‘sea level’ : the poem as miniature tornado – ‘bird of winter’ podcast no 2.

Like miniature tornados rising up off the page, poems move energy.  Working with words and sounds, they carry their readers, or listeners, into spaces which are new to us – hopefully without inflicting damage.   By involving us imaginatively, and creatively, they open our consciousnesses to transformative alchemies. Or that’s the aim. For those of us who work with difficult materials, the reader or listener can of course decide how far ‘in’ they want to go, and how much of the created world they allow to come alive.  When a poem has an element of catharsis, they can also choose if they want to become part of the shift this precipitates. 

Naples seen from above, with Vesuvius

To explore how this poem/tornado process might take place, my second bird of winter podcast rides the energy flow of ‘sea level’, which came together on a winter trip to Naples. Specifically, I engage with how the poem imagines worlds to generate forward and upward movement. In this case, it’s from a place of suppression and denial towards a place of comprehension and healing, and from underground darkness up towards the light of day.  If you’d like to listen to this as a podcast, with an optional prompt at the end for your own art-making, the link is here: https://youtu.be/pJLPHD5A2sE

If you’d prefer to check it out, developed for the page as an essay, please keep reading. The photographs are ones I took in Naples.  As a word of warning – this episode mentions sexual abuse briefly, in the context of the weight of silencing that can arise from this crime, and its potential for continued resonance in our adult lives.  I also explore how we can move beyond its heavy legacy towards reclamation. While I’ll be  tracking the energy flow through the individual lines of ‘sea level’, to hear the poem from start to finish please follow this link to my recording: 

sea level

Naples harbour at nightfall

For ‘sea level’s tornado to lift off, it needed both darkness and light. Real tornadoes require warm humid air, and cold dry air, to create the rotating updraft that leads to the formation of the funnel cloud.   In this case, I wanted readers to feel the oppressiveness of the silence and denial that abusers, including my own, force onto children.  These weights are carried by many of us whose experiences have been denied or dismissed.  Having encountered them within the physical landscape of the poem, we can enter into the relief that arises when they are released, collectively, into an act of witness and reclamation.

Back in December 2018, the day before I wrote the first draft of ‘sea level’,  (when I still had no idea it was coming to me), I’d visited the palatial Archaeological Museum, in the grimy heart of Naples. The city’s soundtrack is a symphony of car horns but the tight street grid in the old town dates back to Roman times.  Extraordinary finds, from statues, to frescoes, to objects from daily life including a charred cradle, were excavated from the volcanic rock that covered the ancient city of Herculaneum.  Key items are displayed in room after room, alongside equally dazzling, moving, and mundane, treasures from the neighbouring city of Pompeii.  They make you feel as if time is melting and you no longer know quite where you stand.

Wall painting of young woman from Archaeological Museum

While Pompeii was covered with ash that was relatively easy to shift when Vesuvius erupted, four metres of molten volcanic materials settled into solid rock over ancient Herculaneum.  To rediscover the city, the original excavators had to tunnel down, partly below the modern town of Ercolano, at great personal risk from poisonous gases and cave-ins, beginning during the eighteenth century.  Reading about them, and seeing old illustrations in my guide book, called to mind my own painful, stumbling, sometimes dangerous and destabilising, process of excavating my childhood memories. I embarked on this in my thirties, during the 1990s, with the support of a skilled psychotherapist.

Those same childhood memories were moving in the shadowed corners of my thoughts as I walked around the museum, trying to take in as much as possible, and then explored the tiny shops and tight backstreets of Naples while dusk came and people started to congregate in bars and cafes after work. While most people think of December in terms of holidays and celebrations, for me it marks the anniversary of when the penetrative sexual abuse began during my childhood, in 1972.  I was eight and a half. With my abuser, who was my mother, I’d just moved to a small village in Wiltshire following the death of my diplomat father.   Even decades later, whenever I can, I go abroad briefly at that time of year, to reset the light in England, which can intensify the return of flashbacks and nightmares. 

Eighteenth century anonymous illustration of visiting the excavations at Herculaneum

Despite the Southern Italian location, the night after I visited the Archaeological Museum, I woke in the early hours from a dream of being held down in the darkness, as had happened when I was a child.  Lying in the dark hotel room, cold and scared, the feeling the dream left me with,  after a day of imagining  the still largely buried ancient city of Herculaneum, and then walking Naples’ shadowy, narrow twisting back streets, somehow led to the phrase “there will always be the city/ beneath this city charted by no one” dictating itself. This became the first two lines of ‘sea level’. I was thinking of Herculaneum. I was also articulating my own underground memories, nestled beneath the surface  of my daily life, but swimming up to its surface again in the crack in time that the December anniversary had opened.

Jotting the words down, on a bedside scrap of paper, but also opening myself to the energy I could feel rising up, I next heard “where column of stone tears/ cling to the ceilings.” As a child, I could neither cry, nor cry out, in bed beside my abuser. When you visit underground cave systems, the stalactites and stalagmites can seem like frozen ghosts, caught momentarily in the electric lights of the present.   I knew these stone columns were my own emotions, unarticulated and unacknowledged, until my thirties – when I first started to thaw and allow myself to re-experience them with professional support.  Brittle and dangerous until that point,  they had hung within me like unwieldy stone daggers, triggering panic attacks and flashbacks, as is the case for many peoples who have experienced trauma.   But the image was by no means exclusively sad. Stalactites are also objects of great beauty. Crystalline structures, created from dripping water, they sparkle when illuminated, and make visible the accretions of time. 

