Welcoming back ‘the little cat’: holding and healing the hauntings and recurrences of childhood trauma within the artworks we make.

Trigger warning: non-explicit references to childhood sexual abuse.

This has not been an easy blog to put together. I have written, and redrafted its plain sentences, bare as winter branches, but like winter branches, holding within them the promise of spring. For those of you who are thinking of reading further, I should warn you that I write honestly about the challenge of living with a complex history, and the fact that resolution can seem hard to find. But I work my way through these hard places, to arrive at a point of hopefulness, which you will hopefully also reach if you stay with me and with these words.

In life, as in art, we’re encouraged to think in terms of beginnings, middles and endings.  Progression and resolution give structure to stories. When an artwork responds to trauma, the requirements change.  Anyone who has experienced, or observed the impacts of traumatic events, knows that they continue to resonate and replay themselves for many years.  To generate a truthful creative transaction between a traumatic subject matter, and the work into which it is translated, calls for forms of expression which can suggest recurrences and hauntings.  Through this act of creative witness, we may begin to change their power and reposition our relationships to them.

Living beyond, and making art that responds to, my own experience of childhood sexual abuse, amongst other subjects, I face this challenge myself.  As the light dims towards the end of November, and the days grow shorter and darker, child ghosts walk again for me.  They remember and re-live my father’s death in hospital when I was eight, in 1972. These ghost-selves also re-experience the beginning of the penetrative sexual abuse to which I was subjected, very shortly after, when my mother, who was my abuser, and I moved from Brussels to Wiltshire.

Impacting both my physical and mental health, these hauntings can lead me to feel as if I am sinking down through waves of old sadness. Like heavy black sump oil, they seep into my thoughts and bodily movements. When things get really bad, they can make it hard to move – or even think.  Because this has happened every November and December since I was a teenager, over the years, I’ve developed resources to keep myself going.  I work beside my SAD light.  I try to be kinder to myself and organise my working life so that I am not too pressured.   I meditate, swim and walk my dog Ithaca, noticing the natural world around us.  I connect with people who love me. 

But all these strategies only ever mitigate the after-effects of the dreams which rise up at night.   In my sleep, I become again a scared, hurt child, taken back to a place between life and death by my mother. This was the case – very brutally – in November and December of 2021, as it had been in 2020, and all the years before that. 

None of us likes to speak of what we perceive as our vulnerabilities, for fear people will think less of us, or feel we are ‘seeking attention’ in some way. But in 2020, working on bird of winter‘s final manuscript alone with my dog Ithaca in lockdown, I decided to make an artwork that could enact being haunted by a traumatic past, and reaching beyond this towards a form of resolution. At the time, I was following an online workshop with Nina Mingya Powles around multiple language heritages with the Poetry School, which my fellow Forwards Shortlistee, Cynthia Miller, was also part of. I was also experiencing difficult dreams. They shaped what I wrote.

What emerged is called ‘je suis son petit chat il est mon papa 1972/ I am his little cat he is my daddy 2020’.  It’s a multi-form piece which exists simultaneously as a conventional poem, a visual work, a sound experience and a performance. It was published this January 22 in bath magg no 8, as you’ll be able to see and hear by following this link.

When I performed it at bath magg’s online launch, I began by saying a few words about the poem. The response I received made me feel there would be a value in expanding them into this blog, however inelegantly. Opening up the deliberately smudgy, troubled layers of the poem up in this way also gives me the opportunity to separate the two overlaid texts, and look at each one in isolation.  In the final print they are blurred across each other to play out how traumatic stories repeat and recur, as you’ll have seen from the fragment above, and the link to the full work at bath magg.

