Ars Poetica After an Abnormal Mammogram
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
—Seamus Heaney, “Digging”
He couldn’t save her, my great-grandmother,
the surgeon blading breast from its hinge of ribs—
pectoralis major, rectus abdominis. So he
stitched her, cauterized, sheared until
only skin lashed her heart to the world.
Radical mastectomy. Even cut, a woman saves
what she can. Chicago, 1935. If her kitchen
could talk, hot biscuits would perjure
their trick. A jury of olives would spare a man.
Week-old hamburger’s gripe with spice
would end in a kiss. As long as grease from
a day’s labor streaked her husband’s clothes,
his pockets clinked with cash, she’d slip
bowls to her neighbor’s children out of the door.
Winters no one worked, she made sure no child
starved. When it hardened in her breast
like a walnut’s husk, doctors could not cut it
out of her, the tumor or her kindness rooting,
stubborn canna lily, language of her blood.
When my gynecologist called eight millimeters
of asymmetry abnormal density, I believed
the tissue in my breasts was unfurling into letters,
decoding an origin song. When the technician
angled me, X-rayed my flesh with a magician’s
precision, I became one of Duchamp’s nudes,
a glimpse of history. Light’s fractal. And later,
an ultrasound’s sound waves translated
the grammar of my breasts, transducer slick
on my areola, gel the only interlocutor between
my body and what speaks. I have no knife
to follow women like her, my great-grandmother.
I cut with words. I’ll feed a city.
This poem was first published in SweetLit.
It will also appear in the forthcoming collection of poetry entitled “Burn” published by the Southern
Illinois University Press (2024).
Sara Henning is the author of Burn (forthcoming from Southern Illinois
University Press, 2024), chosen by Allison Joseph as a 2022 Crab Orchard
Series in Poetry Editor’s Selection; Terra Incognita (Ohio
University Press, 2022), chosen by Rebecca Morgan Frank as winner of the
2021 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize; and View from True North (Southern
Illinois University Press, 2018), chosen by Adrian Matejka as winner of
the 2017 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award. She was
awarded the 2015 Crazyhorse Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize, the 2019
Poetry Society of America’s George Bogin Memorial Award, First Prize in
the 2020 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award (Passaic County Community College),
and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship in poetry to the 2019 Sewanee
Writers’ Conference. Her work has appeared in journals such as
Quarterly West, Crab Orchard Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southern
Humanities Review, Witness, Meridian, and the Cincinnati Review.
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