Rycroft's missing an exceptional debut collection

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Beverly Rycroft
Modjaji Books
Date of publication:

Months before it happened
Heather held a party
at her Victorian semi in Obs ….

She’d invited a Tarot reader ….

by one
we were invited into the
other room
where the unseen woman dealt her cards

i wouldn’t go

So it begins. Beverly Rycroft builds up her collection of probing poetry slowly, revealing the trajectory of the journey of the poetry little by little. However, unlike Wordsworth’s, her intimations smack of mortality, rather than immortality, early on. The presentiments begin in “House of Cards” above, and continue in the poem “1997”:

Nothing foretold that year.
No hint from the Cape Times horoscope
or a Fair Lady flipped through at
the dentist’s waiting room.

The reader can’t help knowing that something ominous is looming. We soon learn the dreadful news: she has breast cancer. The news comes by phone, turning the telephone into a raptor. “Friday: Diagnosis”:

This morning it perches besides my unmade bed
wings folded, eyes shut
feigning sleep.    

Rycroft’s reality is shattered by the news. Her brief moments of appreciating her life and her reality are underscored by the “black and white” words which spell out her fate. Mastectomy is the only solution. Her belief in her once superhuman powers is sliced apart by the surgeon’s blade. “Superwoman”:

We’re in room sixteen, surgical ward, where
kryptonite-green gloves spring open all the
precision-made parts that brought her in here.

Her use of words to recreate the sense of devastation the mastectomy leaves her with is impressive. One can feel her profound disappointment, her realisation that she’s no longer a sexual being in the eyes of the world, no longer a desirable model for artists such as Picasso, whom she mentions in passing, when she showers for the first time after the operation. “Water”:

…. (water)
… gathers
fickle as fresh dew
in this surprising new cliff
this old-woman toothless mouth
puckered pink with defeat.

Her worst nightmare comes true. The pathology results with their words which “flap and curl/ while the air slowly drowns them” tell her the words she doesn’t want to hear. “Pathology Results”:


The chemotherapy treatment continues while a father dies, children go to school and femininity is lost. Rycroft writes feelingly, beautifully of the moments of connection between the few who understand her pain of loss. Her sadness is deeply etched into the poem “Dying Women Should Not Wear Lipstick”:

dying women should not wear lipstick
or pink-checked mini skirts that shriek
sexy! and shoot right up
past their skinny knees
towards their truncated breasts. 

The poetry is not all sad. When her youngest brother Tom, who would try anything once, tries to solve her problems with nausea by sending her three rolled joints, one has to smile. And when her mother mixes the marijuana tenderly into a batch of home-made crunchies, prescribed by the humourless doctor, there is nothing to do but laugh. But essentially sadness seeps out of the verse. I cried while reading “It is Difficult to Explain”:  

People look away …

But the shop assistant
has completed
a first-aid course for beginners.

She abandons her cash register …
orders me to sit …
kneels at my feet …

In her cool
clay-pot palms she
holds my feet like
new-laid eggs

Have Mercy.   

The poet goes into remission but the damage done by the cancer has left ineradicable scars. Even when joy begins to creep back into her life, her encounter with death will never leave her consciousness: “Poetry Class 2008: write a poem on the theme of breastfeeding”:

i can’t.
i never think of them.
although there is one there
i never think of it
there is a scar there
i do not touch it
it is unloved; a razed
squatter camp
a burnt circle where nothing else
will ever graze
or grow

Missing is a moving anthology of searing poetry about a woman’s encounter with her own mortality. The poet works through the horror of the initial diagnosis to a mute acceptance of the brutal illness which threatens everything she treasures. She examines with blunt explicitness the ravages inflicted on her body by surgery and chemotherapy.

Rycroft has the true poetic eye of looking below the surface to encounter the essence of her experience. Her skill lies in using poetic imagery laced with resonances to the very nature of femininity to describe her path. I was deeply touched by her honest exploration of her very soul as she pits herself against her own body in a battle for survival.

This collection also carries a message of hope, that a woman can survive even the most brutal onslaught of breast cancer. It is admirable that work of this nature is published. Women around the world will be validated by Rycroft’s authentic voice about an illness which has been mostly kept under wraps. Men who wish to honour the women in their lives and the difficult paths they traverse because of the very nature of their bodies, should read missing too. This is an exceptional debut collection. I will look forward to more work from Beverly Rycroft.

Imke van Heerden chats to Beverly Rycroft about missing.

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