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.
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.
Sometimes distance generates its own form of closeness. Or at least that was our experience, when Rachel Long and I connected through zoom to go deep with her debut, My Darling from the Lions, which was shortlisted for both the Forwards and Costa prizes in 2020. Each of us had instinctively positioned ourselves by a window – as if to share the same autumn afternoon light, notwithstanding being on opposite sides of London. Over the course of the two hours which followed, we talked about what it means to create as women, where we find the spaces and energies to nurture ourselves as artists, and why poetry is sideways-thinking. We asked how someone accesses their own ‘true’ perspective or ‘spirit level’; we agreed on the generative nature of play, and why translating another poet’s work can lead your own into new dimensions. Specifically, in Rachel Long’s case – that working with Adelaide Ivánova fed into her own poems of witness around the subject of sexual predation and assault. We then moved into a closer discussion of the extraordinary sequence of poems in which Rachel Long responds creatively to the challenging subject of sexual abuse in childhood – about which I also write. Together we explored language as reclamation, and how the process of articulating, and shaping, may enact a form of restitution and healing. Reviewing the transcript, we both felt that this second half of the conversation formed its own unit. I have therefore divided the interview into two segments, so that our readers have the option of either reading it right through, or in two halves as feels right to them. At the close of that tough year, I had no doubt that this was one of the most nourishing, but also radical conversations, I had in the whole of 2020. It’s the greatest honour to be able to share Rachel Long’s words with you, as we go forward as readers and writers into 2021 together.
AH: Can I start by asking about how My Darling from the Lions came into being Rachel Long? When, and how, did you start writing?
RL: I feel that in many ways I was maybe always writing it. I loved writing even as a child. I didn’t know what I was writing for a long time, in terms of subject or form. I return to the subjects that I have long been fascinated with – the lives of the people around me. The complexity of people’s stories, of how appearances are not necessarily the reality of what is going on inside. My mother came to the UK from Sierra Leone when she was eight. So many of her stories of growing up are holey snippets. The older I get, the more I realise they might actually be some kind of fiction or poetry. If you question something in one of my mother’s ‘origin stories’, she gets almost confused, or contradictory very quickly. The stories become murky, vague, abstract.
AH: I love that idea of murkiness. It’s full of possibility, and also really honest. In the collection, you explore everything from the harm caused by racism and sexual predation, all the way to what it’s like to grow up in the UK of dual heritage, this can’t have been an easy collection to write – at a creative as well as on a personal level?
RL: What is ever easy to write? I’m interested in what gets lost in memory, where it goes – how the body holds it. Being of dual heritage… I grew up in a white working-class area on the outskirts of London. My schools were majoritively white, my friends, half my family. I’m not sure that I thought of myself as Black for a long time. Mixed, half-caste, (dark-)light-skinned, all the rest of it, but not Black particularly. That was an understanding, a knowledge and an acceptance of a self that I had to carve out later, as I grew up, as left that estate, as I read, spoke and understood myself within a much wider context. When I was a girl, I thought that you had to choose what colour you were. I remember sitting in the back seat of my dad’s car, Dad driving, Mum in the passenger seat, and suddenly thinking, you must choose, now, whether you want to be white like Dad or black like Mum – isn’t that… disturbing? And as if I thought that I get to choose how the world perceives me.
AH: Picking up on what you were saying about claiming your Black identity as you grew older, certainly in decades past in England, the dominant culture wasn’t respectful of different identities. There was a pressure to only tick one box or feel of less worth if you didn’t tick that box. I knew Poly Styrene, of X-Ray Spex. She used to pretend to be Greek as a teenager in the 70’s. Once she became an artist, she was able to claim her dual heritage identity more fully.
RL: I understand that. It’s interesting that she could become closer to herself through her art.
AH: Poly was freed to claim her identity partly by working with live theatre as a teenager. Were there people who made becoming a writer more possible for you?
