Poem of the Week | October 19, 2020

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,

big-headed impossibility
            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,
            and opened
into the other, he beholds her.


Author’s Note

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.