Poem of the Week | October 19, 2020
Rachel Jamison Webster “A Poem About Breasts”
This week’s Poem of the Week is “A Poem About Breasts” by Rachel Jamison Webster!
Rachel Jamison Webster is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Northwestern University and author of four books of poetry, including September and Mary is a River, which was a finalist for the 2014 National Poetry Series. Her poems and essays appear in journals including Poetry, Tin House, The Yale Review, The Southern Review and The Paris Review. She is currently a 2019-20 Kaplan Fellow in the Humanities.
A Poem About Breasts
Do I begin with myself—at my parents’ house,
a morning in mid-summer,
nursing the baby in bed,
while I bleed through the sheets,
my stitches sticking to my underwear,
my whole body muffled in a gauze
of exhaustion, a longing throbbing up
in my breasts intermittently
like a quality of light I have not yet been able to name.
Or do I start with Fred, the artist who lives across the street,
working in wood now, unplugging his chainsaw
on account of the baby, using a small axe and iron file.
She’s stopped sucking. My mother will take her
for awhile so I can shower,
and maybe if I sit right down afterward I’ll have an hour
in the company of my own mind. But Fred stops by
and asks if he can take my picture
to use as a model for his next sculpture.
My family seems vaguely excited,
so I say, sure,
my body has not really belonged to me
since it screamed for hours involuntarily,
since the nurses held my legs up
and I crunched toward that slow,
that rocked forward then back again
for hours, then the shock
of her perfect body on my breast
her back and thighs
slathered with my insides.
Did my body ever belong to me,
I wonder as I shower,
now not in that pleasure before reading
or writing but in preparation
for makeup, an outfit, earrings
to anchor my eyes’ new bruised surprise.
I feel shy as I walk through the pines
to Fred’s yard, a bank overlooking the lake,
windswept and wild, cluttered by someone busy, inspired.
Faces of spackled concrete stare at the sky,
peek from drifts of ivy and rhodededron.
Naked animal-like forms, fauns
and mermen, maidens and horse-heads
line the hundred stone steps down
to the sand, and I think, he must love an audience
more than he loves ideas, more maybe
than he even loves art.
That’s not true of me, who when confronted
with an audience disappears
in a bauble, as if femaleness
has become my disguise.
He’s in the side yard, working on a woman
just about to dive. She’s oversized
and carved from ash, old wood that shatters
when he chips into her sides and around her breasts.
And she is headless. He had to saw it
from her body, he tells me, so he could get to
the delicate clavicle and raised muscles
of her shoulders. He dips a rag in water
and swabs it over her brow and cheekbones
then submerges her whole heavy head in a tub.
She stares up, her face dark and placid-flat,
unfinished. It has not yet taken on
the accommodating smoothings
of a face that knows it is being seen,
and I think it is not the face of a woman drowning,
but one submerged and free
in chosen solitude, reading
the shapes and stirrings on the surface.
He’ll attach it later with a metal post,
he says. He doesn’t mention the photos
as we walk through the garden and I admire
his sculptures and we head inside where he talks
of his travels and shows me his paintings
as I estimate how much time
I have left before the baby is hungry again
and he moves onto his wife, the cancer
that took her breasts and nearly her life,
the way the surgeons cut
out the nodes beneath her shoulders
and my breasts are burning now
with the baby’s milk
an ache in the exact shape
of the emptiness spreading in her body,
a feeling so unfamiliar it terrifies her—
but this is not a story
I know how to interrupt—
how he came home one day
to her passed out on the deck,
the jar meant to drain fluid
from where the breast had been
overflowing blood onto the wood.
Nothing in this day has been my own.
I want to go, I need to go
but he continues,
how no one would ever know
what she’s been through,
how every morning he gets up
and makes his art,
while she takes hours
with her wig and makeup
just to look as good as she does—
and the stories are corresponding now,
an angry throbbing
in our bodies calling out to one another,
raving to the ache of the felled wood,
until these echoes of pain
begin to feel like a poem.
But they are not a poem,
similar to how, in the story,
Adam is not a human
until his trunk is cut,
into the other, he beholds her.
This poem is about the conflict of being treated as a muse for a male artist when you are yourself an artist. I drafted this poem during the first week of motherhood, in the shock of realizing that my body was the sole source of nourishment for my daughter. That awesome female power to create and sustain life was at odds with old ideas of femininity and appearances. But in that long afternoon of listening to the male artist, I came to a tender new understanding of myself and other women. Writing the poem was a way of taking back my own time and point-of-view.
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