Clare Best’s poems are widely published in magazines including The Rialto, The London Magazine, Magma, Resurgence, Agenda and The Warwick Review. A chapbook, Treasure Ground (HappenStance, 2009), resulted from her residency at Woodlands Organic Farm on the Lincolnshire fens. Breastless – poems from the sequence Self-portrait without Breasts with photographs by Laura Stevens – came out with Pighog in 2011, and Clare’s first full collection, Excisions, was published by Waterloo Press, also in 2011. Excisions has been shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize. Clare teaches Creative Writing for Brighton University and the Open University, and lives in Lewes, Sussex.
“Excisions is an unusually clear and direct collection. The poems speak of one life, but the book resounds with universal themes of love and passion, inheritance and physicality, loss and adaptation. The first section, Matryoshka, concerns the interplay between grief and memory, while the third, Airborne, maps the changing landscapes of desire.
The central sequence, Self-portrait without Breasts, is inspired by the poet’s own journey through preventive double mastectomy. This is pioneer territory: Clare Best explores how it feels to experience radical surgery and its aftermath in a society permeated by orthodox ideas of perfection and beauty.”
“This is precise, inventive, often witty and sometimes erotic, and at all times powerfully truthful writing – I don’t think any other group of poems has made me feel so aware of my body. There’s not a shred of sentiment or maudlin self-indulgence here: this is the real thing. Formally the collection is varied and rich, assured in its handling of music and image, and conclusively powerful in tone, range and subject matter.”
– Andy Brown
“Excisions is a riveting book in which Clare Best explores the universal and fundamental subject of loss and the tensions which arise from loss: love and pain, grief and joy. It is a book that raises questions about the female body – about the choices we make, what it means to be feminine, what it takes to be loved. Accessible, beautifully crafted, tender and often witty, without a trace of self-pity these poems chart the rational, physical and emotional journeys we make as sentient beings. It is a love song to life and as such deserves to be read and reread.”
– Maureen Jivani
“Clare Best writes of the things of the world, and of the moments in our lives, as if they bear within them secrets of mortality that words will never quite have the power to reveal. She writes with scruple and clarity, listening always for the unsaid and the unsayable, watching for the passage of flame into darkness.”
– Michael Hulse
“Excisions is a tightly crafted book, quirky and brave. Clare Best explores one of the most difficult decisions a woman could make about her body. But she places the sequence, Self-portrait without Breasts, between two others, starting with grief and ending with love, so that it becomes both a pivot and a measure. Best turns Excisions into a narrative that we can all engage with – the story of how individuals deal with emotional extremes – unpredictable, erotic and philosophically demanding. She resists sentiment, but this book will still make you cry.”
– Jackie Wills
“Clare Best treads a sure path through intensity, complication and danger, and the resulting poems question the very nature of change.”
– Susan Wicks
Six rendezvous with a dead man
(i) 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. The knowledge trapped within my cells, all I can keep, alone in the dark.
(ii) You sit in the ladderback chair, beside me. Not carcinoma, you snap, that was the secondary cause, the primary cause was pneumonia. The Registrar staples papers, signs fifteen copies of the death certificate. Seals them in an envelope. She clears her throat, thanks me for the cheque, asks if there’s anything else before I go. You dart me that sideways look, Let’s get the hell out of here. I need a drink.
(iii) An hour to check two hundred service sheets. You at my elbow, in your best dark suit, striking my knuckles with your metal rule each time the print is anything but monochrome. Copy by copy I discover magenta raked across lines of type, yellow and blue smearing the space between the second hymn and the Committal. Some copies are clean. You tell me to pile those neatly in a box marked GOOD.
(iv) I find the Bitter Aloes when I’m clearing shelves. The cap sheds crystals as I twist and pour the tincture onto my palm. Dip in the tip of my tongue. I’m six again, you’re painting all my fingers and both thumbs. Later, in bed, I suck and suck until the gall inhabits my mouth. The juices do their work, purge my sins, seal my lips. Time goes on. You add bitters to your nightly gin. I understand that I need punishing.
(v) The swimming hour: down and back. All the years: down and back. No need to think of you, no need to look. Down and back: learning to forget. Perhaps you never lived. Stretch, kick, breathe; under, up and breathe. Down and back. Vision alternating between silent fluid world and air above. Then I see you. At the deep end, by the clock, your right index finger beckoning. That way you have.
