Dancing on a Pin
poems by Katerina Vaughan Fretwell

Print: 978-1-77133-221-7
ePUB: 978-1-77133-222-4
PDF: 978-1-77133-224-8

104 Pages
April 28, 2015
Poetry All Titles


Dancing on a Pin poems by Katerina Vaughan Fretwell

Dancing on a Pin is Katerina Fretwell’s eighth poetry, and art, collection. Honest, stark, brave, and at times a humorous evoking of feelings and ideas, this collection of evocative poems is focused on the poet’s husband's illness (cancer) and eventual death, her close sharing of this process, and the frustration of dealing with modern medical treatment, that is controlled by the pharmaceutical industry. But mostly, this is a series of poems that make meaning of two people on a journey.

"Katerina Vaughan Fretwell’s Dancing on a Pin is a powerful threnody for the loss of her husband Jack to the ravages of cancer. It is also a cultural, ecological, and spiritual inquiry into the history of the disease.  This poignant process work, complemented by Fretwell’s masterful sketches and paintings, spare us neither a direct gaze into cancer’s ravaging maw, or an easy dismissal of hope.  As readers, we become not merely spectators, but fellow travellers, participants, as we dance with Katerina and Jack on the head of a pin, the pin both of the first tiny cancerous tumours and the pinhead of pain and loss. The sequence is at once a fierce battle and a surrender, not to the “non-being” of cancer, but to love that is “stronger than death.” The poet’s tender ironies guide us into the abyss and back. Fretwell’s creative energy, her proliferating metaphors out-metastasize cancer and stand as undefeatable eruptions of creative consciousness. Facing down cancer, the poet, partner, friend challenges:  “No matter what, we allot you not one God-particle of our fertilized love.” After etching the messiness and devastations of the disease, the poet is given a glimpse beyond death: “To nurse, friends, your eyes stay shut. To me they open.”

—Susan McCaslin, author of Into the Mystic: My Years with Olga

"Katerina has translated the broken DNA codes of her husband Jack’s cancer, and the broken chains of love it tried to make of their lives, into life. This is mastery: rhyme, metre, space, timing, air, sound and silence, are laid out in DNA strings and sprays of all shapes, all masterful, using the whole page and all the spirit and physicality of a poet at the peak of her craft. This is the whole world of bodies in love. Katerina refuses to distance cancer. She lives with Jack through it. There is the intensity of Emily Dickinson here, the physicality of Ted Hughes, the radiance of Kathleen Raine, the transcendent mourning of Phyllis Nakonechny, and now, I must add to this list: the full presence of Katerina Fretwell."

—Harold Rhenisch, author of The Spoken Word

"In detailing her husband's ordeal with cancer, Katerina Fretwell leads us through a maze of harrowing hospital bureaucracy but she does not leave us caught up in medical trauma. Given her keen eye and open heart, Fretwell’s perspective is poignant, sometimes wry, always immediate in its visceral grasp of a language that will translate events as they unfold. Grief has left the poet the gift of clarity, the gift of transforming raw experience into nuanced poetry. All of us who face such trials (and that is all of us) should read this book and take solace in the transformational love it offers us."

Penn Kemp,  poet, playwright and editor, Creative Age, London's Writer-in Residence and recipient of the League of Poets' 2015 Spoken Word award

"This is what poets do with pain and loss—they transform suffering, defeat despair, wrestle the lousiness of growing ill into a line of poetry—take death by the lapels, look it straight in the eye, shake it by the body till it rattles and sometimes even laughs out loud."

—John B. Lee,  Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity and Honourary Poet Laureate of Norfolk County

Dancing on a Pin

Award-winning poet and professional artist, Katerina Vaughan Fretwell’s poetry and art reside across Canada and in Denmark, Japan, and across the United States. Recent poetry collections include Class Acts, Angelic Scintillations and Samsara: Canadian in Asia and Shaking Hands with the Night. Her poetic sequence “Quartzite Dialogues” was set to music by Michael Horwood and performed at the Festival of the Sound in 1999 and 2004 and at the Takefu Music Center in Japan in 1999. She is a member of the feminist caucus of the League of Canadian Poets. She lives just south of Parry Sound, Ontario.

Dancing on a Pin by Katerina Vaughan Fretwell
reviewed by Candice James
Canadian Poetry Review - February 7, 2016

Dancing on a Pin is a no holds barred journey into the depths of cancer; its remissions; its progressions; and finally its finality. Fretwell gives us an extremely candid view from the front lines of a cancer tragedy. Sometimes a small glimmer of beauty emerges, but mostly it is a dirge sung sadly for her dying husband. These poems go straight for the heart sometimes wrenching it and sometimes attempting to soothe the continuous ache of the daily trek toward the finish line. Katerina’s nine original paintings interspersed in the book are her impressions of the disease as it begins, changes and spreads.

