We Wear the Crown: Lucy Heuschen, Hedgehog Press
We Wear the Crown is a brave and slant testament to surviving breast cancer, written by a poet who never fails to keep her readers close. This slim volume packs in a world of pain, family disruption and a gentle stoicism that is not only admirable but marks her work with originality and humour.
In ‘Rewind’ Heuschen takes us backwards from an appointment with her consultant to a devastating letter to “unsee the words, unrip the envelope, shoot it/the wrong way through my letter box/into the hands of the postal worker ...” The poet doesn’t quit her magic there. She puts the aforementioned letter back in the sorting machine where post leaps “like salmon”, and where the poet is not afraid to “fuck with gravity” or indeed commit metaphoric treason and “scrape off the Queen’s head”. The poem ends with her deleting the consultant’s name and ultimately, she reclaims “the blank space” of the page. A nice touch, considering she’s a poet all too aware of the spaces that surround her poems. It’s a considerable gift. The rewind button is a brilliant mechanism to undo all the damage that has wreaked havoc through a life and a telling example of how this gifted poet takes the power back in a number of surprising ways throughout the pamphlet.
‘The talk’ movingly illustrates that most dreaded of conversations so many families go through, when parents have to break the news to their kids that one of them has cancer. Firstly, they “focus on not saying the unspeakable things”. Heuschen thinks through notions of identity and how to translate that to a child: “Mummy is still your Mummy”. One senses the poet may be also reassuring herself at this point too. And then there’s a stay in hospital to explain and make sure there are no false promises.
And even in these dark moments, Heuschen renders ‘The talk’ universal by sharing some of the questions that arose during the discussion: “Will the doctor put his hand inside you and pull it out of your boob? Will it hurt?” It exemplifies brilliantly that you can always rely on children to be pretty direct with their questioning as they process such terrible news.
There’s a hint of black humour to it all to which also softens the blow of this heartbreaking scene on the reader and yet the intimacy of the conversation renders it all the more poignant. Again, at the end of the poem, the poet suggests that while breaking the news, she has reassured herself as much as her children: “I’m OK now;/they’re OK. And we hug, hug, hug it out.” What is unsaid is that there’ll be times during her treatment when they will all feel anything but OK. However, there’s also an unspoken resilience here too, how families find the strength and face these battles together. Again, Heuschen’s gift is that she renders all this universal.
In ‘Trust’ we meet “the best oncologist ever” who not only knows how to mend the poet’s “defective breast” but also to “protect tender eyes from gumming up” and that “eye shadow is like hot sand during chemo ...” Moreover, as equally important when you’re literally putting on a brave face, her oncologist knows the poet’s best shade is “Moanda-auburn-warm”. This relationship between patient and oncologist provides a front row seat to some of the unexpected moments of her journey and again, she uses gentle humour to show the reader that you can find humour in the darkest places.
Indeed, in ‘Morten and Marilyn’ dark humour from her mother comes dancing off the page when she gently chides her daughter for spending too long in the bath: “Who’d you think you are, young lady,/Marilyn Monroe? Remember, I told you/how she ended up?” Dark humour indeed. But Heuschen is busy fantasising about a world where she “could kiss away the tears/on Morten’s chiselled cheekbones.’ We assume the Morten in question is Morten Harket from A-ha fame. Indeed, it appears this fantasy lingers on, despite her mother’s interruption from downstairs. “I know it. I know I could be the one.” This funny moment is rendered all the more fitting as Heuschen returns to teenage fantasy in this playful exchange with her mother; maybe what she needs now and again to get through her treatment.
The final poem in the pamphlet is surprising and subtle, recalling a self-care break near her home. Rather than going for a big finish relating to the end of her treatment, the poem shows Heuschen looking after herself, and revealing the beauty of the landscape that surrounds her in the ‘Seven Mountains’ range in Germany: “These windows, thrown open,/show you these things:/A mountain, rocks, ruins, lowering clouds./a river, blue, cool-glazed, mirroring trees.”
The simple imagery and second person viewpoint suggests a poet gently removed from herself, seeing things in a different way than she has for some time. It’s a poem full of light and hope for her and her family, where “a swallow is building a nest for its babies” and “a little white ferry goes back and forth”. It’s a beautiful ending to an astonishing pamphlet, an open ending that shows us, in a moving and subtle way, how life goes on and keeps on giving, and what a beautiful life it is.