British Ward, Queen's Hospital, 1917-1918, courtesy of Dr. Andrew Bamji
The literal loss of face is a subject fraught with poetic implications, and threat. When the recognizable storefront is gone, how will others be able to know what’s inside? And even worse, unless you avoid mirrors and all reflecting surfaces, including the faces of others, how will you know yourself? Whatever else we may claim—about our souls, our spirits—at some deep level most of us see our bodies, and especially our faces, as our essential selves.
--from the Introduction
Initially, because of the subject matter, I was reluctant to start this book. But once I began reading, I was irresistibly drawn in. The introduction deftly provides historical and personal contexts for poems that are imaginative acts of reconstruction. And what poems—they are powerful, unflinching, poignant, and often tender. Though there is suffering here, it is shot through with flashes of joy and comfort.
Nan Fry, author of Relearning the Dark
Twenty-one poems about facial injury and reconstruction, most of them imagined narratives, comprise the heart of this book. Written over the last six years, they are based on photographs and case notes from the files of surgeries (many of them astonishingly successful) performed on the faces of British military members between 1917 and 1925 and housed in the Gillies Archives.
The author’s well-researched Introduction provides a brief, evocative history of the four-year stalemated trench warfare on the Western Front, where the majority of these injuries were incurred; of the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, Kent, established through the efforts of Sir Harold Gillies, a New Zealand surgeon with the British army and a pioneer in this new art; and of Dr. Andrew Bamji’s rediscovery of the Queen’s and its work, which had faded into oblivion not long after the war.
It also tells the story of the author’s mother’s diseased lower left jaw, successfully replaced in 1925, when she was 21, with her floating rib. Her surgeon in St. Louis, it turns out, was Dr. Vilray Papin Blair, who had been the Chief of the Oral and Plastic Surgery Department in the US Army in World War I.And it provides brief information, seldom publicized, about facial wounding in subsequent US wars. Footnotes to both the Introduction and the poems provide a wealth of fascinating detail, as well as suggestions for further reading.
In an appendix, photographs of the facial injuries and surgeries of three of the men demonstrate the slow progress of repair, and in one case, its heart-warming four-generational result. The photographs from the surgical files are from the Archives of the Royal College of Surgeons. Earlier photos showcase the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup.
Readers of About Face please note an incorrect credit on the copyright page. Credit for the facial photographs should read: From the Archives of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.