proust, y’all. Proust is the iconic Cancer), Cancer the pessimist, Cancer the fearful, Cancer the condemner.
As a teenager in the nineties, I briefly dated two Cancers in a row. The first one stood me up for our second date, so I assumed (Air sign! Short memory!) things were over, only to start seeing the second one and receive a twenty-minute answering machine tirade, weeks later, about my perfidy. The second one spent hours crafting me an incredibly beautiful art object out of a wooden cigar box and an assortment of dead insects, presented it to me with the inscription “for no special reason or special occasion,” and when we broke up, sent dozens of incriminating snail mails tearfully demanding it back and eventually spearheaded a citywide defamation campaign about my heartlessness.
Later I somehow ended up involved with the first one again, and when I moved 5000 miles for school I received in the mail 1)a coverlet I’d left behind, filled with rose petals and 2)a succession of increasingly weepy postcards that culminated in “Maybe I’m so hurt that I just feel tired.” I was struck by the writerly elegance of the statement (Air sign! Shallow!), but in retrospect I understand that they were pretty upset (20 years later, they are still upset. Oh, Cancer. It could’ve been so beautiful. If you’d had a slightly shorter memory for all my unwitting crimes. And if you could forgive me for not needing you as much as I used to).
But every sign has its genius. And the particular genius of Cancer is being willing to endure the difficulty of holding onto the past in order to get to the brilliance of better understanding the present. At its strongest (and when it doesn’t get stuck in the depths of gloom), Cancer can take George Washington’s pee, or Julius Caesar’s blood, and distill out of them a cold, clean drink of water.
This is not a process for the faint of heart.
Erick Sáenz’s first collection of poetry, Susurros a Mi Padre (The Operating System, 2018), is less a memoir and more a meditation on the scraps of history and memory left by a Mexican-born father who died when the writer was very young, taking an entire language, culture, and history with him, and the search through memory for what can be known is what forms this book.
Sáenz’s process materializes in a series of poems written like inventories of loss, quietly cataloging what can and cannot be known. “I reach the point where I want to know if it’s only me who lost his language somewhere along the way,” Sáenz writes, and after querying his siblings, concludes, “My siblings’ loss does not correlate to my own.” Investigating not only language, but culture, family connections, race, and identity through the lens of the lost father, Sáenz proceeds doggedly, swimming in the murky waters of a family past, grabbing at details that may be sunken treasure or junk. “Memory//dream. What severs the two?” he asks, and later answers, “I’m chasing the ghost of my father...How do you interrogate ashes lost at sea?”
Susurros a Mi Padre is suffused with loss, made powerful by the neural maps of an almost-erased first language that it traces. Those of us who have language loss in our families will understand this literal absence; those whose histories have been blown away, lost in clumps to the sea, will get the metaphor: the past is a series of connections some of us can no longer make, and the imagining of that structure still intact is both blessing and grief. The father of Sáenz’s title never really materializes; he cannot, submerged too long in those murky waters, but the mother’s memory of his stories paints of a picture of where and how the heart lived, then, and leaves the reader with Sáenz’s musing: “I wonder: are memories fact or fiction?” This book will not give you the answers. But it pieces together enough of an outline to imagine the space left to and taken from those who came after.
Ivy Johnson’s Born Again (The Operating System, 2018) takes Cancer’s plunge into personal history in a different direction, plumbing the depths of the generative beliefs we create around life. Johnson’s sexual cosmology exploits the love/adoration/devotion/worship continuum, turning sex acts into sacred acts, like Teresa of Avila fan fic porn, complete with a capital H on “His cock,” and while too explicit to be arousing these impassioned passages feel like the throwing open of doors to the secret rooms of the psyche, all its adolescent awkwardness and nebulous desires exposed.
Johnson’s linguistic register ranges widely, from clinical/profane to ideological/sacred, and it’s in the latter gamut that the speaker finds its most compelling ground: “I am the woman of one thousand voices/Of one thousand bodies/In one thousand separate rooms” and “We can’t stop ourselves” resonating with far more power than the speaker’s initial self-objectification as blood and cum repository (who hasn’t sat on public transport with some obvious leaking?). Still, if Johnson fails to find the transcendent in that, her declaration that “I am one with the filth” is admirable in its consistency; Born Again’s speaker refuses to distance herself from either body or mind, which propels her into both obviousness and a stunning ontological acuity: “making a mess of the phenomenal world.”
Plangent and lovely phrases like this pull this book into a lulling and yet questing place, and the speaker’s persistent intelligence save her from being yet another innocent getting deflowered for the thirty-seventh time on a porn casting couch. Johnson, like Cancer, manages to dwell in a place of many waters, each a different current in time, in experience, all unified by the constant interrogation of her speaker’s voice. From flyover origins — “I am lost in a place where the prairie is more like a sea” — to cosmic ones — “But I can remember/A world where life was essence,” Born Again is in many ways of history of living in a (white, Christian) female body in America inflected with sexualized religion and sexualized violence. And, like any American story of girl- and womanhood, rape is a constant specter and an occasional named event, and Johnson’s pitiless gaze does not disappoint: “The raped woman being a lack of a lack, the raped woman as a big black hole, in the corner of a room, sucking life inward to nothingness outlined in blood.”
We are powerless before our suffering. We are our suffering. This is what Cancer knows: to give the trauma a name and a description is to integrate it into our interior world. In her “deep internal wave surfing,” Johnson deftly demonstrates this principle. “My blood is the sea let inside.”
As the book comes to a close, the speaker returns to childhood, falling splayed and exposed in the rapture of Bible camp coercions, detailing the horrific and mundane exaltations and violations of a belief system in which we are exhorted to receive a god wielding a “golden dart,” (in which every gendered interaction is an allegory for this) exposing and exploding all our notions of what is good and proper for a girl, for a Christian, for an intelligence assigned, as we are all assigned, such a limited role, taught to bow its head in submission, unable to continue to do so, even if the cost is countless tears and bruises.
“Can you imagine this/My heart might open/My heart might break” — break open, Cancer. Find the courage to own it all. May these books provide you a primer of daring, a way to begin, a way to repair the severing Sáenz laments, between memory and dream, the strength for, as Johnson writes, “Beating my fists against my chest/To rupture its open wound upon this world.” The compassion to turn the effluvia of history into clean water.
Happy Birthday, Cancer. We’re thirsty. Don’t let us down.