From the bombastic first poem “Cancer" to the ethereal last poem “But I Am Alive” Fretwell takes us on the full tour of her extremely descriptive and heartfelt journey through her husband’s battle with cancer. She runs the gauntlet of naming the cancer, to cajoling with it in her quest to be able to learn to live with it until its immortality succumbs to mortality… and somewhere along this difficult journey

Fretwell somehow manages to find a sort of therapeutic solace in her poetry. She takes the reader on a journey travelling the trails and travails of hope, pain and ultimately loss. The lines between dimensions and reality become hazy as evidenced in the last two lines of the final poem “But I Am Alive”: ‘you winged to Soul Heaven: I said/ But you are dead. You replied But I am alive.’

Dancing On A Pin is an emotional plunge into the depths of cancer and an unobscured view of the ravaged landscape of grief and desperation it indelibly imprints onto the lives it touches as it runs its relentless and unforgiving course. This is not a book for the faint of heart, but it is a book that fellow travellers journeying down the same road can identify with and, like Fretwell, they too may find a sort of therapeutic solace in the reading of Fretwell’s lines. This is a book of poetry that will soothe as a salve to the spirit of anyone who has held hands with, or had a close proximity with cancer

About the Poet: Katerina Vaughan Fretwell is an award-winning poet and professional artist, Katerina Vaughan Fretwell’s poe try and art reside across Canada and in Denmark, Japan, and across the United States. Recent poetry collections include Class Acts, Angelic Scintillations and Samsara: Canadian in Asia and Shaking Hands with the Night. Her poetic sequence “Quartzite Dialogues” was set to music by Michael Horwood and performed at the Festival of the Sound in 1999 and 2004 and at the Takefu Music Center in Japan in 1999. She is a member of the feminist caucus of the League of Canadian Poets. She lives just south of Parry Sound, Ontario

About the Reviewer: Candice James is in her 2nd three year term as Poet Laureate of New Westminster, She is past president of both Royal City Literary Arts Society and Federation of British Columbia Writers; a full member of League Canadian Poets; and author of eleven poetry books: the first A Split In The Water” (Fiddlehead Poetry Books 1979); and the most recent are “Merging Dimensions” (Ekstasis Editions 2015). She was awarded the prestigious Bernie Legge Artist Cultural Award 2015 and also the recipient of Pandora’s Collective Citizenship award 2015. Further Info at: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candice__James and www.candicejames.com


Dancing on a Pin
reviewed by Michael Dennis
Today's Book of Poetry - November 8, 2015

Susan McCaslin called Dancing on a Pin "a powerful threnody."  I sent out the Today's book of poetry research team on a fact finding mission and they came back with this definition: "a mourning song or hymn, performed as a memorial to a dead person."

Well, Dancing on a Pin is certainly that.  Katerina Vaughan Fretwell's sad litany is a report from the front lines of a cancer story.

Fretwell is unremorsefully candid in this prolonged banshee wail.  If there is beauty she finds it - but these poems are not for the weak of heart.

Cancer en camera

Lung cancer was still the biggest killer among cancers...

     No 'Dear' for you -- tap-rooting inside Jack. Dr. Crusher
opens our teleconference, Stage IV, no chemo, your heart can't take it.
Nor mine, the news a steaming cow plop. Lung tumours are kernel
size. Cornfield disguise, clever. CA, Jack loves corny jokes.
Pinhead-size ones hide in the liver?

     As we hoe that row, he adds, Come in two months after
another CI scan. Screen blacks out nurse smiles, Didn't suggest making
a will.

     So Cancer, how many devils line-dance on a pinhead? It's
you I hate, not Dr C beholden to his Oath. But you lousy garden of
loose strife. I'm Jack's wife. He envisions you yanked out. No matter
what, we allot you not one God-particle of our fertilized love.


Fretwell is an open book as she details the climbing of a very difficult mountain.

The cover of Dancing on a Pin is a detail from one of the many paintings Fretwell painted during her perilous trek.  These paintings appear throughout this collection of poetry and many of them are sadly beautiful detailed explorations of cancer cells.  Fretwell is nothing if not full frontal and full speed ahead.  These paintings become very poignant markers of the confrontation Fretwell and her dying husband endure.

Free Ride

But of all diseases, cancer had refused to fall into step in this march of

You're Kokopele in a gangster's fedora, the rabbit that stomped the
magician's top hat, the sly undercurrent in a cat-tail swamp.

May you slow down, smell the rosebush and forgo shape-shifting.
Eschew the temptation to be a giant Cineplex.

Content yourself as a cornfield kernel. Please yourself as pinhead for
jitterbugging angels and vermillion-devils.

Bromeliad to Jack's Wise Oak, bacterium to his intestinal fortitude --
attest to the truth, you symbiotic parasite.

Guests don't abuse their hosts. It's rude to clog up the plumbing or
the fan, short the circuits  dim the halogen.

If you bulge like a tuberous begonia, beware Raid, Weed Killer, and
above all, my Meditation Book and Prayer Wheel.


Fretwell inserts as much humour as she can find into this battle.  And it is a sad story with just the one ending regardless of how brave Fretwell remains.

We care because these poems work.  We are, in our small way, beside Fretwell and her stoic husband as they suffer, as they endure, and as the fates make their final play.