Seeing the lines on the hotel notepad,  I felt again that tornado of energy rising within them, driving the narrative forwards.  What came to me next was an image that called back the lost inhabitants of my imagined underground city “whose people were once/ lost or vaporised/ their houses and temples/ buried and forgotten”.  This of course happened historically to the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum – whose lives we now know in considerable detail thanks to the works of recovery undertaken by archeologists, and scholars. Within the carbonised cradle, the feather-light residue of a baby testified to his or her former presence. In Pompeii, archeologists pour plaster into voids left in the ash where bodies decomposed, to cast out the shapes of the people who fell trying to escape Vesuvius.

Figures cast from hollows left in the ash at Pompeii photo Wikipedia

By the end of 2018, when I visited Naples, I had begun to share the poems which were my own creative acts of recovery. I was also being mentored by Pascale Petit under the Jerwood Arvon scheme.  Through the responses I was receiving from her and other people, I knew that by writing about my childhood, the spell of denial thrown over my own life was being undone.  This also happens when other denied and buried histories – including those of enslavement, persecution, and genocide – are recovered and documented.

Writers including Primo Levi, who recorded his experience of Auschwitz, and the long journey home, and Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, who make work in response to the histories of enslavement and racism, and the impacts of colonisation, were integral to my own process of giving creative testimony, as was Pascale Petit. Also crucial to my ongoing sense of possibility have been works of exploratory witness from contemporaries writing alongside me including Bhanu Kapil, Sandeep Parmar, Isabelle Baafi, Romalyn Ante, Jenny Mitchell, Rachael Allen, Rachel Long, Caleb Femi, Will Harris, Nina Mingya Powles, Troy Cabida, Arji Manuelpillai, Karen Smith, Natalie Linh Bolderston, Holly Pester, Ralph Webb and Cynthia Miller – to name only a very few. 

Carried forward by so many powerful examples, scribbling in bad handwriting by the streetlight coming through the gap in the curtains, I felt myself caught up into the process of collective reclamation and voicing. This was the journey of the poem, from darkness to light, from silence to noise.  As it took hold of me, with the Bay of Naples moving as a wash of liquid blackness beyond the town, I heard “let these people  who are my people/ enter your lives again”.  What had been denied and pushed down was rising up now in a way that made me think of a different set of tunnels altogether. 

Oritigia, showing temple columns in the wall of the church.

These were the tunnels under the Sicilian town of Ortigia, that I had previously visited with Pen, the younger of my two adult sons. The town has existed since classical times, and its main church is made from a former Greek temple, whose columns are still visible within the walls.  Ortigia’s deep network of tunnels were used over the centuries for rituals, burials and shelter, including from bombing during the second world war.  They formed places of safety, as we discovered during a guided tour.  Going underground in the town square, the musty, twisting passages emerge from darkness into the light of day at sea level, where the white gold rock of the island meets the turquoise waves. It was this memory which informed the next lines – “and hope will shaft passages/ up through the bedrock”. The photograph I chose for the YouTube podcast was taken on that holiday.  Being with my own son, by the iridescent waters of the Mediterranean, was in my mind as the last lines of the poem came to me, as you will be able to hear again. 

sea level

alice hiller emerging from the tunnels in Ortigia, photo by Pendragon Stuart.

‘sea level’ moves from suppression and denial, into life and community, ending “until we swim free/ within the breathing harbour of morning”.   The double sound meaning of its final word – morning – holds within it an echo of the sorrow and loss which is also part of the process of the poem.  It gives the journey into the light an element of circularity, echoing the circling of energy which is also integral to the formation of a tornado.  Those of us who have known difficult times will recognise how this circling can be manifested in the return of memories and anniversaries of the sort which kicked off the poem for me. While such a legacy is not easy to carry, I understand that it forms the foundation of who I am as a person, and as an artist, and has become one of the deep energy sources that fuel my work and my political consciousness.

Sunrise over the harbour in Naples

If anything in this blog has been difficult, the Mind website has valuable links.

If you would like to read more about bird of winter please go to the page in this blog, where I explain its background, or follow this link to Pavilion Poetry’s website: http://bit.ly/birdhiller.

If you would like to try out putting your own journey poem or artwork together, the following prompt may give you a few ideas. 

The first stage of putting your own journey poem or artwork together will be to think of an experience, feeling or memory which will be your starting point. It doesn’t have to be taken from your own life, but it should be something that you can potentially travel beyond to a new place, physically, emotionally,  geographically or conceptually.  This is what will give your work its forward motion and form its primary energy source.

In my case, the journey was from my child to my adult self, from a crime taking place to its anniversary many decades later, and from an individual, silenced position, to a collective act of witness. Be careful if your explorations start to feel upsetting for any reason, and plan beforehand how to stay emotionally safe.  You might want to have a friend you can connect with, or a helpline you can call, or another form of support. 

The next stage is to select your recording materials.  You might want to write on a sheet of paper or in a notebook, or type into a new document on your computer, or speak into your phone using a voice memo app.  All are equally good.   Once you’re ready, set a timer for five minutes, and then write, or speak freely, and without censuring yourself, about the starting point of your experience. What you’re looking to capture is the emotional mood and colour of the subject, rather than any formal description. Rough jottings, phrases, and images are great. 

