Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Silent Sister - the mastectomy poems - Beth Everest (Frontenac House Poetry)

Today's book of poetry:
Silent Sister - the mastectomy poems.  Beth Everest.  Frontenac House Poetry.  Calgary, Alberta.  2016.


is chemo as awful as
some people say it is?

you never ever want to know.


Beth Everest goes to hell and back and writes poems about the experience.  They are as immediate as a slap to an unsuspecting face.  Silent Sister - the mastectomy poems is a harrowing coming to terms with cancer and the fallout around that terrible disease.

Everest takes honesty to chemo-puking levels and shares the intimacies of emotional mountain climbing and the literal physical breaking point.  Her illness is a cross she bears and a painful platform and from that stratified vantage point Everest muses on relationships, family, the concept of the/a future and the pain.  There is almost always the pain.



i lie in bed, hoping
morning comes.
other times, i lie in bed
hoping it doesn't
but it does
and maybe the sun comes
out, or doesn't
but my nurse
tells me rain
clears toxins
even if it feels like



Today's book of poetry was very curious to find out that Beth Everest had the opportunity to study with both W.O. Mitchell (Who Has Seen The Wind) and Saint Alistair MacLeod (No Great Mischief), two of Canada's greatest story-tellers.  

Today's book of poetry was lucky enough to study with W.O. Mitchell's son Orm Mitchell, as good an English professor as you'd ever want to find.  The closest Today's book of poetry ever got to St. Alistair was to stand beside him at a small cocktail party while he and Margaret Laurence traded war stories.  I made sure their glasses were full, listened, gobsmacked.

Today's book of poetry mentions Mitchell and MacLeod because in our story of the world they are a special kind of deserved royalty.  That Everest studied with them shows serious intent, and it never hurts to rub elbows with the gods.  But to my knowledge neither MacLeod or Mitchell dabbled in the dark art of poetry.

Silent Sister - the mastectomy poems works very effectively as a book of poems.  The immediacy, intimacy and voracity of these extremely personal poems is electric.  But it would be very easy for Today's book of poetry to imagine much of this text in a longer narrative work of fiction.  We would stop short of saying we can see the particular influence of Mitchell or MacLeod but we certainly see the quality, the precision.  Beth Everest writes poems singed with the fire and flame of having been to Hades.



smells like medicine we were given
when we were kids, one teaspoon each
year before the wormy winter of sucking
on frozen sweater sleeves, eating snow
for God's sake, a dog might have peed there,
the carmine suspension that tasted like
coins, thick on the tongue.

open your mouth, it's just one teaspoon,
my dad holds my hands back, mom pries
at my mouth and just the smell i am
spitting it into the next year.

and now i am 53, the oncology nurse with
the slow rubber gloves, funnels the bag of
red into the syringe, into my arm, it smells
like, it feels like, it tastes like
will it be over, the slow 45 minute
does it burn? tell me if it burns and
i will slow down, hurry, please, too
toxic to drip, too toxic to touch, too toxic
to spit and when you get home you'll pee
red for up to four days, all your body
fluids are toxic, take precautions especially
around the toilet, wash your hands, be
careful, tell your family, and watch your pets, do you
have pets? a dog, maybe?
yes, yes, hurry, please yes,
and when we are done,
we'll start the slow
2 hour


There is much rough going on in Silent Sister - the mastectomy poems, so much pain shared that it's hard to rub it off when you are done.  At the same time Everest has found her way to a voice that is measured with enough tenderness to get through to the end.  She is not without hope.

In this very difficult time Everest and her poems find some solace in the consoling hands of caring friends.


i am at a local store,
flipping thru the racks of discount clothing
sort of hoping to find something to fit
my reshaped

hey. i look up at the sound of a woman's voice,
soft and friendly, and realize she is speaking to me.
you in treatment? she says. i've been there.
twice. as in two sets.

i think i am afraid
to think about that possibility.
what stage? she asks.
2B comes surprisingly to my tongue.
can i hug you? she asks and moves to my
side of the rack.

and you? i say, what stage are you? i ask this
mid-hug. she steps back.
she smiles, they are making me comfortable
and she walks away.

wait, i think, but not thinking loudly
enough for her to hear. wait, please
tell me your name, as if somehow
the naming would make all the difference.


Everyone here at Today's book of poetry has been touched by that rat bastard cancer at one point or another.  Our Sr. Editor Max lost his youngest son to the scourge almost twenty years ago and we miss him so.  One way or another cancer has thunder-fucked each and every one of us here at Today's book of poetry so this morning's reading was a highly charged affair.

Today's book of poetry's mother, Effie, had a breast removed when she was in her early 20's and then had the other breast removed when she was in her early 40's.  For the first time in my life, thanks to Silent Sister - the mastectomy poems, I have had a small glimpse, a moment of perspective, into the horrors my mother braved.  Four small children and a fifth on the way when the Big C first knocked on my mother's door.

Beth Everest is doing some very brave sharing with Silent Sister - the mastectomy poems.  Many, many women will weep with understanding and empathy, any man who reads Silent Sister will come away with more understanding than previous and certainly more sympathy.  That is an awfully big success for any book of poetry.

And Everest manages to throw in some hope, a trickle of optimism.  An "I'm still here, dammit," smiling sneer.

This book of poems should be in every Dr.'s office and waiting room in the country.

Beth Everest author photo
Beth Everest

Beth Everest is a Calgary based writer whose poetry and fiction have been published in journals across the country. Her new book, silent sister: the mastectomy poems, forthcoming from Frontenac House (2016), is her second book of poetry.

Beth has won numerous awards for her work and her teaching. Most recently, her piece “this poem is about desire” was awarded the silver medal at the Alberta Magazine Publishers Association Awards (2014), and “hanging clothes” won second place in the 2013 Freefall Fiction Contest (judged by Patrick Lane).

Beth holds a Doctorate in Education (University of Calgary), a Master of Arts Degree (University of Windsor, where she had the notable honour of studying with the great story-tellers W.O. Mitchell and Alistair MacLeod), a Bachelor of Education Teaching Certificate (University of Calgary), and Bachelor of Arts Degree (University of Alberta).

Currently, Beth is an Associate Professor in the Department of English,
Languages and Cultures at Mount Royal University, where she teaches Creative Writing (fiction).

Your writing makes me wake up and think and feel and remember.
     - Judy O'Leary, cancer survivor

Telling the story of breast cancer is brave but not so important to helping others who often feel very alone. Even more effective when poetry brings alive the daily experience in such a graphic way.
     - Jeremy Hughes, former CEO, Breakthrough Breast Cancer, UK

Dr. Everest has composed an honest, reflective collection of her art, sharing with us her hard-fought battle against breast cancer. She vividly captures the fragile moments of her journey; there is intense emotion in each verse.
      - Dr. J. Kanashiro, surgeon

Powerful. Poignant. Heartbreaking, yet ultimately hopeful. Silent Sister is about more than breast cancer. It's about the loneliness of modern medicine, our seach for meaning, our dogged resilience in the face of a crow's nest of cancer. The flesh may be pierce, but the human heart never.
     -Will Ferguson, Giller Book Prize Winner



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