In the mid 1990s, Alicia Ostriker was diagnosed with breast cancer. She expressed her feelings about this traumatic experience, which resulted in a mastectomy and a long, painful recovery, in her collection of poems, The Crack in Everything. When it was published in 1996, the book confirmed her reputation as one of America’s finest poets. The fourth section of the collection, titled “The Mastectomy Poems,” deals directly with her response to each stage of her cancer: the diagnosis, the surgery and treatment, and the aftermath. In one of the most powerful poems of this sequence, “Mastectomy,” the speaker describes her interaction with the doctor who performed the surgery and imagines how he removed her breast. The poem becomes a poignant exploration of one woman’s struggle to understand and cope with the physical and emotional consequences of this disease.
“Mastectomy” begins with the speaker addressing the doctor directly, explaining her feelings about the operation. Then it jumps back and forth in time from before to during the operation. She begins with a description of their interaction before the surgery when she shook his hand, appreciating his confident manner. She compares him to a ship captain and his view of her as a map of the bay with no reefs (underwater ridges of coral or rock) or shoals. A shoal, here used as a noun, has several definitions: a group of fish swimming together, a group of people or things, or an underwater sandbank that is visible at low tide in shallow water. Here, it most likely suggests a sandbank since that, coupled with the reef, connotes a barrier.
While the speaker appears to have confidence in the doctor, she suggests that he is young or looks it with his “boyish freckles.” She then begins her description of the surgery as she notes that she lost consciousness under the anesthesia. When she describes how the drug sent her “away, like the unemployed,” she notes her powerlessness. She feels like she is underwater while unconscious, like she “swam and supped with the fish.” The speaker assumes that while she was under, the doctor performed the operation carefully; she learns later the operation took about an hour.
The speaker shifts back in time at the beginning of this stanza to her first office visit with the doctor when she learned that she had cancer. She again refers to the doctor’s “freckled face,” which she liked at that first meeting, along with his honesty when she asked him about the odds that the biopsy would prove that she had cancer. He immediately told her, without mincing words, that she had a one-out-of-four chance of having the disease. She imagines that his diploma hanging on his wall “shrugged” at his estimate of her chances, probably because she did have cancer even though her odds were good. At the end of the stanza, she notes his experience: he has seen “everything” from his “cold window onto Amsterdam,” all of the “bums and operas,” and that filled her with enough confidence in him to choose him to perform her surgery.
In this stanza the speaker uses a series of images to describe her body as the doctor performs the operation. She asks the doctor whether her flesh was “succulent” and “juicy” like the fruit she later names. The image of flesh as grass is rather obscure here. Grass is a living thing like flesh unless it becomes detached, and it also serves as a groundcover. One could compare that to how flesh covers the body’s organs. Anesthetized, the speaker dreams about her flesh not as grass but as ripe fruit while the doctor makes his incisions. First, she imagines her flesh as candied fruit that the doctor “displays,” then as green honeydew and then “like a pomegranate full of seeds.”
This last metaphor she extends to the mythological figure of Persephone, the goddess of the underworld and daughter to the Greek god Zeus and the mortal woman, Demeter. Dazzled by her beauty, Hades abducted Persephone and pulled her down into the underworld. When Zeus intervened, Hades agreed to release her after giving her a pomegranate. When Persephone ate some of its seeds, a spell was cast over her, which forced her to return to Hades four months out of each year. Ostriker refers to Persephone’s pomegranate seeds as “electric dots / That kept that girl in hell” and “made her queen of death.” Here, the speaker correlates the image of the seeds to the cancer cells in her body.
She then shifts her focus to the doctor cutting out the cells in her flesh, which she likens to a watermelon. She describes him as serious about his work as he operates, trying to “[eliminate] the odds” that cancer exists in the breast and surrounding tissue cells and may kill her if these parts are left in her body. The poem ends on an uncertain note. She is not sure that the excised cells would have developed into cancer if left in her body.