Naples from the island of Capri

The next step will be to repeat this writing or recording process for another five minutes, envisaging and describing the place where the journey travels to.   You could do this straight after, or you might want to leave it until another day, week, or even month.  Sometimes poems and artworks come quickly, but other times they reveal themselves to us more slowly and gradually.    When you’ve got the two sets of material, combine them into a single document, so you can see how they sit together.

Beyond this, or alongside the process, you want to start thinking about a physical terrain across which the emotional journey of your poem or artwork can realise itself.  In my case, it was the double set of tunnels in Herculaneum and Ortigia, which became a single joined underground landscape. They could be landscapes you know personally, or ones you have experienced either online or via film or television or books. They could be from the past, or the present.  

The sea off Ortigia in Sicily.

Once you have identified your landscape, or landscapes, you want to generate some words around them.  If they are nearby, maybe visit them with your phone to speak into, or paper to write on. Otherwise, spend some time just looking at them online or in books. As you’re engaging with the landscapes, notice the feelings and ideas that come up, and again jot down phrases and images.  Do it as a timed session if that’s feasible and helpful.  As before, be careful if this starts to feel upsetting for any reason, and plan beforehand how to stay emotionally safe.

Land travelling into water

The final step will be to bring together your two sets of words and images – about the experience, and the landscape – in a way that makes the journey of your poem or artwork travel forward through time and across geography to its place of arrival. 

Good creating – and thank you for reading. Please sign up to the blog if you would like to be notified of other bird of winter podcasts and materials, and writing and interviews more generally on the topic of working creatively and transformatively with difficult materials.          

                                             

Naples underground

Finding out that ‘bird of winter’ has been chosen as one of the 10 books recommended by the Poetry Book Society for Mental Health Awareness Week – and launching difficult materials live online with safeguarding in mind.

Trigger warning: reference to grooming and sexual abuse in childhood. Also to healing and reclamation.

Finding out that bird of winter has been chosen by the Poetry Book Society as one of the 10 books they recommend for Mental Health Awareness Week came as a huge boost to me this week, in addition to being chosen as their Summer Special Commendation. In amongst other themes, my collection explores the impacts of sexual abuse in childhood – on the mental health of the child, the adolescent they become, and their adult self. It also traces paths towards self-reclamation and healing in the aftermath of this crime, which I believe should be integral to any discussion around the topic. By focusing on both injury and restitution, and the importance of witness, and listening, we can honour the selfhood and agency of people making meaningful lives beyond this assault, as I try to do myself. We can also change awareness around the value of the voluntary support services, whose impacts can be transformative for peoples of all ages. You can find a very helpful list on the Mind website. Barnardos and the NSPCC are amongst charities who provide specialised help for children and adolescents. Their services are usually accessed through referral.

You can read more about the other books on the Poetry Book Society list, and the challenges they respond to, on the PBS website. These include brilliant titles by Kaveh Akvah, Fiona Benson, Emma Jeremy, Niall Campbell, Hollie McNish, Ben Wilkinson and Helen Calcutt. The link is here.


Like many of us with complex histories, the pandemic has made my own mental health feel more fragile at times, not least because I lived with only my excellent dog Ithaca for company during long sections of the lockdowns. I would normally counterbalance working from home with communal activities including family contact, swimming, attending arts events, Buddhist learning, and seeing people socially. Until very recently, all of these have been off the menu other than via a screen. Meditation, meeting with fellow dog walkers outdoors, walking with Ithaca, and collaborating with the collective of Voicing our Silences poets have all been valuable sustenance in this time of absence.

Editing the poems in bird of winter which respond to my own experiences of being groomed and sexually abused in childhood, and then finding my way through a tricky adolescence towards healing in adult life, without my usual resources, made me realise last autumn that I needed to check in with some support again. I went back to see the counsellor I have worked with previously, weekly on zoom, which undoubtedly helped me get through the long winter lockdown. I know many other people who have similarly realised they needed more support than they could generate on their own over the past year. In his recent interview for the Society of Authors, I was grateful to hear Kayo Chingonyi speak of the difficulties he experienced as a result of separation from cherished family members and friends over the lockdowns, and to hear him say that he was working with a therapist. This kind of matter of fact open-ness helps us all feel that the challenges we face are shared by many, and that to seek solutions to them is a reflection of strength.


My own vulnerability has also made me aware of the need to keep safe-guarding in mind during online live performances, while also honouring my commitment to witnessing and speaking out. When you perform to a room full of people, you can ‘take the temperature’ of the collective mood, and adjust your set accordingly. You also know that the audience members have each other for grounding and support, along with the possibility of a drink and chat afterwards. They can equally come and talk to you, as people often do when I read. At physical live events, there is also the journey home, which has the effect of placing a degree of separation between the content of the evening, and the rest of your life.

Beaming into people’s homes is of course entirely different. Not only do you, the performer, have no idea of who is out there (other of course than friends whose names flash by as the audience file in, if it’s an interactive format), but you have no sense of how they are feeling, whether they are alone, how long it might be since the last saw anyone, and a host of other questions which can significantly influence the reception of more challenging materials.

