and for all the others
Get to know your breasts. Near the armpit
you may find pebbles, bladderwrack, pearls.
This is normal. Don’t be alarmed.
The lower part of your breast
could be gravel. There might be silt,
quicksand, shifting dunes under the nipple.
Check for flotsam at low tide. Search
for a rock in shingle, a limpet on the sandy beach.
Seek help if you discover these.
(i) The consultant puts it like this
Most breast cancers are sporadic.
Only five percent
genetic––a defective gene gives the woman
an inherited predisposition. So when
two or more close relatives
develop the disease, we must
be vigilant. If one parent has a bad gene
there’s a fifty-fifty chance you have it.
If you do (we can test
for two genes––there are others
not yet found) the risk of cancer’s
eighty-five percent. How does that sound?
(ii) Eighty-five percent
Eighty-five percent of computers in China are infected with viruses
Eighty-five percent of lost umbrellas are left on long-distance buses
Eighty-five percent of embryos transferred during IVF fail to be born
Eighty-five percent of men over sixty spend Sunday mowing the lawn
Eighty-five percent of sunscreens don’t deliver their marketing claims
Eighty-five percent of people want children in another part of the plane
Eighty-five percent of western women wear the wrong bra size
Eighty-five percent of English tomorrows have weather just like today’s
The surgeon’s album
He turns the pages for me:
full and partial reconstruction, implants,
muscle flaps from back and stomach. Creations
to match and balance. But how would I look
flat? No extras. Straightforward scars.
He frowns at a lop-sided photo.
The absence doubled? I’ve not done that before.
Twelve months on, he wants
my picture, conforming to house style:
no head, arms at forty-five degrees to clavicle.
I stand anonymous against a stripped pine door,
knots and fissures dark behind my skin––
a knife-thrower’s object, still
until the last blade hangs from the wood.
Two weeks before surgery
Cast me and I will become what I must be
We’ve oiled my shoulders, collarbone,
as greased rubberwood, I’m primed for casting.
You soak chalky bandages, wrap me
in slapstick layers of white––
a sacrament to tender body and life.
Working fast before the plaster sets
we smooth wet dressings onto slippery skin––
keep my contours, take my shape;
at every fold and ruck we stop, look closer
to remember. I lie death-still, encased,
breath slow-drawn, not to crack my shell:
an end and a beginning. Beneath the carapace
I hum a lullaby––you lift the curves away,
cast off my breastplate,
air moving like shadow over sentenced flesh.
Three turns in the corridor
to the anaesthetic room, one last walk
with breasts, the weight of them
familiar as my own name and address.
A young man in a white coat small-talks
London, fixes a cannula into the wrist
where my watch has been. My lips
keep moving––explain we left
some years ago, not the stress,
more the desire to raise our child
on chalk hills, near the sea.
His eyes clear as a newborn’s
close to my face, he holds my hand––
a moment of love, I will call it that.
I lend him this life, veins freezing
from the forearm up.
Patient supine, arms right-angled to torso,
breasts and axillas exposed
(no Paralyzing Agent to be used in anaesthetic)
the embryo’s mammary ridge,
a thickened strip of ectoderm
at six weeks’ gestation, develops and extends
Prepare chest with antiseptic. Check:
Clamps, Vascular Hemoclips,
Blake Drains, Skin Stapler, Marking Pen
a segment of this ridge
persists in the thoracic area and proliferates,
budding multiple lactiferous ducts
Draw island to include Nipple-Areola,
make incision, retract skin flaps,
dissect breast from Pectoralis Major muscle
a small pit in the epidermis
Before you surface, they select
a pair of eyes from a tall jar by the door.
Checking for colour, they push them into place.
The shade they paint your face, Warm White,
matches the walls, it will stay bright
for days. Next they give you a nose
that detects only latex, aftershave,
surgical scrub. The younger nurse
attaches ears, tunes them in, adjusting
the volume while she speaks a name;
it sounds alien, metallic, definitely not yours.
Teeth and tongue are slipped in quick
so you can articulate: Is it tomorrow?
My lips are dry. How do I know if I’m dead?
Blood pressure’s stable now, a top-up
of analgesic and you’re set for the ward.
But first they smuggle into your skull
random clips from someone else’s memory––
you’ll discover them later, at the edge of sleep.
As they wheel you out, you request
a glass of water, some extra air.
I think of love
and suddenly as though I’ve heard some new word
in a half-known tongue, comes
this sense of you, and in the opiate fog a growth of light
and you there just beyond my reach
to make me stretch, fill my lungs
and feel the cuts,
a tightening band of steel around my ribs––
and all the years and days we’ve been together count
as much as every stitch that binds me skin to skin,
and in the places nipples were
I feel a charge of blood
and ghosts of kisses visit me as pain.
River boats carve up and down,
commuters trail to work in lines
over London Bridge.
