Andrea O'Brien


Poems that spring from the particular are paradoxically often the ones that open the window to the universal experience. My particular experience, as a woman who lost her mother at any early age, determines how I see the world and, thus, how I write about it. In addition, the bodily experience, which seems especially gender-specific for me, consistently informs the images and metaphors of my poems. Beyond this, I think the influence of gender on my work is so innate that I find it difficult to define.



To the Men in the Waiting Room of the Breast Diagnostic Center

Thank you for driving your wife to her appointment,
for circling the ramp of the parking garage, spiraling
upward in a manner so organized that you could believe
it to be a Fibonacci sequence. Thank you for leading
your spouse down one flight of steps to the lowest
level of this building, for touching her back or arm
at the bottom of the stairwell. Thank you for sitting
in a straight-back chair surrounded by the unspoken
presence of cancer, for leaning into your partner’s
bone-stiff space when she is beside you, and for waiting
alone when she leaves the room through the heavy door
that needs oiling. You are patient—sipping a hot drink
from a throw-away cup and reading well-thumbed
magazines or the latest courtroom thriller.
The potted houseplant on the table beside you
could almost be growing from its plastic tips—
it is so alive. You do not know it, but the morning
trill of birds has diminished with the traffic.
In your silent presence, you are as generous as the sister
or girlfriend who has had her own breasts exposed
and flattened, who has held her own breath
until the technician told her to exhale. You wait
while your lover waits in a back room, dressed
in a cotton gown that opens in the front. Peonies bloom
across her body, across the breasts you have brushed
with your fingers and laid your head upon so many nights,
the breasts that have nourished young, the breasts
with their slope so unlike any part of your own body.
You are someone to go to, to share the car ride home
after the films have been analyzed, after the results
have been transcribed in her records—as permanent
as this day—so you wait in a chair where other husbands
have waited, where other women have waited, hands shaking
from filling out forms and remembering the women
who lived, survived, then died from a lump.
It only matters that you wait for her, wait for the only
woman in the world to walk to you and whisper, It’s clear.


My Mother’s Bras

Some—exotic in lace and satin—dangle
from hangers like symmetrical clouds
taut over their horizon. Some swing
from one thin strap, cup over cup
like orbiting satellites, while those
on the floor wait to be collected
like shells washed up on a beach.

These are not my mother’s bras.
Hers, specially made, reserved
one cavity for a prosthesis.
Some she bought at the store
on the opposite side of the city
where women shopped
after sacrificing one or both breasts.

Some she stitched herself,
starting with one worn before
the mastectomy, then sewing
one of my father’s handkerchiefs—
cleaned and ironed—
across the back of the cup
like a hollow, hidden pocket.

That cloth—securing her new breast,
partitioning silicone from scar tissue
that inched across her skin
like a worm fattened by rain—
that thin fabric, once tucked
in my father’s suit coat, was the sail
that thrust him against her whole body.


St. Joseph’s

My father walked me to my mother’s room, my small fist balled
in his hand like a tissue. I was something to hold onto.
The room wide as water, she was docked across
from us like a ship. Her body had become the pale moon
of my mother, the thin tubes of IVs anchoring the pierced skin.

Everything was colorless. Even the patients passing
the open door in their dressing gowns were overexposed
photographs bursting into light. Everything was clean:
the machines clicking and whirring, the floor that beamed back
distorted images, the bedsheets binding my mother like a sacred ibis.

Everything was untouchable, from the crescent leaves
of stems in glass vessels to the collapsed veins
of her scarred, new body. This was the first memory
of being alone. Every day after she grew as distant
as the haunted depths where fish have no pigment.

Soon I told my father I was ready to visit Jenni and Frank,
playmates two floors up who were eating ice cream
with wooden spoons and no tonsils. My mother and I locked eyes,
nothing to keep us from drifting apart. I waved
and turned away from the rise and fall of her breastbone.

Unmoored, destined to tread our repeating stories, I would learn
to navigate my own way, following the blotted memory
of her like the beacon from a lighthouse, the whitewash
of the north star, the wrinkle of birdcall that interrupts morning,
like a constant, reflective signpost—more symbol than word.



Andrea O’Brien’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications, including The Hopkins Review, Connecticut Review, North American Review, and The New York Quarterly. In 2007, the Kentucky Foundation for Women awarded Andrea an Artist Enrichment grant to begin writing her second collection of poems. She lives in central Kentucky with her husband and works as a writer and editor.