I have therefore sifted my poems to set aside some which I feel can only be shared either via the printed page, or carefully in a live context, and with appropriate safeguarding measures. I am also taking time to write short scripts linking the poems, and contextualising the subject matter, so the listener can feel invited in as an active participant in a process of transformation. This was absolutely my intention for the live launch of bird of winter, on 5 May, which was recorded by Liverpool University Press, and can be watched here, along with wonderful performances by my fellow Pavilion Poets of 2021, Sarah Westcott and Alice Miller. You will need to scroll down to the video of 5 May, which shows Mona Arshi introducing us as the identifying image. All the other videos are absolutely worth watching as well.

There is a trigger warning for my performance within the launch, which begins at 33.40, in case anyone wants to switch off. The recording has captioning available, but I decided to publish the words I wrote to link the poems below, to give a fuller understanding of the bird of winter project of changing awareness around sexual abuse in childhood through art-making and art-sharing.

For copyright reasons, I can’t include all the poems, but I have dropped in the image for ‘sagittae’, as it is difficult to visualise it from the reading. ‘elegy for an eight year old’ and ‘bird of winter’ are also available elsewhere on this blog. If you watch the video, there is also a really powerful Q&A at the end, when Mona Arshi talks to us about our collections. The link to the launch again is here.

Mona Arshi, alice hiller, Sarah Westcott and Alice Miller at the Pavilion Launch

alice hiller: words and poems to launch bird of winter on 5/5/21

As some of you will know, bird of winter responds to my own experience of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, but also of finding my way towards healing.  Sadly, it’s a crime which is being perpetrated day and night around the world.  Millions of teenagers and adults like me make their lives in its aftermath. 

One of the difficulties we face in reclaiming ourselves is that the trauma and perceived shamefulness of the experience can make sexual abuse hard to talk about.  Many people wait decades to be able to say what was done to them as undefended children or teenagers. 

 My poems in bird of winter seek to create a language, through made artworks, that can help people explore this complex topic safely, and with agency.  I’ve been careful about what I’ve chosen to read tonight.

The first poem I’m going to share is called ‘the needle’s eye sews red silk.’  It sets out the legal penalties for what was done to me in childhood, as defined by the UK criminal justice act of 2003, with the 2007 sentencing guidelines. The legal quotes are interspersed with my own ‘impact statement’.

reading of ‘the needle’s eye sews red silk’

My abuser was unfortunately my mother. The grooming began in my earliest life. I was, however, blessed by a good French grandmother, or bonne maman, and diplomat father. They both loved me.   Thanks to my father’s posting to Singapore, I was looked after from birth by a Chinese amah called Ah Loh. This next poem is for her. It honours how the good that we are given strengthens our whole being, and gives us a better chance of coming through difficult times. 

reading of ‘my amah   my armour

Once Ah Loh had returned to Singapore, my life became less safe, as ‘pistil’ records.  It’s named for the female reproductive parts of the flower and the first section quotes from my GP’s notes when I was two. They record the troubled behaviours my abuser’s actions were already precipitating. 

reading of ‘pistil’

The French buttercups in the third section of ‘pistil’ grew in the field adjacent to my bonne maman’s clifftop house in Normandy, where I went every summer of my childhood.  I could hear the lighthouse when I lay in bed, and see its fingers of light sweeping the sky. ‘bains de mer’ or ‘sea-swimming’ was written after visiting the area again a few years ago, when I was beginning these poems.

reading of ‘bains de mer’ or ‘sea-swimming’

What my abuser was doing remained  profoundly damaging.  In bird of winter, Pompeii and  Herculaneum form shadow worlds in which the injuries and silencings of my childhood play out.  They are also where the excavations and reclamations of my story are enacted. The next poem is titled for two tiny gladiators who were dug up in Pompeii and shows my abuser and I side by side. 

reading of ‘terracotta figurines’

‘terracotta figurines’ is set in the flat Brussels, where my father was posted after Paris. Here he became ill with motor neurone disease, and died when I was eight.  My abuser and I then moved to Wiltshire, away from the protection of my French bonne maman. I had never lived full-time in England, and no one really knew me there. I see what happened next in terms of the eruption of Vesuvius. 

reading of ‘on the shoreline’

In the early 1970s, the sexual abuse of children was not widely recognised, or discussed. No one suspected that the studious little girl in glasses, who worked so hard at school, but didn’t seem to have many friends, had something very wrong at home.

reading of ‘cyclical’ which will be reproduced in PN Review.

One of the most damaging aspects of sexual abuse is how the child is made to feel complicit with, and implicated in, the forced intimacy that is imposed on them as part of the abuse. ‘joujou’ takes its title from the eighteenth century French word for a yoyo, based on the verb jouer, to play.  

reading of ‘joujou

For many of us who are abused in childhood, the changes of puberty can bring the possibility of agency.  Christmas eve when I was twelve proved a turning point. 

reading of ‘december 1976’

The following Easter, of 1977, I decided to stop eating. I was hospitalised for anorexia that autumn.  Now began the long, sometimes uncertain, journey towards healing.  The next two poems give snapshots of me at eight and thirteen, at school and then in hospital respectively. They book-end the years of penetrative abuse. 

reading of ‘elegy for an eight year old followed by ‘bird of winter’ these can both be found on the blog in the sidebar about ‘bird of winter’.

Aged thirteen,  I had no words to tell the psychiatrist who treated me in hospital what my abuser had done. Inevitably, my teenage years proved turbulent, as they are for everyone with my history. Like many, I was left vulnerable to further predation, and psychological distress.  

