Jay Whittaker

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the poet

Jay Whittaker is an Edinburgh-based poet who grew up in Devon and Nottingham. She's published two collections to date: Sweet Anaesthetist and Wristwatch – the latter chosen as Scottish Poetry Book of the Year 2018 in the Saltire Society Literary Awards. Jay's widely published in journals that include The North, Butcher’s Dog and The Rialto, and has recently had work accepted by The Poetry Review. Two of her poems appear in Bloodaxe Books' anthology, Staying Human.

the poems

Egg case

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My left ovary is smothered in seven centimetres of cyst. A risk to be reduced.


        ~


A beachcombed husk in my palm, multiple crumpled chambers deflated and dried, bereft of hatched whelks. A self-contained nodule of nothing, pod of naught.


        ~


Wobbling on a wooden stool in the school biology lab, I clench my sharpened pencil, transcribe the handbag and curved horns into my exercise book. I will keep practising until fluent, ready to reproduce constituent parts in cartoonish simplicity –


a handbag and curved horns.


I lay my transparent ruler across the paper and draw straight lines, and label (best handwriting): Ovaries, Ampulla, Endometrium, Fallopian Tubes.


But I don’t know them. Not viscerally.


        ~


And how much less interesting than the febrile atmosphere in the school hall on the day one hundred twelve-year-olds are herded in to watch the childbirth video.


At the crowning, commotion at the front. The boy who faints will be taunted for years.


        ~


Imagine: my abdomen crammed with congealed jelly babies.


        ~


Sometimes I looked up and my mother was watching me, as though wondering what she’d done.


        ~


My mother told me:

It was the bloody ants’ fault. I was pregnant with you. Your father was away. You know how I hate ants in the house.


        ~


I am possible.


        ~


Inexorable ant-march across a kitchen floor. No one to talk her down or reassure. Scrubbing. Safe to use ant powder inside when pregnant? Not sure. Read and reread the packet. Relentless. Ants keep marching. Need to empty the cupboard under counter anyway, in case the ants find it, find the flour and sugar inside. Visions of a never-ending ant army carrying their sugar lumps aloft, victorious, back to their queen.


Lifting and bending – getting up and down – panicking about ants and – wet in her knickers – a pooling. Blood –


I am choosing


A punishment for leaving it so late to have a child. For thinking, in their cleverness, with their science, they were above this. The thought of her mother’s told-you-so triumph.


        ~


The GP said his wife took these tablets too; I would never have taken anything when I was pregnant, I even stopped smoking, I was so careful but I thought I was miscarrying —


A risk reduced.

I am possible.


        ~


Alone in bed, sleepless, praying to the god her husband denies.


        ~


She tells me when I am eighteen, have left home for a university ninety miles north, It was in the Sunday Times a few years after you were born. All the cancers in the daughters are at puberty; you’re safe. She tells me now because of course maybe you shouldn’t go on the pill.


I am already on the pill.


She tells me in such a way that makes it clear we won’t talk about it again.


        ~


A hunt for the unknown, the untold, the unnamed. In the Science Library, I turn the handle on a microfilm reader, not too fast (nausea). Oestrogen. Estrogen. Diethylstilbestrol. Diethylstilboestrol. Stilbestrol. DES. Leading me to the long shelves of Index Medicus, metres of cloth-bound volumes, to rifle Bible-thin paper.


I school myself in libraries, their tools, fiche readers, bibliographies, catalogues, all they contain. All that was withheld. All that was never vocalised.


All the swallowed words.


        ~


My inheritance:

Great grandfather – dies of sarcoma.

Grandmother – dies of breast cancer.

Mother – exposure to DES in pregnancy. Two breast cancers. Dies of ovarian cancer.

Me – exposure to DES in utero. One breast cancer (and counting).


I am choosing.


        ~


Buried deep in my pelvis and scheduled for excision: tissue, but more than tissue. My snail shells, my coiled snakes. Mysterious, seen on scans, analysed by faceless medics, discussed in front of me in medical language by my partner and my consultant, doctor to doctor – I have no clue, really.


I am excising a possibility.


        ~


Absence is a poke of pain when I bend forward too quickly, a stabbing gyroscope, a whirligig of knife-ache when I lie on my left side.


        ~


A risk reduced.

From the 1940s till the early 1970s, synthetic oestrogen diethylstilbestrol (DES) was given to at least 300,000 UK women whom doctors believed were at increased risk of miscarriage. A clinical study in 1953 found DES did nothing to reduce such risk, yet it was administered until 1971 – when it was discovered that daughters of women given the drug were at heightened risk of rare vaginal/cervical cancers. Later research linked DES to greater risk of breast cancer in both mothers and daughters.

Clearly something was up

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            Every time I drove, plink

            and ricochet, stones on metal

            like popcorn in a lidded pan.

            I blamed the untarmacked track,

            recent resurfacing on the main road –

            until a warning light came on –


            under the bonnet, rats had stashed

            birdseed in every crevice, nestled

            pebbles into crannies, built

            a cairn of stones on the engine.

            The shock of rat shit on the camshaft.

            Chewed wires betrayed them,

            building a haven of warmth and food

            in the heart of a machine

            I thought was mine.

Canopy

(Day 20: First chemo cycle)

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            Do tree tips tingle, niggle like my scalp?

            Most people’s hair (I’m told) comes out on day eighteen.

            White hairs work loose first, waft down.

            This late summer evening, my scarfed skull

            as bald and vulnerable as a fledgling’s,

            I stand under the row of sycamore, my neck sore

            from looking up to the abundance of leaves.

            Whatever happens to me, the earth is turning.

            At the same hour in winter, haven’t I stood

            in this very spot, watching bare branches

            implore the sky for light?

Publishing credits

Egg case: Sweet Anaesthetist (Cinnamon Press)

Clearly something was up: The Rialto (Issue 97)

Canopy:Wristwatch (Cinnamon Press)