REVIEW: SILENT SISTER | BY BETH EVEREST

Frontenac House | 2016 | 116 page | $15.95 | Purchase online

Review by Sue Bracken

silent sister: the mastectomy poems is a poetic journal of one woman’s particular detour in life, and it is an act of bravery in the telling. True to her moniker, Beth Everest has scaled the heights, breathed deeply of anoxic air, and made it down the other side of the mountain. This is a raw read. It is not, however, directed only to cancer survivors. As with any major illness, there are always others on the sidelines that are affected.

There is a sense of urgency in these poems. No energy is wasted on formal chapter titles or capitalization. Most poems begin with the first line charging right ahead as if seizing the moment.

nights longer than days stretch
into the hollow

And hollow is such a precise word. As in empty chest cavity, as in pit of your stomach, as in

so purple so indigo
so without
something ahead

And with that Ms. Everest invites into her detour. The steps of this path might appear strangely familiar to some readers. For example, there is the purgatorial wait.

when they ask me why I’m not
going to Vegas with the team…
mastectomy rumbles around
the bleachers, like it can’t find a seat,
the word’s throaty burble missing the volume
control…
i am one week before surgery, waiting

and

what is the sound of cancer growing?

There is the reminiscing.

…i see another bathing suit
discarded by the pool, the polka dots,
one at a time, receding
receding.

And then there are the bits of terror,

second lump?
second?

and

…all your body
fluids are toxic, take precautions…
…do you
have ..a dog?

followed by bits of humour,  appearing at inopportune times.

a check box
for the tumor bank:
do i want to donate
my breast?

Surgery day includes crystalline memories of a loving husband, the kindness of a nurse, and a poetic Esther Williams-esque image that stopped me cold.

the whole line moves forward,
a procession of sufferers,
waving, waving…
before the cutting
begins.

The bandages always come off at some point, but the mirror can be a bully.

..wrinkle of
surgical cut
pinched
shut and scab
stitch…
..it’s so
ugly.
..i’m so ugly.
shhh. grenade.
ugly.

The ill- timed/ill-mannered salesperson is a given.

My dog gets to the door before me
spinning, jumping
…what are you selling?
your lawn
could use an air rake…
excuse me, i say,…
i’m going
to be …completely
bald. billiard ball. do you think
i care about my lawn?…
look lady, you’ve just wasted 20 minutes
of my time. are you gonna pay me to air rake?

The moments of acceptance, scar and all, are powerful and hopeful.

and this is the way it works
after we learn the body
can be pierced, the skin
ruptured, broken.
someone offers us something sweet,
a small compensatory act, and we forgive
what we can forgive, and for a moment,
we forget.

If there’s a ‘weakness’ in the book, some might feel it is in the poems that are more like statements than traditional poems, such as

and the warts
what do i do
about them?

But there is a sense of humanity in these stark moments. One can imagine them being written during brief respites from medication.

Few of us want to be alone in such tough times, or afterwards. silent sister affirms that.

hello. haven’t seen you in a while.
i’ve had cancer.
oh, i guess i’d better be going.

i’m seeing your back, then.
i’m seeing your back.

Poets need to write. Survivors need to feel normalcy, albeit an edited version, in their lives. Ms. Everest has used the power of poetry to share her story, for her own reasons.

good, just look at me.

(As an aside, this book will be shared with future medical students via her surgeon, Dr. J. Kanashiro, who provides a testimonial on the back cover.)

It occurs to me after a few re-reads of this book and writing this review, that the title suggests multiple meanings. My initial hesitation in reading this book suggests there are many other ‘sisters’ with similar paths who are not as brave as Ms. Everest in ‘baring her breast’. I had not decided until the end of this review to disclose that I am also a breast cancer survivor. (Any bias in this review is therefore mine.) Everyone copes in their own way of course, but these poems will make you question whether some of us might want to reconsider our silence. And for those who choose to remain silent, and for those who shout it out bravely, silent sister offers some welcome company.

Sue lives in Toronto in a house ruled by artists and animals. Her debut collection of poetry is forthcoming in 2018 with Tightrope Books.