Forming a loving relationship, and becoming a mother, along with meaningful study and work, gradually led me towards firmer ground.  I only became strong enough to begin to speak to a counsellor of what had happened to me as a child when I was  in my early thirties.  I started to try and write about it in my forties. I’m now 56. 

My poem ‘sagittae’, or ‘arrows’ uses the processes of how arrows are made, then fired,  to explore the transformations that healing can bring about if you have a history of having been sexually abused.  As you will see, it’s repeated across the page to become a collective act of resistance and reclamation.

I’m going to end this reading with the final poem of bird of winter.  ‘o goddess isis’ takes its details from the excavation of the Temple of Isis at Pompeii and the rituals performed there as part of the worship.   With her son Horus, and her partner Osiris, the Egyptian goddess Isis watches over death and loss –  but also birth and regeneration.  I dedicate the poem to all of us who seek to live facing into the light.

reading of ‘o goddess isis’

Thank you all for listening, and Deryn and LUP for publishing bird of winter.

Please see the link to the Mind website if you need help or support with anything I have talked about. 

I am going to be publishing a series of short podcasts looking at the ideas behind individual poems on this blog.

If anyone is d/Deaf and needs a transcript of the full reading please connect with me through the contact section of the blog.

You can buy ‘bird of winter’ here.

If you’re a member of the Poetry Book Society, bird of winter and their other selected books are available at a 25% discount here.

my debut ‘bird of winter’ – published by Pavilion in May 2021

When I was first experimenting with poems, five years ago,  I was working blind, like a mole digging upwards. Coming from a prose background, all I knew was that I had to find words able to hold what I needed to write. 

Like millions of other people around the world, I was groomed, and then sexually abused as a young child.  In my case, this took place in the late 1960s and 1970s. I then stumbled through the messy teenage aftermath as Punk gave way to Two Tone and Margaret Thatcher took power.  Nearly forty years later, memories of what happened can still flood my dreams.  Physical symptoms replay old injuries. 

Nowadays, sexual abuse is discussed extensively in the media.   Measures are in place to identify, make safe and support children who have been subjected to predation of this sort, even if these have been compromised during the recent lockdowns.  But there is still limited comprehension of what the crime entails, and how it impacts people, not least because it is so difficult, and painful, to think or talk about.  

Changing awareness, and giving witness, were two things I had in mind as I shaped my fledgling poems.  I wanted to make compact pieces of art.  They needed to contain and express what had happened to me, but do so with a degree of agency and protection for both writer and reader.  Like seashells found on a beach, they had to be small, beautiful fragments that you could pick up and hold to the light – while thinking of the depths in which they grew. 

Aside from a transformative Jerwood Arvon mentorship by Pascale Petit, and generous insights and readings from other poets along the way, three key elements fed into the poems that will be published by Pavilion as bird of winter in April 2021.  The first was my own long-standing fascination with Pompeii and Herculaneum.  I visited the two sites in the summer of 2000, along with the Naples Museum which holds many of the key finds.  I also subsequently saw, and bought the catalogues of, exhibitions at the British Museum and the Ashmolean. From the plaster dog, cast out from the void left in the ash by his evaporated body, to wall paintings and brothel graffiti testifying to lost lives, the findings gave forms to my excavations of my own past.  

bird of winter was also shaped by the notes I salvaged from my childhood and adolescent medical records. They corroborated my hospital stay as a teenager.  They additionally reflected how doctors saw children like me, at a time when sexual abuse was almost always missed. Finally, two trips to Dieppe in the summer and autumn of 2019 let me reconnect with what had sustained me through those very difficult years – namely the love I received from my French grandmother, and my father until his death when I was eight.

When bad things happen to you growing up, they can choke and pollute the waters of your life like an oil slick, and cause immense local damage. But they are not the whole story, any more than an oil slick is the whole surface of the sea.  Healing comes through cleaning up the damage, and then moving beyond it, to clearer waters and moments of love and joy, which more truthfully define us and let us know who we are.  I wanted bird of winter to honour these good elements, which enabled me to resist, and ultimately reclaim myself. 

First in the July sunshine, and then in October rain, I travelled across from Newhaven on the ferries like those I used to sail on to see my grandmother. I stood outside the gates of what had been her clifftop house, along the coast from Dieppe. I climbed down to the beach where I paddled and swum with her and my father.  To be there again, to know the movement of the sea, to hear the waves ringing through the shingle, was to feel a tide of strength flowing through me, as I worked on what proved to be some of the core poems of bird of winter

When I was asked by Pavilion to choose the cover colours, I knew immediately that they had to be from the Channel off Normandy.  They needed to wrap the darkness which the collection addresses in a transformative mantle of light. Some of them can be seen in the photos that run alongside these words, which were taken on those two trips in 2019. 

In the months to come, I will be writing more about bird of winter, and the real, and imagined, birds which take flight from its pages, alongside the objects excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum which inspired some of the poems.  I will also write about what it is like to take back your medical notes, and see how you were seen, when you could not see yourself.

For now, I want to thank Deryn Rees-Jones, currently recovering from Long Covid, for making me a Pavilion poet, on a list which includes many writers who speak to my heart. Nuar Alsadir, Mona Arshi and Bhanu Kapil, to name only some, occupy sacred spaces on my shelves. I am honoured to be appearing alongside Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott in 2021 and hope we will be able to read together. 

In closing, I express solidarity with all of us who have been impacted by sexual abuse in childhood – whether at firsthand, or because it has come into the lives of those who matter to us.  By giving witness, by supporting each other, by making art that reclaims agency and beauty, we can work together across our communities.  We can help the world to see and think differently. 