‘je suis son petit chat/ I am his little cat’ begins in French and English, the two languages of my childhood. They refract and translate each other, but the work also makes complete sense in either language. In the first two lines, I’m waking up from a nightmare in 2020, aged fifty-six.  I’m also myself  in bed, aged eight, in 1972,  as my father lies dying in intensive care. From there it is back to 1972 and my eight year old self returning home to our flat: 

Underlay text of ‘je suis son petit chat’

Describing my life before my father died as if it was still simultaneously present, including my grandmother taking me to the hospital, and my father sending me drawings home, the narrative enacts how, in dissolving the boundaries of time, these dark hauntings also open opportunities for healing, by re-accessing a fuller range of memory. Next in the underlay text comes the nightmare at the heart of the poem, which invaded my sleep in the early hours of 22 November, replaying  the sexual abuse to which I was subjected as a child by my mother. As the poem reports, the terror of the dream induced vomiting and diarrhoea in my fifty-something year old self:  

Tough though it was to experience in reality, this act of voiding is also a release, which opens up ‘je suis son petit chat/ I am his little cat’ to new energies – whereby the recurrence of the trauma becomes an opportunity to reset my relationship to the original events. Resetting happens through a short poem in both French and then English, which is overlaid on the looping narrative beneath it in larger font and bolder text, as the extract at the top of the blog shows. 

Within its overlaid phrases, my adult self summarises the impacts of my childhood sexual abuse, including how it continues to haunt me.  Speaking directly to my abuser, I refuse the silence which she imposed on me throughout my childhood and adolescence, and for long years beyond that. This frees the underlying narrative to begin to move towards the light of a different ending, where the recurrences of physical voiding can finally come to a stop: 

The account of the nightmare, and falling “down a black tunnel” is repeated below the overlaid text, as when in nursery rhymes like ‘Oranges and lemons’, or ‘Frère Jacques’ in French, the verses come round again.  Following the earlier shift, the act of voiding is once again purgative, letting go of some of the blackness and shame held inside me, and allowing gentler and more nurturing memories of my loving engagement with my father to continue to surface in the segment which follows: 

Like many others with my history, for long years the trauma of the penetrative abuse in childhood separated me from being able to feel my own feelings, or know my own wants. Here, they begin to return to the child who lives within and alongside the adult.  She can say once again “I want my daddy” and by expressing this longing re-form a more authentic connection with herself.  My grandmother’s phrase translated means “let her through, let her through, she’s his daughter”.  She was trying to get me allowed into the intensive care unit, but the phrase also acts out the way I am asking for my child self to be allowed back through, to speak and know herself, and how she was once loved. 

‘Je suis son petit chat/I am his little cat’ ends in a place of quietness, with the possibility of integrating my separated selves more fully. Translating the “petit chat” nickname my father gave me into the English “little cat”, and laying it down on the page, the poem performs an act of witness to the co-presence of my child and adult selves. It also documents how, by reconnecting more fully with child-alice, adult-alice is able to begin to make a new relationship what made us who we now: 

Walking in Shotover County Park near Oxford in the last days of 2021, after some very tough weeks, I saw trees and misty light that reminded me of Wiltshire, and felt unkind old ghosts crowd around me.  But breath by breath, I drew the damp, cold air of the present into my body, and with it new energy.  With each out-breath, I tried to let what I no longer needed pass from me.  As I did this, the pearlescence of the fields and clouds became a wilderness of beauty, and the black branches of the trees uplifted themselves into acts of elemental resistance.  With my dog Ithaca scenting the damp leaves, and pulling us forwards, and the landscape saying that life would return, I felt how this difficult annual recurrence was also a gateway to transformation – that each year I must find the way through.

The link to ‘je suis son petit chat’ at bath magg is here if you would like to hear or see the work again in its entirety. 

If you would like to buy bird of winter, please follow this link.  Poems from the collection are also available on the blog. 

If you need support after reading this blog, https://www.mind.org.uk/ has valuable links and helplines.

Further exploration: four books and StAnza Festival

I often set a creative prompt after exploring one of my own poems for people to explore in their own practice. In this case the subject material is too dangerous.  Instead, for anyone wanting to work creatively with complex materials, or look at other examples of this practice, I would recommend four books which open pathways to new understandings, and new creative forms of expression, from the breakages and fractures of trauma.  I would also recommend the other brilliant poems in bath magg no 8, many which respond to complex subject matters – and make from them acts of beauty and reclamation. 

