Tag Archives: Clare Best poet

Clare Best’s Excisions

 
 
  
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.”
 
 
 
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“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
 
 

© Image by Laura Stevens

 
 
 
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.
 
 
 
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Taboo
 
 
(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.
 
 
 
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Blaze
 
 
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.
 
 
 
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question
 
 
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
something growing
          unsayable     unsaid
 
some things     some notes
          are never found
how     without these
          should the music sound
 
 
 

from Excisions (Waterloo Press, 2011).
 
Order Excisions.
    
Visit Clare’s website.
 
 
 
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Clare Best reviews Abegail Morley’s Snow Child


 
 
 
Snow
Child by Abegail Morley
Pindrop Press 2011
ISBN 9780956782243
£8.99
 
 
Abegail Morley’s first collection How to Pour Madness into a Teacup, a winner of the Cinnamon Press Poetry Collection Competition and shortlisted for the Forward Best First Collection prize, was always going to be a hard act to follow.

With the very smart Pindrop Press edition of Snow Child, Morley has gone for a swift second collection (published just two years after How to Pour Madness into a Teacup) which bears the same hallmark of emotional power. Snow Child again demonstrates that this poet is a force to be reckoned with.

Running to sixty-three pages of poems, the collection could seem in need of some pruning, but part of the message of Morley’s work appears to me to be its protracted nature. She has a way of approaching her subjects from several different angles, and the resulting layers of emotion, the build-up of impressions, the accretions of weight, are central to the effect of the collection as a whole.
 
The poems describe and inhabit a state of super-sensitivity (this term is more aware of a need for covering than the word ‘rawness’, though that word is tempting). It is manifested in ‘Angler’ as the skinned fish with eyes that “solidify and chink on the plate”. It appears in ‘Family Album’ as a yearning: “At the end of the darkness is the thread of my child./ I carry the weight of the dead”. It re-emerges in ‘Northern Line’ as “a disembodiment,/ a straining to replace nothing with something”. This super-sensitivity, questing comfort and seldom finding it, gives the poems their urgency and provides their uniformity of tone and drive.
 
Many of the poems focus on loss of one kind and another. Often the loss seems predatory, ineluctable, as in ‘Wasps’:
 
 
          By now you’re 50 miles away at the Dartford Tunnel,
          thrumming your way through. Here my skull’s stuffed
 
          with wasps bashing their wings, wedged between
          bone and skin. Soon their humming stops.
 
 
The loss is generally associated with menace, violence, the potential for more loss, making the compound effect of the collection hefty. In ‘Knoll Beach’, the speaker not only envisions the subject of the poem “slumped like sculpted rock … shoulders slack inside your coat” but shows layer after layer of loss – words shifting their balance, rocks breaking and opening “like scars, thin/ white lines bruising blue then mauve”. Until, finally “your body’s gone/ and all that’s left is the yell of gulls”.
 
The more loss there is at work in the poems themselves, that is to say the more the poet strips them down, the more effective and affecting they become, and in one of my favourites, ‘Sea’, everything depends on the last word, the possibilities it offers. Here is the whole poem:
 
 
          I hang seaweed on a doornail.
          It is psychic, predicts all manner of things.
 
          My weather glass, my barometer of change,
          it keeps away spirits and fire.
 
          I know its air-bladders are mouths
          and they talk of nothing but rain
 
          when I pass. I hear their whispers.
          I wait for the sun to die.
 
          Pursing my lips and whistling across the sea,
          I bring home the wind, the tide turns.
 
 
These are determined poems – their bleak beauty will hollow out a place in you, and will rest there.
 
 
 
Order Snow Child (Pindrop Press) here.
 
Visit Abegail’s blog.
 
 
 
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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. She teaches Creative Writing for Brighton University and the Open University, and lives in Lewes, Sussex. Visit Clare’s website here.