If you would like to order a copy of bird of winter please follow this link.

To find more about the other amazing Pavilion Poets please follow this link.

Marking the Spaces of our Silences : alice hiller on art as activism in the aftermaths of trauma.

Trigger warning: references to sexual abuse in childhood.

In common with others who were sexually abused in childhood, I have been haunted by the awareness that millions of children round the world are potentially being locked in with sexual predators, as a consequence of measures necessary to limit the spread of COVID 19. I am also deeply concerned for the psychological health of adults living with their memories of having been subjected to this crime, without the normal range of social interactions and support, which would usually help them to cope and hold the past at bay.

While art and activism can be awkward bedfellows, the current crisis has made me think how I can use the body of work I am making around my own history of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, to bring awareness of this crime to a wider audience. My intention is part of an ongoing project aimed at finding ways to counter the devastating impacts when children are sexually abused.  I also want to make the subject more comprehensible to those whose lives it has not touched directly, in order that we may work collectively for change.

One of the first challenges I faced in writing about sexual abuse was how to find a form of language which respects the inarticulacy of the child’s experience. This arises from the dissociative pressures of shock and shame, in combination with the intimidation and concealment perpetrated by the adult abuser. In her brilliant study, Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong cites the poet Myung Mi Kim telling her that “attention to silence is in itself an interrogation” [p139]. This chimes both with my own practice, and that of my late father-in-law, the sculptor Oscar Nemon, whose work has been part of my life since I was sixteen.

Together with millions of Europeans of Jewish heritage, Nemon and his sister Bella lost almost their entire family to the Holocaust. In their case, the twenty-three murdered relatives included their mother, brother and grandmother. Like many who suffer loss on this scale, aside from one interview at the end of his life, Nemon does not seem to have been able to speak out loud about this tragedy, not even to his children, nor to his close friends.

Better known for his portraits from life of Sigmund Freud and Winston Churchill, Nemon did however respond to the Shoah in his art, which also addresses wider questions of the impacts of genocide on surviving communities. Titled Humanity, his memorial to those killed was unveiled in 1965 in his home town of Osijek, now in Croatia (see below). Emerging from on sketches stretching back to the second world war, the composition shows a mother lifting her child to the future in defiance of annihilation.

Heredity in park

While there is no direct allusion to genocide, it is a composition of the utmost vulnerability. Reaching out and up, neither mother nor child have any form of protection, silently reminding us of the undefendedness of the millions of civilians whose lives were taken both in the concentration camps, and en route for them. The model for the baby was Nemon’s son Falcon, born in 1941 as Yugoslavia was invaded, signalling the likely end of Nemon’s family of origin. Falcon later became my husband.

Nemon only completed two Shoah sculptures, but from 1945 onwards he made sketches exploring living in the aftermath of this loss. They often feature groups of mourning figures, standing together in solidarity, or holding one another. I first discovered them within his papers after Falcon died in 2002. Nemon had previously died in 1985. Recently bereaved, they moved me deeply. When I look through these drawings now, I am additionally struck by their relationships to silences, and silencings, and how they build bodies of gestural language from not speaking. Below is the rapidly drawn Don’t Forget, whose title and injunction come from the page of the memo pad on which it was executed in black felt tip pen.

Don't Forget

Turned away from the viewer, the two figures hold each other, and possibly a child each, in a wordless enactment of grief. They make their loss palpable, but decline to let us into their closed circle, which is a place we can imagine, but not know. By existing, Don’t Forget gives witness, and forms a concrete place of testimony to a crime whose perpetrators attempted to deny it, and to destroy all evidence of what was done. This witnessing is an ambition I also have for the body of work I am making, as I hope to show in the discussion which follows of five poems published since the start of the pandemic in the Cambridge Literary Review and One Hand Clapping.

As a reviewer, and former features journalist, my intention is to use the additional resource of my prose to open up the context of these poems during these uniquely difficult times, to support children and adults with experiences of sexual abuse, whether current or historic. With funding for programmes to heal the aftermaths of this crime  being cut, I also wanted to throw light on the nature of what happens when a child is sexually abused, to make it easier to understand why the damage, though often invisible, can be so profound.

‘twice told’ and ‘quadrant’, the first two poems I will discuss, were published in the full UK lockdown within the ‘script as identity’ issue of the Cambridge Literary Review. There is a clip of me reading them for the online launch available here. Looking back to the autumn of 1977, ‘twice told’ documents the immediate aftermath of the sexual abuse when I was just thirteen. At this point, the physical element had been stopped, but I had no means or opportunity of saying what had been done to me.

Set in a hospital room, the poem remembers the tone of the many conversations I had with Ann Dally, the psychiatrist who admitted me. I weighed 4 and a half stone, and had stopped eating in order to be able to die, but anorexia was still largely regarded as the disease of over-ambitious, perfectionist middle class girls. While Ann Dally rapidly became aware that my relationship with my abuser was not what it should be, it never occurred to her to ask about the possibility of sexual abuse.

‘twice told’ lies in a lozenge on the page, forming the shape of one the many sedating pills I was given. It alternates the psychiatrist’s questions with the child patient’s thoughts about a chaffinch she sees, who is neither able to sing nor fly. Working through the image of a flightless bird, with a grotesquely swollen beak, the poem catches both the impossibility of speaking, and the resulting weight of not being able to do to so.

