Review by Eva C. Karpinski
for Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Fall-Winter 2012
Clare Best’s poetry dazzles with the clarity of its chiseled phrases and its measured form. Perhaps the confessional narrative it tells, of encounters with mortality through the loss of her parents and her own preventive double mastectomy, warrants a desire for such poetic control. Her couplets, tercets, and quatrains often suggest reaching out after shape in an attempt to stave off a sense of transience, mutability, and shapelessness. These life writing poems that function as both thanatography and scriptotherapy present themselves as hard polished objects carved from words. A few of them are stitched together from other people’s voices, statistics, or quotes. In this sense, they remain faithful to the collection’s title. After all, excisions are what surgeons and poets share in their craft although the latter salvage and keep what is cut out.
The volume consists of three groups of poems. Part One, dedicated to the dead—parents and grandparents—takes its title from the poem “Matryoshka,” which refers to a set of nested dolls, Best’s image for the concentric structure of memory, cyclical repetition, and embededness in the family. Linked to recurrence, it also evokes associations with generations, generating, and genes, especially in the matrilineal transmission of a hereditary disposition to cancer. Metaphors of cutting saturate these lines: from the opening words of the entire collection—“I cut”—collapsing cutting (flowers) and writing, to the Elizabethan-esque vision of time as a surgeon/poet complicit in cutting human life (in “August”), to the excisions, stitches, and scars inflicted on bodies and memories:
My grandmother knew about seams, knew
things made from good material
may be cut and made again.
My grandmother knew about seams—
her abdomen ruched from pubis to sternum,
the stitch-marks silver and blue. (“Stitch”)
Several poems ponder the father-daughter relationship. “My father’s thesaurus” is a contemplation of a daily object that mediates the aporia of absence/presence and establishes a tenuous relationality that occasionally, as in a later invocation of the mythical allegory of Perses and Hecate (“The death of Perses”), hinges on guilt and emotional entanglement. The distance between “I” and “he” sometimes shrinks into the anaphoric “you,” yet the fragility of the other’s presence can be felt metonymically in the elegy called “Six rendezvous with a dead man.” In an unexpected twist, the poem “Uncoupled” rewrites the meaning of the speaker’s wedding as separation or uncoupling of the father-daughter dyad that foreshadows the ultimate parting through death.
Best is concerned with memory, recycling symbols and images, playing on their doubleness, and mixing up the mythic and the ordinary. The eschatological seeps into the daily when her widowed father turns into Orpheus; the coin put in the mouth of the dead is the coin baked in the Christmas pudding; and the banality of a plastic bag intrudes into the solemn occasion of scattering the ashes. Memories pivot around earlier memories in concentric circles, each loss bringing back the pain of previous losses.
Part Two, entitled “Self-portrait without Breasts,” traces a narrative trajectory leading up to and following her surgery. Here the speaker gestures toward the possibility of community with other women, Amazons, to whom this section is dedicated. This community extends to mythical and historical figures such as Fanny Burney, whose 1811 mastectomy, done without anaesthetic, Best describes in “Account.” “Intercession” invokes Saint Agatha, the patron of breast disease, “whose breasts were excised with pincers” by her torturers (53). A sense of continuity with other women patients is partly established through recurrent metaphors of the body as landscape, whether as a vast expanse of wasteland where others have been before, or geological formations that hide the fear of the unknown. The topography of the excised body—“manscaped, hills removed” (42)—needs to be validated for its new beauty. However, the body, a territory to be reclaimed, is also controlled by biopower and medical technology, whose invasive vocabulary infiltrates the verses through medical terms and talk of pre-op planning and reconstruction.
With fearless candour, Best is drawing an intimate geography of the body, mapping out memories of loss, pain, and pleasure. Looking at the cast of her breasts made before her operation, she remembers and mourns lost sensations, but also describes an act of love making, where the lovers tenderly caress their scars. She subtly challenges conventional gender politics and redefines femininity on her own terms, becoming her “own woman-warrior” (38).
In the final section called “Airborne,” after recording moments of sadness and joy, she relearns to live her relationships in life, not in death; she is ready “to feast, give thanks” (72). The volume concludes with poems reaching out toward her young son, Freddie. Best’s muted, unostentatious, common-sense feminism can be detected in her choices to shun the reconstruction aggressively peddled by her doctors and to expose the medical establishment’s collusion with the dominant ideal of femininity, while also unabashedly naming the sites of pleasure, erotic and maternal, on her body. In a culture obsessed with breasts, she manages to find and redefine beauty in her experience of living in the post-mastectomy body.
Review by Michelle Fossey in Frogmore Papers no 79, April 2012
Clare Best’s first collection took my breath away. Best creates a triptych of poem cycles which linger long in the mind, and satisfy both in their subtle crafting and emotional charge, while leaving a real desire to read more. The collection comprises three sections: Matryoshka; Self–portrait without Breasts; and Airborne, the central section of which traces the visceral trajectory of a radical surgery – preventative double mastectomy – inspired by the poet’s own experience. Enclosing this sequence are sections of tender and nuanced poems both mourning and celebrating life; poems of memory, loss and death, and of family, love and desire. The combined effect creates a stimulating, moving and precise dynamic which increases the power of each section exponentially. Excisions is an exciting collection – acute and life-affirming, and full of a delight in both body and language. Best has a fine ear for the clarity and music of words and meanings. These are poems which make the reader feel their effects almost physically. From the intimate and raw ‘I think of love’: and ghosts of kisses visit me as pain, and ‘Intercession’: each of us/ has severed parts/ we carry separately, to the touching, darkly funny, notes of ‘Breast Care Nurse’ and ‘No Adhesive Necessary’ – survivor humour that welcomes the reader into the world of the poems – the collection made me think about what it means to be alive, as well the radical acts and losses encountered in order to live fully. It is a beautifully made edition from Waterloo Press, with a cover painting by Mary Anne Aytoun-Ellis. I can’t recommend it highly enough.