Lisa Richter is a poet, writer, workshop facilitator, and ESL instructor.
“To a Growth,” a poem written by Lisa Richter, was published in The Puritan’s Issue 33. As part of our Author Notes series, she tells us about how she composed this poem.
My poem, “To a Growth,” came out of a harrowing experience I had just over three years ago, which began with my family doctor furrowing her brow as she examined my breast during my annual check-up.
“I know it doesn’t matter if I tell you not to panic, you’re still going to panic,” my doctor said later, as gently as she could, as she filled out the form for me to get an ultrasound.
She went on to reassure me that it was probably just a benign cyst, but it would be best to know for sure, just in case. The just in case stuck with me for the next three weeks, until I had gotten the ultrasound and its results back. In the face of my helplessness, I did the worst possible thing I could have done: I scoured the Internet in an endless, masochistic quest for information. I did learn, however, that my doctor might be right, maybe I was worrying too much—though not, in hindsight, without reason, given the prevalence of breast cancer. An old friend of mine, not much older than me, had only recently been diagnosed with an advanced stage of it. My paternal grandmother died of uterine cancer, not long after I was born. It didn’t help, either, that at the time, I was going through a prolonged break-up, or that being a mature student while continuing to teach full-time left me in a perpetual state of exhaustion, marking my students’ papers while writing my own.
Thankfully, the ultrasound came back fine. I had, in fact, what could barely even be called a condition: fibrocystic breast changes, a fancy term for ropey or lumpy breast tissue, not at all uncommon in women in their 30s and 40s, as the Mayo Clinic notes.
More ominous for me than the blurry face of a cautionary video’s unknown assailant are the threats posed by those most familiar to us, which in the case of illness can be our own bodies. Perhaps this is why, more than other life-threatening illnesses, the uncontrolled division of normal cells, also known as cancer, strikes so much fear into our collective hearts: the fear of betrayal, the possibility of harm inflicted from within, by our own cells, terrifies us the most. It was this transgression that informed my poem’s reference to Robertson Davies’ novel Fifth Business. Its opening scene contains a snowball with a stone concealed inside that triggers a series of fateful events. The power of this lump within my breast, however innocuous it turned out to be, was not merely its foreignness, but, much like the poem’s “guest in a ski mask,” the potential it held for wreaking havoc. What other option did I have than to try to bridge the gap between Self and Other, integrate the unknown, make peace with it, as hard as it may be? Perhaps this is the real growth the poem addresses: the inner work necessary to reach a state of acceptance.
My obsession with the division between the personal and the public in poetry, and the dissolution of the boundaries between them, goes back to one of my favourite living poets, Sharon Olds, whose work has informed my writing since I first read her almost 20 years ago as a student at McGill. I remember being awed by her poem “New Mother,” in which the speaker “lay in fear and blood and milk” as her amorous husband “hovered over the nest of [her] stitches.” Olds’ unflinching honesty in writing about the female body, about love, sex, childbirth and death, was unlike anything I’d ever read before. Over the years, her writing, along with that of other great female poets writing about the body—Sylvia Plath, Marge Piercy, Evelyn Lau, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Kim Addonizio, to name a few—has given me the courage to explore similar themes in my own.
No poem I have ever published has been as personal (and thus terrifying to share) as this piece. Perhaps I have been afraid of being labelled too confessional, internalizing the stigma and shame attached to women’s bodies and health, more generally. Or perhaps I have not been ready, up until recently, to actually have the real courage to tell the truth, to write about a subject this intimate. I still have a long way to go in terms of writing with vulnerability and honesty about my body. I know that I could go deeper still, but pull back from the edge sometimes when it’s too close, too painful, or too real. “Showing up” is hard to do. But if the personal is indeed political, writing the female body is not only a private act, but one of political necessity, to be undertaken with one’s whole heart.
Lisa Richter is a Toronto poet and educator. Her poetry has appeared in a number of publications, including The Malahat Review, The Scrivener, The Toronto Quarterly, and lichen, as well as in Voices for Diversity and Social Justice: A Literary Education Anthology (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). In 2015, her poem “Where the Old Road Begins” was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize. Lisa is currently at work on her first full-length collection. More can be found on her website.