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‘quadrant’, moves beyond this to register the silences surrounding sexual abuse being being enforced, endured, and finally negotiated. It suggests that we may not have to remain in a place of injury forever. The word quadrant initially meant a quarter of a day, or six hours. This led to the name being given to an instrument, shaped like a quarter circle, used to measure altitudes in astronomy and navigation.

The poem is built from four quadrants. The first imagines a little girl’s words as “soft pink kissing” spread onto “iced cakes” and then fed back into her own mouth. The “steel hooves” of ‘intimidation’ follow, and lead to the exile of ‘exclusion’ when “lies puff out on/ washing lines” and “because/ she will not wear them/ the young woman must/ walk out naked.” This image to calls to mind the unprotected state of the adolescent who has suffered sexual abuse, and her vulnerability in the aftermath of the crime when she is trying to reclaim herself.

‘quadrant’ ends in a place of ‘redemption’, however. Finally, “open sky and water/ wind-blink a clear pool of June silver – washing/ her skin with spangled/ rings of joy.” Swimming, and particularly swimming in open air municipal pools in summer, has always been one of the most restorative areas of my life. I honour the transformative gift water represents for so many of us with histories of trauma, and the ways it may enable us to reclaim our bodies.

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The three poems published in One Hand Clapping engage with different aspects of living with and in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood. ‘embedded’ is already available on this blog in the poems section. It was a poem that came alive for me again during the first phase of the full UK lockdown. The isolation I was experiencing through living alone, combined with the lack of social contact that many of us rely upon to manage our mental health, caused me to re-somatise the injury the poem responds to.

At the time of the poem, I was a pupil in a small village primary in Wiltshire. I worked among other children on shared tables, with papier maché animal masks looking down on us from the walls. Writing ‘embedded’, the soreness of those childhood mornings seemed to materialise within the roughness of the sacking tacked to the underside of my bed, the splinteriness of the wood, the sharpness of the rusty nails – in the same way that water vapour may be precipitated onto a cold surface. The word ‘backdoor’ is embedded centrally in the poem as an act of witness.

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One Hand Clapping is also publishing two new poems of mine. They respond to how traumatic memories persist, but also how they may be represented and to some extent transformed. I first experienced penetrative abuse aged eight and a half, in December 1972. Ever since, that month has been difficult for me. Whenever I can afford to, I travel. It helps to be in a different light to that in England, and to open myself to new experiences, rather than being pulled backwards by the ghosts which return each year to claim me.

‘performance’ came out of a late December trip to Sicily in 2017. I wanted to see the island’s landscapes, and understand more of its multi-stranded history. A few days short of the end of the year, I was standing in the ruins of an almost vanished Roman amphitheatre at Eraclea within sight of the sea. Two thousand years ago there would have been crowds, and blood, and gladiators, and wild animals. Now broken rows of stones emerged from the dry grasses to mark where the benches would have stood. More or less the whole town had been carried away over the centuries to build houses nearby – as is the case with many classical ruins.

IMG-3515

My own vanished, but present, past was within my thoughts as I walked around, trying to figure out the layout of the site from the notices and my guidebook, and imagine how everything had been. In their liminality, and near erasure, the ghosted forms of the seating and stage suggested the presences of memory, but also the way time erodes and changes. I was struck by how, although it was impossible, without additional information, to read the site fully, you could not ignore that something had once stood there.

A salt breeze was blowing in off the sea, like it had on the clifftop by my French grandmother’s house in Normandy. This was always my place of safety as a child, where I was usually more protected from my abuser. Feeling it on my face, the phrase “amphitheatres are carved from bones and stagger into stone” slipped into my consciousness. Then I heard “have traps in their floors troughs to drain blood.”

Those two phrases, arriving on the wind, turned my eight year old body into the amphitheatre, and stage for my own attack. Like a looping echo, as I thought about the gladiators forced to fight each other, and the animals they killed for public amusement, I also held somewhere in my mind my own powerlessness to resist my abuser, and the sense of unwitting complicity that the sexually abused child experiences. But, in the historical fact of the “troughs to drain blood”, the imagery also offered the possibility of some form of easing or relief, through draining away. As the poem took shape, I understood it could give a measure of moving beyond the eternal recurrence of what was done to me night after night in the dark, because refusing the silence that my abuser had required and enforced through my childhood and well into adult life, as is the case for many of us with this history.

performance

amphitheatres carved from
bone stagger into stone

traps in floors
troughs to drain blood

bars protect the watchers
from the creature

when attacked
leaves marks

as rain drunk
by growing grass

‘performance’ stayed short – only six more lines came. Sexual abuse is not something that can be fully communicated. Reticence is moreover a retrospective form of redress – clothing the child in a measure of dignity that was denied to her while the abuse was ongoing, and gifting the reader the option to engage only insofar as is safe and comfortable for them. As I worked on the poem, I understood that it needed to be tiny, and tight, and partly folded in on itself like a child’s body – but with a mysterious, felt possibility of growth and healing. The blood at the end is also just rain, in the same way that when we speak the difficult things that happen to us, they may be in some measure transfigured by the act of documenting.