In terms of books, Bloodroot, by Annemarie Ní Churreáin creates provisional, shifting structures to hold the lives and reposition the representations of Irish women whose lives were appropriated by the Irish State and Church.  Documenting how the State invaded every corner of life in Romania under Romania, under Ceausescu and the Romanian Communist Party, for Buried Gods Metal Prophets Maria Stadnicka and Antonia Glűcksman assemble a living memorial that incorporates diary entries, photos, erasures, quotes from statutes, and building plans, as well as more conventional ‘poems’.  In Things I have Forgotten Before Tanatsei Gambura speaks through radical formal innovation of what it can mean to have grown up as a “Black Girl” in Zimbabwe during the 1980s – and how losing a country can form you as much as having one. Sasha Dugdale’s extraordinary collection Deformations explores trauma and PTSD, through fragments composed around Homer’s Odyssey. A separate long sequence responds to the sculptor Eric Gill’s work and life, within the framework of his recorded sexual abuse of his daughters. Sasha and I spoke about our work in Volume 48 of PN Review. Sasha has a hugely impactful new poem in bath magg 8 which you can read here.

Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Maria Stadnicka and I will be appearing at the StAnza festival on 12 March both live and online with many other brilliant poets in St Andrews. You can find more details here. Prices start from £3.00. Booking opens on 21 January. For people not able to travel to Scotland, many of the events are online and very reasonably priced. As well as performing, I’m going to be sure to pack out my schedule with hearing other poets and it’s a great way to check in with a huge range of voices and perspectives.

I will also be running an online workshop via StAnza on 7 March between 2-4pm. I will be exploring bringing the body into our creative practices though the use of found materials and working safely with the “felt self”. Tickets will be available from 21 January priced from £4.00 here.  

Letting new light in – setting your creative compass for 2022 and beyond with the help of a ‘Basque Whaler’

Letting new light in to set your creative compass: photo alice hiller

How can we resource our work in lean times? Where does inspiration come from when travel and and a wide range of live experiences are significantly curtailed, whether for financial, health or other restrictions? My steadfast belief is that we hold our own deepest and richest reserves within ourselves, accumulated through our lived experiences and interactions with the world at multiple levels. When more expansive possibilities are denied to us, to keep working, and generating new material, we therefore need to find ways to tune into this, both by nurturing ourselves, and also by finding new sources of ‘strangeness’ and intellectual and creative adventures to act as stimuli.

Basque poet Julie Irigaray Voicing Our Silences 15.12.21

Working with my fellow poet and cherished friend, Julie Irigaray, I set out to devise a solstice workshop, performance and conversation for the Voicing Our Silences collective that I founded. We wanted to deliver both these aims – of self-nurture and adventure. Core to the process were the two prompts we developed, which were designed to complement each other. Mine is a two-part process for setting your creative compass, which begins with a gentle breathing exercise, to clear your creative space, and then builds up your individual compass on the page – through a five stage guided prompt, which I lead participants through. There’s then a follow-up to be completed two or more days later. People who did it on the night we recorded the event have said how valuable they found it to be. This compass process can be used for a specific piece of work such as a poem or prose work you are developing, or would like to start. It works equally well for people looking to explore a new project, or simply to check in with themselves. Julie’s explores ways to expand your work dynamically through different forms of research and I found it gave me a breakthrough into a poem which had been hovering half-realised since the summer, so I warmly recommend trying it for yourself.

Frame for Setting Your Creative Compass to draw in central third of A4 page.

In addition to these prompts, we both performed two short sets of poems, and spoke to each other between them about how they came into being, going deep with where we resourced our work – whether from online resources including YouTube, books, museum catalogues, or other starting points. My poems came from my collection, bird of winter, and Julie’s from her pamphlet, Whalers, Witches and Gauchos. Because we were recording in the run up to the winter solstice, we structured our sets to rise from darkness into light, and both kept lit candles burning beside us as symbols of inspiration and resilience. The aim was also to share how although our poems appear to journey huge distances through time and space on the page, much of this travel is in fact realised without ever leaving home, whether we’re writing about Pompeii and Herculaneum in my case, or in Julie’s about the Basque heritage she explores in Whalers, Witches and Gauchos, which she published this year with Nine Pens.

pistil by alice hiller from bird of winter

Julie also asked me about my practice of working with my childhood and adolescent medical notes, which have been crucial to my collection bird of winter, as with the poem ‘pistil’, given above. The poem is named for the female reproductive parts of the flower. It juxtaposes a quote from my medical notes when I was two, with a direct memory, which reflects how the grooming to which my abuser was subjecting me was already impacting my behaviour, and a photo I recall of myself at that age which my grandmother loved. I was very glad to have the opportunity speak about both the risk, and benefit, of working with documentary evidence such as medical notes if you have a complex history, as I do, arising from my experience of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, and finding my way towards healing beyond this.

