Self-portrait without Breasts (Poems by Clare Best, 2007-2011)

for Pippa

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.



Vital statistics


(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,

breasts––olive-scented, shiny

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.



Technical steps


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

                                      ultimately becomes

                                      the nipple



Recovery room


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,

wide smile:


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

water, stitched

and rippled skin. Look


through fluid glass

to winter sky––

jet trails,


each quick cut

straight and white––

slow, the vapour


spreads, deforms,

reshapes. Impossible

to think




and blue.



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,

concentrating me

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.



Flat lands


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,

axes double-edged.


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


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––

roots stirring

and that chrysalis at your shoulder

unfolding spangled wings.


The bookbinder


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.