The title was the last element to arrive. For a long time I called the poem ‘evidence’. Then I realised that it was more than that, because not static, but moving. ‘performance’ holds for me how, when we make works of art, whatever their starting point or destination, we construct them in such a way that they enact themselves within the viewer’s or reader’s mind, and then fold away again at the end, like the curtain going down on a stage. In that retelling, and closing down, we also exert our agency as the co-creators of our own life experiences, and give a degree of creative agency to our audience. Together – as artists and audiences, as past and present selves – we may discover the power to see and relate in new ways, as we move forwards through time, and gain different understandings of our own histories, and those of others.

‘papyri’, the final poem appearing in One Hand Clapping, responds to the difficulties inherent to making aesthetic performances from charged materials, and more generally to opening up traumatic memories to allow their energies to be present within a creative work. The starting point was my own reading about the ancient city of Herculaneum, which, like nearby Pompeii, was overwhelmed when Vesuvius erupted. Rather than ash, however, Herculaneum was covered with a hardened shroud of volcanic stone, up to 40 metres thick in places. This has not yet been fully excavated, and may never be, as the modern town of Ercolano stands above much of the ancient city.

Digging down along narrow, vertical shafts, the early excavators discovered among other finds the complex of a magnificent villa, complete with extraordinary mosaics and statues. There was also an area containing blackened, contorted log-like objects. These were originally disregarded as rubbish, or burnt to keep warm – until it was realised that they were in fact tightly rolled papyrus scrolls from the villa’s library. They had been carbonised and crushed during the eruption, and are the only surviving examples of this kind.

Even when the papyri were recognised for what they were, they remained almost impossible to unroll or decipher. The writing is black on black, and the carbonised sheets crumble entirely to dust unless treated with the utmost care. Many techniques were tried for deciphering them, including fixing to a silk background and unrolling by fractional amounts each day. The breakthrough only came in recent years, however, when medical diagnostic technology was brought into play. It was realised the papyri could be read through a combination of using a CT scanner to unroll them virtually, and an infrared scanner to distinguish the letters from the paper.

A CT scanner is of course more usually used to see inside the human body without surgical intervention. For those of us whose bodies have been attacked or invaded, the ability to see within their closed surfaces, to discover the evidence of what took place, is at once an impossible dream, and a potential nightmare. My poem ‘conjugation’, also on this blog, explores this idea, in the context of an MRI scan which I was given in 2014 to assess internal damage following cancer surgery.

While ‘conjugation’ speaks directly to my abuser, ‘papyri’ asks the reader to become a form of CT scanner, calling upon the magical powers of an empathetic imagination in bringing the processes of art into play. Because the sexual abuse of a child very often entails a measure of societal or familial complicity, I wanted to build the poem from phrases already in the public domain to enact a wider engagement. For this reason, the poem uses only ‘found language’ taken from an academic article published by the University of Kentucky about using CT scanners to read two unopened Herculaneum scrolls.

The borrowed and rearranged phrases request the scanner/reader to “distinguish bodily tissue/ detail a human’s organs/ reveal internal surfaces.” The poem accepts, sorrowfully, but also respectfully, “the task immensely difficult/ the scrolls so tightly/ wound and creased”. It allows the resistance to opening and disambiguating of such materials. But it also suggests that when you are able to “unwrap sections/ flatten them” they may gift you the ability to “see clearly” the constituent elements of “papyrus/ fibres/ sand” contained within the seemingly incomprehensible scrolls.

In the context of ‘papyri’, the final word, “sand”, is the saddest, and the most hopeful. It embodies the grit, and abrasion, caught between the soft surfaces of the historic Herculaneum papyri before carbonisation. Through this it looks back to the soreness of ‘embedded’. But it also honours the persistence of selfhood even under the most extreme adversity and fragmentation. Sand is made from minute particles of rock – most commonly granite, quartz or mica, or marine life forms – which still retain their original identities. In the same way, children subjected to sexual abuse retain their original selves, however dissipated and broken up by the trauma to which they have been subjected, as ‘two unopened scrolls’ asks the reader/scanner to recognise:

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My late father-in-law, Oscar Nemon, also has a sketch which works with and transforms ‘found’ materials. It is a tender, grieving group, composed of three visible figures. More are implied behind them, completing the circle. With their backs to the viewer, refusing to speak directly out of the frame of the page, the figures cluster together and hold each other close. Their bodies, which form a trunk-like column, are made up of vertical, striped lines, like the striped clothes that the prisoners in the Lagers were required to wear, and which the world saw on newsreels of the liberation of the camps. The base on which they stand is a crosshatch of vertical and horizontal lines – echoing the barbed wire which contained the prisoners, and prevented their escape, also visible in contemporary news reportage.

Mourning group stripes

But extraordinarily, and almost unbelievably, while the figures’ heads bow in sorrow, as grapes on a vine, awaiting harvest, their holding arms form two victory ‘V’s. This was another archetypal image of the second world war, implying resilience, and determination to resist. An additional V has been added below them, in a different pen, at a later date. The resulting shape, made by the interlocking Vs, calls to mind both a diamond – an emblem of light – and an open mouth at the heart of the composition. Made from the raw horror of war, the untitled sketch forms an act of articulation. Loss is made manifest through unflinching, empathetic, witness – without surrendering its final unspeakability. I hope my own poems will be able to work in this way for the global community of those of us living with, and making our lives and arts in the aftermath of, sexual abuse in childhood.

Falcon & Oscar & bust
Oscar Nemon with his baby son Falcon in 1941

One Hand Clapping can be found here.

The Cambridge Literary Review can be found here.