As you will be able to hear if you check in with the video, I said how valuable, and painful it was in equal measure, to have factual corroboration of events that lived inside my memory. I explained how I had felt very apprehensive about engaging with my medical notes, for what I might find there, but was very grateful to see that events which my abuser had tried to deny, were in fact recorded in sober black and white. I also told Julie that reading these same notes had in fact provided a core source of motivation for my ongoing activism around changing awareness with regard to childhood sexual abuse. Driving this was how harshly the medical profession had judged my troubled teenage behaviours once the abuse had stopped. I wanted people to understand this adolescent acting out of harm done differently and more compassionately. In the questions which followed, Chaucer Cameron raised the query about notes being redacted, that is having sections blanked out, which has been her experience.

alice hiller Voicing Our Silences 15.12.21

Normally, when I record a Voicing Our Silences performance and workshop, I pause the recording at the prompt stops, and cut the audience participation, to keep the event around an hour. This time, however, we wanted to create an immersive experience for everyone who was joining us, and give the feeling of how the Voicing our Silences collective operates as a place of mutual creative nurture and adventure. Given that it’s a longer watch, I’ve therefore noted the minute timings of the different elements within the YouTube video, (which is captioned for accessibility), for ease of location. While they are managed safely, and there are no explicit references, this video includes discussion of grooming and childhood sexual abuse. If you need support with anything raised the Mind website is very helpful.

Youtube video: resourcing your work in lean times: setting your creative compass with Julie Irigaray and alice hiller

Please note, you will need a piece of paper and something to write with for each prompt.

0.00 alice hiller introduces
4.00 Julie Irigaray set 1: ‘The Basque Whaler’, ‘Six War Letters’, ‘Kreig’
12.00 alice hiller set 1 ‘bains de mer’, ‘pistil’, ‘three small shrines’, ‘in the vineyard’, ‘circular’, ‘joujou’, ‘libation’
21.20 Julie & alice discussion 1 including use of medical notes in poems
39.32 alice hiller prompt : setting your creative compass
1.00 audience feedback.
1.05.50 julie irigaray set 2 : ‘Red Card’, ‘Divine Seraphine’, ‘Via Domitia’
1.12.30 alice hiller set 2 : ‘the holly tree’, ‘vesuvius’, ‘benediction’, ‘o goddess isis’
1.20 Julie & alice discussion
1.35 Julie Irigaray prompt turbocharging your creative explorations
final questions from Voicing Our Silences collective

Julie’s poems include references to her Basque heritage, which is at the heart of her debut Whalers, Witches and Gauchos, published by Nine Pens earlier in 2021. In the spirit of expanding our horizons, Julie was kind enough to answer a few questions about Basque culture and history, which you can read below.

Photo of the Pyrenees in the Basque region of France by Julie Irigaray.

AH: Whalers, Witches and Gauchos opens with an epigraph from Thomas Jefferson about Basque fishing in the Atlantic. From what he said, Basque sailors and whalers were clearly active off Newfoundland and further south from the 1400s onwards.  Could you (briefly) tell us something of the history of Basque involvement in whaling? It is partly the subject of the poem ‘The Basque Whaler’, which you perform on the video, but it clearly has deep roots.

JI: The Basques started hunting whales in the 11th century because whales were used to create a wide range of products: candles, soap, cosmetics, to fuel lamps. In the early modern period, Basque whalers spent between six and nine months per year fishing cod and hunting whales near the coasts of Canada and Iceland, in dreary living conditions.

AH: I know the Basque territory is currently ‘divided’ between France and Spain, and there has been political and other forms of activism, including formerly armed conflict, to reclaim and redefine this cultural, geographical and linguistic identity.  Would you be able to outline this for us?

