Clare Best’s first collection, Excisions, opens with a sequence entitled ‘Matryoshka’ (“nested Russian dolls”) about the death of her parents, and feelings of grief and memory. Best’s poems, which have an intensity and physicality about them, include arresting descriptions of the body, as for example in “Stitch”,
My grandmother knew about seams-
her abdomen ruched from pubis to sternum,
the stitch-marks silver and blue.
Often, these very accessible poems are elevated by sound patterns, particularly internal rhyme, and by metaphor, to capture undercurrents of the highly emotionally charged events Best describes. For example in “Knowing the prognosis”, she writes of
Aspirin, codeine, valium, so beautiful
these white stepping stones,
The stark accuracy of the metaphor with its suggestion of a path out is at once strangely at odds with, and evocative of, the rhythmic litany of painkillers.
Prose poems, such as “Six rendezvous with a dead man”, also make extensive use of rhythm, repetition and assonance:
The door from the foyer swings. A slice of brightness grows and shrinks, delivering them one by one to find their seats. The band’s warming up, auditorium thick with sax, bass, keyboard, drums.
I’m sinking into rhythm when I catch your rich sweet scent – that cologne you’ve always slapped around your neck and chin each morning and again each night.
Yet Best’s poetry is at its most striking when she allows herself to dip into a reservoir of rich, sensuous imagery drawn from the sub-conscious and mythology. In “The death of Perses”, a poem rooted in the allegory in which Hecate poisons her father,
Hecate dreams. She leads him there, props him
in the toxic shade, cuts sapwood for a cot,
gathers a feast of death berries.
One by one, she packs the soft jewels
in his mouth. You’re delivered.
Here’s water and a torch to pierce the night.
In the second sequence, ‘Self-Portrait without Breasts’, Best describes her preventive double mastectomy. Her poems cover discussions with the surgeon of her 85% risk of developing inherited cancer, reconstructive surgery and recovery.
She finds community with other women who have gone through the ordeal; with Amazons, the female warriors of Greek mythology who had their right breasts cut out so they could better throw their javelins; with Agatha, the patron saint of breast disease; and with Fanny Burney who, in the eighteenth century, underwent a mastectomy without anaesthetic. Again, there is an unflinching rawness in the physicality of Best’s descriptions. In “Self-examination”, the body is a landscape:
Get to know your breasts. Near the armpit
you may find pebbles, bladderwrack, pearls.
This is normal. Don’t be alarmed.
In “Memento”, she contrasts sensual and sensuous memories of lovemaking and breastfeeding with post-operative memory:
… a lover’s kiss,
the heat of milk-tight flesh, my newborn
trying to focus as I held him.
How will I remember this?
Numb flesh stapled over ribs,
my breath snagged within.
Most of the poems in this second section are extremely visceral, providing unique insights into the experience of breast surgery and its aftermath. But again, those poems which push the imagery beyond the actual clinical setting are most successful in conveying complexities of experiences and concomitant emotions. In “Flat lands”, an extended metaphor of polar exploration ends:
We map this permafrost with stars
held in parentheses.
Some areas are fragile: thin ice
on a lake – a leaf or feather settling
could start the crack, the thaw. We know
to plot these zones with question marks.
The final sequence, “Airborne”, returns to themes of death and loss, but closes with celebratory poems of love, new life and hope. This is a book of healing precisely because it confronts pain and grief head-on, with unnerving intimacy and intensity, and with a fine sense of musicality as well as physicality.