Fretwell remains clear eyed and crystal clear in her frank confrontations.  To make art out of this much sorrow is a gift to both her beloved husband and to us grateful readers.

Jack, My Heart

     The question ... will not be if we will encounter this immortal
illness (cancer) ... but when.

     That sunless afternoon, face roseate, signs vital, surgery set.
I kiss your blue lips, our devotion voiced, you're trucked to OR.

     Your Isolation Room bereft, I race for java. Two best friends
bolster me in Family Wait Room. We crawl up the clock. 7pm,
Dr Decker

     diagrams upcoming re-section past your gut's inoperable
golf-ball. More waits, more updates. Code Blue Code Blue Code Blue

     our pin-drop silence. My heart-on-ice. More waits, more
updates, sprinting docs & nurses. Eons later, we pilgrimage

     to ICU. No heartbeat for twenty minutes, on life support and
clunky respirator, coma. Major brain-damage?

     Jenny prods, Touch him! I cup your cold shoulder, promise,
We will share eternity. It's okay for you to die.

     To nurse, friends, your eyes stay shut. To me, they open.
Your Spirit's final code for me alone. Us, winners, cancer loser.

January 29, 2013


I've read that poem six or seven times now, makes me weep, every time, I'm crying right now.

Today's book of poetry loves it when a book of poetry knocks us on our arse.  We love a book that kicks you awake, makes us feel something real.


Dancing on a Pin by Katerina Vaughan Fretwell
reviewed by Kate Marshall Flaherty, Verse Afire, Vol. 3 - Sept-Dec 2015

"Katerina Fretwell’s moving book of poetry is aptly entitled “Dancing on a Pin,” for the book navigates the precarious journey of living with a loved one with cancer. There are no sections in the collection, and thus the reader enters into a moving journey through “cancer country,” with all of its paradoxical epiphanies and challenges. Fretwell covers a wide range of themes, poetic forms and emotional responses to this journey with tenderness and, at times, humour. She deftly weaves Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor” throughout her own metaphors, quotes powerful epigrams from “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” and has a memorable poem that mirrors the stages of accepting death and dying in Helen Kubler Ross’ “On Death and Dying” as well. This poet has steeped herself in every aspect of the cancer journey, where “courage is a verb”. 

Fretwell describes the polarities in cancer’s “emigration to another world” --  of “hospitalopolis”, “superstitions” and “tribal fears”, of “weed killer” and “prayer wheels” in these “curious times.” She often finds refuge and metaphor in nature, in snow-shoeing through “a brooding apocalypse”, finding still-points in “lakes and nature”, and making peace with the loose strife along the paths in Parry Sound, where many poems are placed. Ultimately, the poet and her dying husband are victorious “by re-defining victory.” They find delight and humour is small things – flatulence, “cracking up the nurses”, the simple triumph of another “morning saluted” met with a “high five. The apex of the collection seems to be the simple statement about Jack “your creed/ Acceptance.”

The form of these poems varies and magnified the emotion and content of each piece. This is a symbol of Fretwell as poet and artist. Some poems are freeverse with many spaces to reflect, some are in box shape to signify the constrictions, some hour-glass to reflect the sacredness of time, and some are in couplets, reinforcing the deep connection between Fretwell and her husband. This is powerful stuff. Poet and survivor are a strong team, as are the words and art.

In the poets’ own words, “Artists apprehend beauty in the weirdest places.” What makes this book so powerful is the enhancement of striking images and phrases with stark, colourful and evocative artwork. The oil on canvas “cellular growth”, for example, with its orbs of green and gold against red is a mix of beauty and foreboding … which cells will mutate? Will the green cells deviate from the golden pattern? Midway through the poems, the acrylic on canvas “Cell Barriers” depicts green lugubrious faces rising out of the streaks and dots of red. By the end of the book, the acrylic on canvas “Duking it Out” shows goulish green and red faces in opposition.

The near penultimate poem, “Still Point”, gives the reader pause ...”75 years fading to the still-point” … and the poet reassures Jack and the reader with her words “We will share eternity. It’s OK for you to die.” There is an emotional release for reader and, it seems, poet. The book ends victorious with the assertion “But I am Alive” – poet, spirit of Jack and reader all end this journey with celebration. This is an honest, courageous and ultimately life-affirming book of poetry that is important for our times."

—Kate Marshall Flaherty, author of Reacing V


In Sickness and ...

By the early twentieth century, many locally
restricted cancers ... could be removed by surgery.
These included ... colon cancer, and lung cancer.
—Mukherjee (page 59)

Hemlock hugged      arms draped over
broken branches      I howl      out your cancer
to angels dancing on snow

A month and counting           five hours
             daily trudging                half-time along
the hospital corridors                         your colon
         tumours keep us company             and lung

spots taunt hide and seek      For thirty
years we’re soul-folk singing my arts
in the cedar house you designed —

windows for tree-hugger and chickadee
theatrics      Snow-shoeing for stamina
my prayer-oak and comfort-hemlock —
markers through             foggy      crystal

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