JI: The Basque Country is divided between seven provinces: four of them are in Spain, three in France. It has never been a unified country because it was always split up between the kingdoms of France, Navarre and Spain. The Basque language is not related to any other existing language, so some academics theorised the Basques were part of the first wave of human migration in Europe. The pronunciation and dialects of Basque are different from one province to another, although a unified Basque has been created by scholars. The armed Basque nationalist and separatist organization ETA emerged in the Spanish Basque Country in the late 1950s, mainly as a reaction to Franco’s dictatorship. But they kept on carrying out terrorist attacks well after Franco’s death, especially in the 1980s. I think it was particularly difficult to be young in the Basque Country at that time. But this is my parents’ story, not mine. I’ll probably write about it one day after doing more research. When I went on holiday to England fifteen years ago, there were still some people telling me “Oh! You come from the terrorists’ place!”

AH: Am I right in thinking that both your parents’ families are of Basque heritage?  Your surname, Irigaray, has a sound which stands outside what I know of both French and Spanish, and I know the final poem ‘Exte’, in Whalers, Witches and Gauchos addresses this? Note – you can read ‘Exte’ at the end of this interview.

JI: You’re absolutely right – and that’s why nobody outside the Basque Country apart from you knows how to pronounce my name! Three of my grandparents are Basque, and the final one comes from les Landes, which is still in the south-west of France. My maternal grandmother comes from the coast and a different province from my father’s family, so there are differences of pronunciation and vocabulary between their Basque. My paternal grandparents used to speak Basque to each other or with their neighbours, and my father has a good grasp of it as well. 

AH: One of the ideas that our Voicing Our Silences collective works with is how our difficult histories and experiences can be creatively fruitful, because asking us to find new forms of language to respond to them. ‘Krieg’ in an incredibly vivid, and subtle poem, imagining two former combatants from World War I meeting high in a Basque mountain pass, and reaching a form of understanding which hinges on the title word, which only the German officer understands initially.  Could you say something about this poem and the idea of how poetry can open spaces for things we might not otherwise be able to say and also comprehend?

JI: I always knew I was going to write about this family anecdote one day, but I wanted to avoid certain pitfalls, like making it too overly emotional, or depicting my French great-grandfather as the good guy and the German soldier as the villain. These two men cannot communicate because they do not speak the same language, but also because they were conditioned to think of themselves as enemies for seventy years, and fought against each other during World War I. The memory of World War II in occupied countries like France is still sensitive since so many unspeakable things happened. My family did not suffer more than average, but a variety of things happened to them which are difficult to talk about or even taboo, like a great-aunt who fell in love with a German soldier, or a great-grandfather sent to Czechoslovakia to work as forced labour for the German war effort – which was seen as treason by some. During lockdown, I have written a few poems about World War II from the point of view of several family members. I hate black and white pictures of a character, or moralistic views, so what I try to achieve with my poems is a sense of balance. I want to give a voice to both sides of the story without judging, as I did in ‘Krieg’. 

AH: ‘Their Common language’ addresses your great-grandparents’ migration to Argentina, and subsequent return to France.  Could you say something about the Basque relationship to South America and how that came about?

JI: On my father’s side of the family, several great-grandparents emigrated to Argentina with their parents or siblings because they came from a rural area with little prospects. As I explain in ‘Etxe’, in the Basque tradition, the eldest child (either girl or boy) inherited the family house while the other siblings were left with nothing. One of my great-grandfathers who emigrated to Argentina had thirteen siblings: three sisters ended up nuns, one brother a missionary in Madagascar. Back then, there were not many opportunities to earn a living apart from entering the Church or emigrating to America… In the late nineteenth-century, many Basques moved to Uruguay or Argentina to work as gauchos, others chose the USA to become shepherds in Nevada, California or Florida. The great-grandmother from “Their Common Language” worked in an hotel in Buenos Aires, like the great-grand-uncle who inspired the poem ‘Amerikanoa’. Some of them stayed in Argentina, but many Basques have a sense of nostalgia and preferred moving back to the Basque Country after a few years. 

AH: A number of your other poems also lean into this Basque restlessness, and sense of not-belonging to any single place, which I know you and I both share for different reasons, as do millions of people around the world, who have left their places of birth to migrate for economic, political or other reasons.  Would you like to say something about this experience of becoming un-rooted, but also of carrying your roots with you?