An eagle has bedded its claws
in my chest. I hang by the city wall,
watching, waiting to heal.
On hospital TV
Nigella wears burgundy velvet, a party dress
with plunging neckline, her black
black hair falls in ribbons over milky shoulders
down to full G cups. She demonstrates
the ease and desirability of flaking crab
with dill and fennel, coating little cakes
in egg and breadcrumbs, deep-frying plenty
to feed ravenous guests. She’s so perfectly
convincing. I’m planning my own celebration––
champagne and sleep, the relief of a flat chest.
Breast care nurse
She whistles in––flat shoes, primary colours,
Remember to take some softies when you leave––
use them as soon as your wounds are closed,
wear them with a comfy bra, baggy top,
nobody’ll guess. Then call and make a date
for silicone ones, any size you fancy, they’ll look good
under a T-shirt or vest. Try different brands
till you find what suits––so many kinds,
even stick-ons for nights.
I want to tell her
I am my own woman-warrior,
heart just under the surface. I let go of pretence
weeks before the surgeon drew
his blue arrows on my chest.
Following the others
This body’s bruised and torn
with frostbitten openings
where black winds howl.
Others crossed this frozen waste,
edging forward, finding their way
as I find mine now.
The new geometry
I’m laid out, my head padded
in the angle of the back seat,
the belt above ruling its hypotenuse
across my space, placing me
in the sudden angularity of the world.
This line of sight’s ideal
to study the oval heads of cyclists,
oblong posters pasted on oblong buses,
faces squared in fogged-up windows.
Now we accelerate, switch lanes,
I see plane trees in parallel rows,
parabolas of lights. A trapezium of sky.
Over the South Circular, a helicopter
poised like a rotating star.
Removing sutures in the bath
Lap of water, deep
and rippled skin. Look
through fluid glass
to winter sky––
each quick cut
straight and white––
slow, the vapour
Self-portrait without breasts
Tangled hair, charcoal-socket eyes,
mouth slack after one more long night
restless on my back. This body’s fenscape,
manscaped, hills removed––the meaty joins
still livid, tight shut mouths
where distant territories were stitched
in touch. Blood seeps in deltas over ribs,
yellow and purple track to the waist.
You’re even more beautiful now, you say
and I believe, for though I never was, I am
explorer, seeker––I’ve travelled
and I have an ear for truth.
When you cast me, I held my breath
as the plaster set. You kept your focus,
capturing the contours of my breasts.
Remember that awkward fold by the clavicle,
air trapped between layers, remember
my fear––that flesh could not be cast
to look like flesh. But now, when I touch
the rough white woven skin, I want to quit
my body, let the twin chalk rind
contain my breath, while I recall 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.
The nipple place
I mourn this most of all––
the grief acute and physical.
Sensation prickles in the numb
scar, tells me of the place
my left breast was, a phantom
where the nipple lies in space
somewhere in front of me,
gathering nerve and duct,
in skin––excite, contract.
A meeting place, the place I met
those few, those so few loves
that time would prove
could turn me inside out.
Expanse of skin stretched over ribs:
this is the new terrain we’ll trace on paper––
a detailed plan with code and key.
Our way to measure and record
how much feeling has been lost, how much
might be retrieved.
Let’s cross-hatch regions of polar snow––
uninhabited, no sensation.
In places, the surface won’t tell the truth:
mud on top of frozen soil and rock.
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.
black and white
if it’s light when I wake
and if I look left I see
this three-month me
wrists against chest
fingers tip to tip
palms floating over ribs
she stares from the frame
sternum lifting and sinking
hands filling with breath
seamless sports tops, sweated, grey as gum
lilac camiknickers, Paris ’92, unworn
shocking pink bustier (supplementary pads)
disposable paper pants for handbags
Jockeys for Her, folded, half-priced
camisoles––laced, flowered, satinised
coloured thongs curled like exotic snakes
precious silks in cream and caviar black
bra-and-pantie sets from magazines
sequinned, crotchless, stuff of dreams
long-desired C cups with double Lycra straps
zips, poppers, neat breast-feeding flaps
underwired wonderbras to lift morale
empty drawer––no underwear at all
We are warriors, women marked by a lack of breast––
bows crafted from elm, sinew and bone,
We live on our wits, we live on the move.
Tomorrow at dawn we ride––
our arrows will find their kill. But tonight
we hush our restless mares,
lie together on leopard skin, kiss each other’s scars,
stare into the fire where shadows dance.
The window-dresser strips
nine skinny girls, slow-dancing each.
Look, it’s the turn of the tall brunette––
pert breasts, absurdly elongated legs,
good for tango and two-step,
then she’s propped with the rest.
In the morning, the dresser will wrestle
her troupe into this season’s layers,
help them strike the right pose. But now
she flips the Closed sign, sets out for home.