(vi) I wait in the cold for the people who take away stairlifts and deathbeds, the paraphernalia of a long decline. Standing in room after room, I seek your absence, as if the print of you here is the proof I want. You’re gone. Not for me the desire to touch your clothing or pull the hair from your comb. And when the bedroom door closes on its own, I welcome your invisibility, the mystery that’s parted your matter from mine.
(i) I am collected from school
He opens the passenger door for me, slams it shut. His face reddens, greys again. He walks round the back, checks the boot, sinks into the driver’s seat. At last he speaks. Your mother couldn’t come for you today … hospital … an operation. Nothing serious. He twists the key in the ignition. And all the way home he drives in the middle of the road saying, Don’t worry, everything will be all right. Everything will be all right.
(ii) I am taken to the hospital
The end of the lino, a barred window high in the gloss wall ahead. Door to the left. Stay here, he says, I’ll fetch you. Night blacks out the panes. I wait and wait. The door is finally opened, onto white. He has pulled the sheet to her neck, smoothed the pillows, bathed her eyes and cheeks. The words have been stuffed back in her mouth. She has set her lips in a smile. Her right hand crawls from the bedclothes, reaches out.
(iii) I prepare for my mother’s return
He asks me to draw curtains across windows, turn up radiators. Your mother will be cold. He selects three dresses from the wardrobe, lays them out on the bed, tells me to choose one for my mother to wear home. The blue, he suggests. When he has packed the case and driven away, I drag light into corners, stack it under the stairs. I unlock the garden door and let birdsong inside the house.
(iv) I listen to the unpacking
She comes in, stopping to stroke the dog. He brings the case upstairs, sets it down on the rack, offers to help. From the hall I hear metal catches snap back, zips unzip, bottles clank onto the dressing-table top, the clunk of close-fitting drawers. I whisper through the keyhole, I’m here when you need me, and sit on the floor, counting the days on the amber beads of my bracelet, guarding the bedroom door.
(v) I am left in charge
I am hungry, lonely. No-one calls. Just the clock ticking in a house of dust and ghosts. I go down to the kitchen, pile a tray with Rich Tea biscuits, packets of raisins. Jug of rusty water. Bowl of light. Climb upstairs, knock. He sits unmoving in the velvet chair, eyes staring forward. In the bed, my mother, facing the window, asleep. Next to my mother, myself. I place the tray at the foot of the bed, tiptoe away.
Is it like this?
My brothers’ domain. In, where I shouldn’t go—Spitfires and Messerschmitts hang on threads in the darkening air.
Isn’t it just like this? The quiet afternoon. Trestle table drawing-pinned with paper, littered with Airfix paints. Camouflage Grey, Khaki Drab. Pots of sable-hair brushes. Tubes of glue. A half-built Russian tank. Dead bluebottles; daddy longlegs everywhere.
Hard to strike a match against the little strip. I try and try. At last it flashes into life, sears my thumb. Drop it—smoulder smoke. Then flaring print, flames scorching the Russian tank. A bottle of water—quick quick—unscrew the cap—pour—but Oh! Oh! Oh! the liquid fuels the fire, makes it gasp and leap to the boarded ceiling in a rush of light and heat.
Beyond fear now. Part of me stays to watch the fire take—red, orange, yellow in a fiery fountain—whoosh—frizzle—spit. Part of me runs—down, along the passage, down more stairs to the kitchen, yelling Fire! Fire! Out of breath.
And isn’t it like this?
She turns from the sink, and she’s past me, shouting Don’t move! Up, up, an angel to the top of the house (I didn’t know she could fly).
Later she tells me she put the fire out with the big red extinguisher and her prayers. And Never, she says, Never Never Never Never Again.
Now I light matches in my head. Let them drop. I choose when to tip white spirit on the blaze. I stand at the centre—fire circling, wrapping, keeping me safe.
It is like this.
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.
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.
something’s out there
listened for not heard
something like song
plucked from a bird
the bird in mind
is looked for not seen
an astonishing idea
among the green
the green’s not there
but named in the head
some things some notes
are never found
how without these
should the music sound