JI: Since I was a teenager, I dreamed of living abroad. Either for my studies or for professional reasons, I moved back and forth between the Basque Country, Paris, Ireland, Britain and Italy seven times in seven years, which had its toll on my mental and physical health. When I moved back to the UK for my first job, I felt terribly homesick, and for the first time. I started a series of Basque poems that made up the greater part of Whalers, Witches and Gauchos, probably because I felt completely unrooted. I found it more difficult than the first time I lived in England to study to fit in.  I think it was because I had lived in so many countries, and picked up some bits of each of their cultures, that I didn’t belong anywhere anymore. I’m still processing this. My poems interrogate cultural differences because it is a subject that I constantly think of. 

AH: I know you have been back in the Basque region of France during the lockdown, able to travel both to the Atlantic and the Pyrenees, when free of restrictions. How has it impacted your work being back in these landscapes?

JI: Unfortunately, few good poems came out of my lockdown writing, precisely because of the anxiety generated by the closing of all borders. The border between France and Spain remained shut for almost four months, and I have spent a day in Spain since Christmas 2019 because things are still not back to normal. Even during World War II or under Francoism, the border could be crossed, albeit illegally. I wrote a poem about a friend being in lockdown in San Sebastian (where the lockdown was extremely restrictive) and my panic at the idea that I could not see him for months because the border was shut. I wanted to capture this claustrophobic feeling. It’s difficult to explain this to people who live on an island, but sharing a border with another country is for us a natural right and a source of enrichment. I have also written a poem from the point of view of the border, and all the historical events it witnessed through millennia. But in the end, I did not write much about the Basque Country. I write better about a place when I see it from a distance, ideally when I live in another country. I wrote almost all my Basque poems while living in the UK, and during lockdown I wrote many poems about Italy because I felt extremely upset about not being allowed to travel back there.

AH:  Some of your newest poems are following your interest in military history, addressed in a number of the poems in WWG, including the ways in which countries who have denied citizens their rights nonetheless require them to die in their wars. This was the the case for many soldiers brought in from Britain’s colonised countries during the first and second world wars, as Sathnam Sanghera has explored in Empireland.  It was also the case for Basque citizens resident in France.  Could you say something about these poems, and the new ones which are forthcoming?

JI: I was looking for books on this subject, so thank you for recommending Sanghera’s! I would like to address the subject of the soldiers who fought for the French and British colonies one day as they were completely written out of history, but I need to find the right approach. 
I normally write a lot about women, but these days I am interested in the values conveyed by the army, especially with regard to masculinity. France is still a very militarised country. With the rise of the right and the French presidential elections taking place in five months’ time, some politicians have suggested the return of the military service for both men and women, and I don’t see it in a good light. There was also the bicentenary of Napoléon’s death this year, and I’m not fond of the idea of promoting the legacy of a man who invaded and subjected a whole continent and killed around three million European soldiers (and God knows how many civilians) for his campaigns. 
I am writing a couple of poems about these themes and the toxic myths surrounding masculinity. My poem ‘Six War Letters’ tells the story of an underaged young man who is enrolled in World War I in spite of all and stops idealising war as a way to prove his manhood. One English teacher told me she’d taught this poem to her boys-only class and that one pupil said it made him reconsider masculinity. I couldn’t be prouder! 
I also recently talked to my parents about my father’s and uncle’s experiences of military service or hazing when they entered their engineering school, and I found these testimonies deeply disturbing. As someone who was bullied in school, I can imagine the psychological impact of hazing in elite schools and universities, and I am outraged by the mechanisms used by the bullies to make their victims believe this is perfectly normal, and even desirable.

AH: Finally, I know you are also working on a PhD about Sylvia Plath and her relationship with England and Europe at Huddersfield.  What does 2022 hold for you Julie Irigaray, in so much as it is possible for any of us to answer this question?

JI: A lot of travelling, I hope! If Covid does not come on the way, I should attend several conferences in France and the UK. I am co-organising an online conference on Sylvia Plath (https://bit.ly/3yHGIW0) on 11th and 12th March 2022, and I will be a volunteer for The Sylvia Plath Literary Festival that should take place in Hebden Bridge at the end of October. I also need to write a couple of academic articles, so 2022 will be more PhD-oriented. But I will try to assemble a poetry collection as I have enough poems that satisfy me to create one now. 

from Whalers, Witches and Gauchos by Julie Irigaray.

If you would like to read more of Julie Irigaray’s work please visit her brilliant website.