Clare Best’s Excisions (Waterloo Press, 2011) is hard-hitting, and in places it is a challenging read because of the narrative of the middle section, but Best conquers this brilliantly with her sharp, yet gorgeous writing. She is direct and specific, guiding the reader with surgical precision through the collection.
At the heart of this collection is the sequence Self-portrait without Breasts – the exploration of a patient’s journey into the medical world of a preventive double mastectomy, and this is part of the book I’ll focus on here.
Best documents every step of the process beginning with Self-examination, through to other poems with such lines as:
“Prepare chest with antiseptic. Check:
Clamps, Vascular Hemoclips,
Blake Drains, Skin Stapler, Marking pen…” (Technical Steps)
to the final poem in this sequence, The bookbinder:
“Bandage the book in paper, let it
settle under weights, day after day
until the leather’s dry and tight.”
Invited by Best to “attend” her procedures, I read this sequence with one hand over my mouth, thoroughly gripped.
Just once Best steps out of her own treatment with the poem Account which tells, in the first person, the story of the English novelist, Fanny Burney, who in 1811 had a mastectomy without anaesthetic:
“The surgeon’s index finger
describes a line, a circle, a cross.
Six incisions and he changes hands.
My screams throughout.”
It is easy to locate in Best’s collection one line that sums up my response to this sequence and it is the final line of Memento where Best writes:
“my breath snagged within”.
The other two sections of the book also ring with truth and honesty, with a keen eye on internal rhyme and delicate inter-play of words. The first section, Matryoshka, deals with grief and the final section, Airborne, with love.
It is a book that needs the sequence Self-portrait without Breasts sandwiched between the other two, not to sugar coat it, but to add to its depth, and to do the book justice each section needs to be read separately. I made the mistake of reading the book from beginning to end (it is so compelling) but for all the sections to sing, they need to be heard on their own as well.