I slip in at the back, lower the blind,
twist off the brunette’s top half.
The torso I give her is Topman––
discrete pecs and six-pack.
Shoulders just broad enough.
No adhesive necessary
Past the Hide ‘n Seek lingerie range, beyond Naughty Nurse and Hail Mary sets, to a screened off area with rows of jelly-coloured vibrators and Jiggle Balls. By the time I’m examining a five-foot inflatable penis, she’s close. Need any help? That confidential smile. Yes, do you have nipples? She’s not sure, she’ll check. I’ve lost mine, I add.
At home. I press the salmon-coloured discs back to back––a miniature UFO––then peel them apart, lick their flat sides, choosing where to place my one-size nipples: near or far, high or low. They sit over the stripes of white scar like elastoplast. Under a T-shirt they appear home-grown. When I touch them they’re always firm.
I reach up, pull it down. The shadow
thrown against the screen
is the same that patterned the wall
but since the backdrop’s white
and clean, my stare persistent,
long, I see at last a me I’ve never seen.
Who can say when the last time was––
last time you kissed my breast?
I don’t recall
it seems like years ago.
All last times move together
and I wonder
is this how last is––
was the last time you kissed me
the last poem I read, the last time we spoke
the last pebble I collected from the beach
the same day the last snow fell?
Is there a crowded place
where all last things are––
all letting go?
Thoughts on a painting of Saint Agatha
by Francisco de Zurbaran
Virgin martyr, protector
of valleys, wet nurses, bell founders––
invoked against breast disease,
earthquakes, eruptions of Mount Etna.
Agatha, whose breasts were excised
with pincers by order of a jilted lover,
what do you make of these reconstructed
bodies? Muscle flaps. Tissue expanded
by balloon. Thigh and buttock flesh
ingeniously transposed. Do you admire
the silicone implants, the polished skin––
nipples grafted from earlobes and labia,
areolas tattooed? You stand there
serene, flat-chested, forever the girl,
bearing your breasts on a dish
and if people mistake the hemispheres
for handbells or perfect loaves of bread,
help them remember––each of us
has severed parts
we carry separately.
Our hearts are closer
when we hug, no bra to grey
and ruin in the wash, less
bounce and wobble
running for a bus,
full horizontal contact
with the ground, I am
in air and water, I remind myself
of me––and you
press your ear to this ribcage,
hear me live.
You want a publicity shot
so I send a black-and-white (pre-op, nude,
cropped––I am sure––to shoulders and head).
But when you double-click
I’m all there, as I was. You have me
full-breasted, goose-fleshed in that attic studio.
If we meet, will your gaze
be lingering, forensic? Will you recall
light striping my cleavage like evening sun on dunes?
Will your eye undress, redress me,
trying to reconcile that image
with the shape I’ve shifted to?
When they lie together now
they make new kinds of love. Her fingers
trace the gash above his brow
that bled against the cellar step last year;
her breath cools a ring of purple skin
around a grainy scar. There are
the usual homely marks––tip of iron
to thumb, oven’s edge to wrist, taut patch
from scalding milk the day their boy
turned six. Such tenderness for each
and for the cicatrice where she was torn
and stitched that night the baby came;
the nine-inch stripes of platinum
across her chest, where breasts have been
excised, remembered, grieved
and almost, now, forgotten.
In 1811 the writer Fanny Burney underwent a mastectomy,
without anaesthetic, at her home near Paris.
She later recorded the experience in her journal.
Four carriages stop in the street.
One last mouthful of wine
before I ascend the bed,
two nurses at my side.
Three chimes of the clock.
Seven men in black, seven
full glasses of claret.
Nine stacks of compresses, lint.
A cambric veil across my face,
the glitter of burnished steel
and backlit by sun,
a forearm over my chest.
The surgeon’s index finger
describes a line, a circle, a cross.
Six incisions and he changes hands.
My screams, throughout.
All this will go on changing,
you’ll recover some feeling
and the scars
will flatten and fade.
When will the first crocus show;
which day will the bud split its calyx?
Will damselflies hover like summer coming
and before summer will there be spring?
There are signs already––
and that chrysalis at your shoulder
unfolding spangled wings.
Pare the leather, thin the skin
where it must stretch and crease.
Then paste: the tanned flesh darkens,
wet and chill, fingers working
over spine and cords, into joints,
mitreing corners neat and flat.
Bandage the book in paper, let it
settle under weights, day after day
until the leather’s dry and tight.
When the time is right for finishing,
black the room, clamp the book
spine up in the beech-wood press,
the lamp pointing where to begin.
Hot brass letters and a vigilant hand––
an accurate blind impression.
Paint in glair with a fine brush,
lay on gold leaf, with level breath.
Tilt the light, shadows will reveal
the place to press the tool again.
Now, strike the gold––feel the title
word by word, bright in the grain.