At least since novelist Frances Burney’s indelible account of the experience of mastectomy circa 1812 (pre-anesthetics), breast cancer has catalyzed a capacious library of writing by women. This literature stands as one redeeming gift of a distinctly dreadful disease. In Silent Sister, poet and breast cancer survivor Beth Everest makes a valuable contribution to this shared body of knowledge. The subtitle says it all. The book takes readers through Everest’s journey of illness, from the initial diagnosis and biopsies, through a brutal regime of treatments, with complications and relapse, and finally to the poet’s re-emergence from the nightmare of “the Rat’s Nest / cave,” “the / end of the dark.” Fittingly the poems themselves are not given individual titles but take their first lines as such. This imbues the collection with a blurred sense of events over time, the fog of one moment ebbing and flowing raggedly into another. The effect is alternately numbing, hallucinatory and mesmerizing; above all, it accurately conveys the surreal nature of experience during a life-changing trauma such as a grave illness.
Silent Sister is a humbling book. The poet confronts her own suffering and mortality with a courage that is evident in the poems’ vivid, honest rendering of terror and pain. (Some of these poems will make readers cringe.) Even more compelling, though, is Everest’s ability to handle her grim subject matter with humour, dignity and, most remarkably, compassion.
The surgeon and essayist Richard Selzer once compared his patients to elite athletes in the sense that both are inevitably self-absorbed by their bodies. But as a poet, Everest recounts her ordeal with very little self-indulgence. While some of the poems do flashback to childhood memories, this personal history serves to ground our understanding of a speaker who remains highly attuned to others’ welfare. These others include, for example, Vesa, the immigrant nanny. In a series of poems dedicated to Vesa, Everest ponders the hardships of this “silent sister,” a fellow breast cancer patient who is utterly alone in her illness, and, unbelievably, hauled back to work by her wealthy Calgary employer when she is barely out of surgery, still retching from its after-effects.
Everest’s agonizing experience confers on her an absurdist’s appreciation of what passes for “normal” life. But there are other redeeming outcomes of cancer here, including the poet’s renewed bonds with her family. Most importantly, as a test to the outer limits of endurance, breast cancer precipitates Everest’s discovery of her ability to “live… on the edge / of fear, on the edge but not afraid.” And that is one more gift worth honouring.
—Christine Wiesenthal is a professor of English at the U of A.