Recently, the Huffington Post has been rife with polemics for and mostly against the notion of “Pinktober,” the month dedicated to promoting “breast cancer awareness” with pink-ribbon products. Those in favor take the position that some publicity is better than none. Those against argue that all this pink merchandising—cans of Coke, cartons of yogurt, coffee mugs stamped with “Save the Tatas”—merely lines corporate pockets instead of raising funds for much needed research. They point to the practice of “pinkwashing”—products and organizations with potentially malign effects on women’s lives, which try to buy good will by adding a pink ribbon during October. The Illinois Rifle Association even held a Shoot for the Cure event!
In this hail of pink confetti, survivors and victims of breast cancer get lost. That is why I’d like to close out the month with a poem by survivor Bonnie Maurer, a poet who lives in Indianapolis. Her poem borrows from Zen koans, e.e. cummings’ sly metamorphoses, and nursery rhymes to honor an absent breast. It begins with a refrain line from Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art.” In that poem, as Bishop totes up all her losses, each repetition of the line “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” feels increasingly ironic.
While the title and epigraph might lead some to expect a dirge, the alliteration and koan in the first stanza (“what is the song / of one breast flapping?”) suggest the lyric poet’s choice of incantation over lament, and the absurdist’s desire for irreverence over solemnity.
That tone continues in the second stanza, though here the allusion to cummings’ poem “In Just—” with its “goat-footed / old balloonman,” whistling in celebration of the randiness of spring, sets up a contrast between the carefree sensuality pre-diagnosis and the uncertainty after. This poem occurs in autumn, with the absent breast “soaring” among the trees ablaze in “redyelloworange” before they lose their leaves. Then it becomes a pincushion for “reckless needles.”
Breast cancer runs in Maurer’s family, and the third stanza pays homage to a grandmother, each image suggestive of her hobbies and habits (her “cards and canasta wins”) but also of the shape, feel, and appearance of the missing breast.
The songlike quality returns in the final stanza as the poem switches to first person for the breast’s closing hymn. What does it say? The repeated vowels “gone” and “long” (as in “long gone”) sound mournful, but the final three lines, all rhyming, imply something more Zen: a making peace with the impermanence of all things.
Hymn to a Lost Breast The art of losing isn’t hard to master. —Elizabeth Bishop Oh let it fly let it fling let it flip like a pancake in the air let it sing: what is the song of one breast flapping? Send it soaring, a saucer into the autumn sky, the sweet gum leaves laughing. Make it a balloon, tie a string, redyelloworange and one breast sailing. Stuff it, paint pink roses, call your reckless needles and pins. Sew a pocket for grandma’s cards and canasta wins. Make a purse for her lost buttons and peppermints. Shape an instrument, pluck its nipple, play it, squeeze it, hear its concertina song and let it sing: Oh I am gone I am long I am a lazy drift of milkweed in the air, daydream somewhere, atoms returning to the stars.
This poem appears in the illustrated volume The Reconfigured Goddess with poems by Bonnie Maurer and art by Andrea Eberbach. Copies are available from Bonnie at firstname.lastname@example.org
It also can found in her chapbook Reconfigured (Finishing Line Press, 2009).