Frissure – reviewed by Dr Gavin Francis

‘Frissure’ by Brigid Collins and Kathleen Jamie (Birlinn, 2013).

Dr Gavin Francis is a GP based in Edinburgh and prolific writer, achieving widespread recognition for his recent book ‘Empire Antarctica’ which was awarded Scottish Book of the Year at the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Awards. 

Correspondence to Gavin Francis,


There are at least two traditions of visualising the human body at play in Frissure, a new collaboration between poet Kathleen Jamie and the artist Brigid Collins.  The book, and the project that inspired it, explores Jamie’s recovery from breast cancer through a parallel presentation of prose poems and artistic works.  The first tradition builds on images by ‘surgeon/artists and medical illustrators of old’ whose work Jamie and Collins had admired together at Surgeons Hall in Edinburgh, and which have formed the basis of some of Jamie’s most celebrated essays.  Those images depict disease and mutilation for the purpose of medical education, and though beautifully executed they are also amputated from their context – the lives and stories of their subjects. The second tradition is older, with its origins in classical perspectives on health, and imagines the body as a mirror of the cosmos.  In that tradition illness is a disturbance in the greater harmony of which we are but a small part, and the world around us holds the key to restoring an inner balance.

Jamie’s breadth of perspective has been much admired when, for example, in her essay Pathologies she considers a bacterium in the stomach as worthy of poetic attention as a swallow or a polar bear.  She brings that same attention to her own cancer diagnosis and treatment, though of course it was a journey that she would have preferred not to take:  ‘As anyone will tell you who’s done it – and we are legion – the first few days and weeks were times of anxious waiting, and of clinic appointments, needles, scans and consultations’ (p. v).  As an artist Collins takes a similarly broad view of her art and its engagement with the environment, working with unconventional materials: gold wire, shellac, thrift and bog-cotton are here merged with pastels, watercolours, and oils.  Both women take the former tradition on depicting the body – that of the surgeon/artist – as their starting point but are most at their ease with the latter, when the body and its failings are seen through the lens of what’s known, for better or worse, as ‘the natural world’.  Jamie’s tumour on the mammogram is ‘rather beautiful, a grey-glowing circle, like the full moon seen through binoculars’ (p. v).  As she lies in her garden recovering from surgery a flock of birds in the rowan trees recalls the image of that coagulated tissue: the birds are ‘a density in their branches.’  She sees in her mastectomy scar ‘several referents to the nature, to change, to the things beyond itself: maps, rivers, roses, fruit’ (p. vii).

During the summer Jamie was convalescing from her surgery she sat in  Collins’ studio, exposing her scar, for a series of portraits.  ‘I wanted it off my body and onto paper’  she explains, ‘so we could both have a proper look at it’ (p. vii). Both women were interested in exploring the difference between medical and artistic attention; according to Jamie the latter was ‘longer and softer’, and led to a transformation in her own feelings about the change effected on her body.  Through Collins’ gaze it became ‘a rose-stem, a river, a faraway island, the dawn sky’ (p. xiii).

The book sets down some prose poems she wrote during her convalescence alongside Collins’ paintings and sculptures inspired by those words.  After each piece of artwork and its accompanying prose poem the book lays out two pages of details from the work, as well as a paragraph by Collins about her inspiration for the piece and the technique involved in its creation.  The result is a sort of dialogue between poet and artist conducted across the verso and recto of each page, which aims to address the shock of cancer diagnosis and treatment in a more creative manner than is possible in hospital clinics and GP surgeries.  ‘I had been subject to a lot of medical gaze,’ wrote Jamie, ‘and was curious about an artist’s’ (p. vii).  Neither artist states explicitly that the project is itself a process of healing, but the subtext throughout is that for Jamie, it is.

Some examples: in ‘Healings 1’ Jamie writes that ‘Sometimes I almost hear a sweet wild music […] it’s audible in the space between the rowan leaves’ (p.3).  The sounds in the distance as she lies recuperating remind her of ‘the sound of knots untying themselves, the sound of the benign indifference of the world’ (p.3).  The accompanying canvas details the scar as a rowan branch, the text overlain by layers of gesso and shellac then sanded back to visibility, as if the text and the rowan leaves are emerging into new life.  Healings 2 centres on a line from Burns: ‘You seize the flo’er, the bloom is shed’ (p.7) and inspires two canvases.  The first shows the dog rose of Burns’ poem (p.9), emerging from a wash of pink like the illumination of a mediaeval manuscript.  The second illustrates a line of Jamie’s, describing the ‘fissure of citrine’ along the midnight horizon, observed during a sleepless night in high summer.  Collins has transfigured this image and, working from a study of a naturally occurring fissure in a rock, gilded the scar and painted it as a glowing skyline.  The last piece, September (p.31),  imagines thousands of house and sand-martins feeding over the river in preparation for autumn migration; they’re ‘kissing the river farewell’ just as Jamie ends her summer of convalescence; ‘preparing themselves, sensing in the shortening days a door they must dash through before it shuts’.  The words seem to intimate how any period of rest and recuperation can be seen not just as something to be endured, but something to be thankful for: ‘recovering from the operation was bliss of a sort’ (p. vi), Jamie explains in her introductory essay.  ‘No-one wanted anything of me […] I walked by the river and slept better than I had in years’ (p. vi).  In Collins’ imagination the martins of autumn have become squares of Japanese tissue paper stitched over a river of blotted ink.

The name Frissure was coined by Collins to describe the project, which was supported by the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University.  The scar is a fissure on the skin, and as Jamie explains, ‘the naked, scarred body certainly causes a frisson’ (p. xiii).  Over the months of the project Jamie saw her scar itself change colour as she healed, ‘as if it had its own weather’ (p. vi).  She’s become known for her precise way with language, the unsentimental manner of her engagement with the natural world.  Frissure strengthens her reputation in that respect, taking the anxiety and pain of breast cancer recovery, and making of it a celebration and declaration that healing involves restitution not just of the inner world, but an engagement with the environment that sustains us.  ‘I’m hesitant about presenting this work,’ she writes in ‘but in Brigid’s care the line has become a starting place […] It leads from fear and loss back into the beautiful world’ (p. xiii).

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