The other day I was asked what I look for in poetry. Needing to give a quick answer I said: I am looking to be surprised. I want to end up somewhere I could not have predicted I’d be at the start. This applies as much to reading poems as it does to writing them.
Beverly Rycroft’s remarkable collection of poems missing, about her experience of cancer, not only passes this test (it isn’t one), it consistently outstrips it. As Finuala Dowling says in her generous summary of the book: ‘I could not put it down.’ It is important to say at the beginning this is not merely because of the book’s subject matter, grim and gripping though it is. Neither is it because I have also been treated for cancer, and therefore read the book predominantly from an ‘insider’s’ point of view, recognising patterns and tropes in Rycroft’s depiction of the disease, though different from mine, its treatments and side effects which chime with my own. In the final analysis it is because Rycroft both honours and crafts the details of her story in such a way as to raise it above the level of the particular and to that of the universal which we crave from poems.
In part she achieves this with a notable directness and evenness of tone. This is never so controlled as to be distant, but neither is it ever allowed to tip over into sentimentality:
I want to go back eleven years
to Cavendish Square
and the apprentice stylist
who shaved off all my hair one afternoon
refused to let me pay. (‘Payback poem: October 2008′)
The poems’ plainness say: here is this terrible thing; it happened; I would rather it hadn’t, but here it is nevertheless. Searching in vain for the word ‘acceptance’ between the book’s covers, I’m convinced this is the pay-off of Rycroft’s control. It allows her all manner of direct, sarcastic, harrowing and loving address. At times she displays all of these at once, as in her direct address to God, in ‘You eat your veg’:
what about my children?
what about my husband
and the promises I made
(in front of You
if You care to remember)
or the palpable anxiety of ‘Note to my surgeon’:
whatever you choose to leave behind
becomes all that remains
Key to the book’s dividend of surprise is its deft and startling handling of metaphor. The opening poem of the book, ‘Homing’, introduces the reader to its central themes of repair and renewal through a subversion of the homely image of sewing, first in the form of ‘new uniforms with old labels/ (the ‘rippings of previous stitches/ still dangling like milk teeth)’ and later in the form of birds, who ‘stitch/ unerring as needles, through the silky sky.’ In a book which confronts the impact of medical procedures upon the body so directly, the deadpan pun on the word ‘stitches’ prefigures the suffering that is about to take place. Crucially, it also allows the reader to enter the world of the story at a safe distance.
Sewing appears in various guises throughout the book. ‘Mending’ is a portrait of the poet’s mother which begins with a recollection of childhood and closes with that most unwanted of journeys: ‘She ploughed scissors through cloth/ pinned, tacked, sewed/ glued and weeded’,
‘all undone by […]
unpicking her way steadily back
towards the continent
where her husband finally ushers her,
where her daughter waits
their eyes ambushing her
as if to say:
Here’s what happened
The ‘ambush’ of the poem’s final lines reappears much later in the collection, in a poem of tender address to one of Rycroft’s children. On this occasion the tone is celebratory, as mother and daughter improvise a dance together in a beach-side parking lot: ‘i love it when you laugh/ and grip your baby thighs against my jiving waist’. The assembled crowd stares ‘awkwardly/ down at their drinks// behind their backs the sea/ wheezes and barks/ an old man ambushed by laughter.’ It is a marvellous example of Rycroft’s defiant and self-delighting joyfulness.
Elsewhere, her experience of cancer is likened to a circus high-wire act (‘Household Magician’), a ‘vandalised’ house (‘Alterations’) and even a ‘wheeled black bin’ (‘Tuesday is rubbish day’), the feared ‘recurral’ of which appears as a dog peeing on a lamppost and a ‘taxi circling my/ neighbourhood’ which finally finds ‘the right address’.
The image Rycroft returns to most consistently in missing is one of heat. Again, the reader is given early warning of the narrative that is to follow, quite literally presaged in the ‘bullet-train’ of a ‘wild comet’ (‘1997’). ‘Living in a shoe’, an even earlier poem, about breastfeeding, speaks of nights which ‘blazed’, ‘crazy with the quest’. As we move towards inevitable diagnosis and surgery, a Doctor’s voice ‘steamed warm/ and sticky as fresh entrails’ (‘Monday: nil per mouth’)’, the tumour she carries a ‘hot nest’ ‘crouched inside your breast’ (‘Friday: Diagnosis’).
The speaker’s discomfort reaches new heights as there are ‘Alterations’ which need to be made after the initial surgery: ‘Through a keyhole in my navel/ they plan to unhook my turncoat ovaries/ that were not making babies/ but building cluster bombs/ in my front yard.’ The plan is to leave ‘a good clean house. A padlocked door.’ The result is not without its own set of new complications: ‘behind it the fires beginning/ their blind/ and living burning.’
The speaker’s newly acquired hot flushes is the subject of the unsparing ‘It’s difficult to explain’: ‘Neither quotidian nor laughable/ they’re god’s curse on my for having cancer/ cancer’s curse on me for/ forsaking god.// The experience loves me.’
Sweat oozes off me like larva
I’m trapped in the core of
of a silent volcano
I want to crumble
like a white-ashed tree.
Even the sea is transmuted: ‘burning’, ‘the tide must boil channels/around my stubborn thighs’ (‘I can’t walk on water’). This makes the collection’s final poem, ‘Found’, all the more remarkable. It strikes a palpable note of relief and impulsiveness: ‘I abandon shore. Lie back in the waves/ and let the water discover me’:
Rising on icy hind paws
she balances me high
on the tip of her nose
a bright and shining ball.
Books like missing are indeed rare. As readable as a thriller, it is properly complex, concerning the troubling and never less than costly intersection of mortality with language. It combines superb technical accomplishment with open-handed honesty, wit and warmth. In its handling of set-piece sequencing and detailing of ordinary family life in extraordinary and unwanted circumstances I would go so far as to call it beautiful.
missing (Modjaji Books, 2010)
I will be in conversation with Beverly Rycroft on ‘Poetry and Illness’ at The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on Saturday 8 November, Jerwood Kiln, 1.15-2.00.
I’m sold. Not so long ago I was saying to someone at a writing day that, ‘Cancer ward’ apart, folks with, say, any kind of cancer (and, boy, are there a lot of us!) don’t find many resonances in literature. There’s little that has the authentic voice of our real hospital experiences. And all at once I stumble on this series of posts, on Hilary Mantel’s hospital journal (wonderful, fabulous writing) and now this review. Maybe I was walking around, as George Eliot said, I think, ‘well wadded up’ against the roar that lies just the other side of silence. Whatever. Just: thank you.