RL: What a beautiful question. Yes. I loved school. Primary school particularly, I felt so much freer at school than at home, and I loved learning, like very honestly loved it. My formidable headmistress, Mrs Wiley loved literature. She would make us recite poetry. Her favourite poem was WB Yeats’ ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, (with the line “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”). Our morning assemblies consisted of who could get through the poem. I became good at reciting and at being shy, but showing off. Because of my love of English and of reading, she recommended me for some residential creative writing courses. On the weekends, and during the holidays, from when I was about 10 to 17, I spent time in the Essex countryside, which I loved, reading under trees, and watching Man Ray films at ten, or discussing silent French movies before sneaking off to play spin the bottle. As I got older obviously, that crux of being 14 and ashamed of everything, I completely hid what I had ‘got up to at the weekend’ from my friends – except perhaps my best friend. It’s good to be able to trust one person at least in life…. Anyway, my 10 year-old brain is going whish whish whish whish, just totally like woah, this is… beautiful, I feel like this is what I’m here for. We did things like creative dreaming – all of us, a gaggle of geeky ‘chosen children’ from all over the country, laying down in the grounds listening to what the grass was telling us. What a radical side-education! Without those easters and summers away, I hate to think where all my dreaming or talking to grass would have been wasted. On boys probably, in phone boxes, at the bottom of bottles. My childminder Barbara was also an amazing education for me. My mum and dad both worked so I would go to Barbara’s after school. Barbara loved sewing and knitting. She taught me to sew (I was never great at knitting). She taught me to draw and paint too, how to look after flowers. I feel very blessed to have had this creative education, to have learnt what I love from others, particularly from women seeing and encouraging me.
AH: At such a young age, that forms you as an artist. It’s letting you know that this is the way to be.
RL: Absolutely. If I didn’t have those people then, I would have had a different path, one I suspect I would not be happy in at all right now. I can’t think about the ‘other path’ for too long, I always well up very quickly, as if the possibility of it is still uncomfortably close. I suspect that is the same for most children, that they’ll thrive if opened up to what is possible.
AH: For sure. And there is the simplicity of playfulness. When I was pregnant with my second son, I did a playing course. There were no children there. It was for parents to enjoy playing. I built bricks and did all those things. That really was a brilliant thing to take back into my parenting. I connected with my joy and playfulness.
RL: I love that! What we do as poets is sort of play. Serious play.
AH: Yes, exactly. When it stops being play, it stops working. Being exposed to poetry early, you learnt how to tell without telling, because poetry works with a backward logic. You don’t just state a sequential narrative. You let it ooze out. It’s like sideways thinking. To develop your ability to sideways-think young, has to be a fantastic thing.
RL: I think you just nailed something for me Alice – or kind of opened something up for me – about sideways thinking. I don’t usually credit my parents for making me very creative, but I think the ways they are as people, people who don’t hide, but also don’t necessarily access or communicate how they more deeply feel, has influenced my work.
Mum will tell you exactly how she is feeling, but I think what she says is the surface, a lot of her anger and worry is fear. I think that underneath she is a lot quieter, shy, strange and dangerous, but she would never absolutely communicate that. My Dad says nothing about anything. So maybe as a child I watched them and understood something essential about what is said and unsaid, about how much you can communicate in your not-saying, in your subtle showing.
AH: To be able to connect the surface and the depth requires opening the channels in the way that you did as a child through creative play. For a lot of people, knowing how they feel isn’t easy. Connecting what they are experiencing on the surface with what’s driving it down below is tricky. Somehow art communicates this, even if it doesn’t do so explicitly. It lets it be understood.
AH: Nowadays, as a poet and a teacher, you work with language to expand and change awareness, and make the new. Were there artists who enabled you to see that your voice, as a women of colour, needed to be realized in a way that did not try to erase the contexts from which it took its shapes? Specifically, the female and the domestic, including the shadowed hinterlands between adolescence and adulthood, which are vulnerable times for many of us? Asking this question, I had in mind your poem ‘Apples’. It starts with the speaker running for a train – “tits play-doughing/ out of a shit bra” – then slides through an admission of her being “magazine educated” into a childhood memory of :
When the mum of my then-best friend said her daughter wasn’t allowed to play with me because I was another N-word – meaning Mum went round in her dressing-gown to slap her silly with her tongue, then returned to scatter the kitchen and shred Dad’s Guardian for not sticking up for us, for never saying anything –
RL: The person who comes to mind most is Caroline Bird, who was my Jerwood-Arvon mentor in 2015-16. Working with Caroline completely accelerated my work. I felt seen and heard and ‘good’, like I could do this, that it wasn’t all rubbish and a waste of time. Caroline was the first person to read my work and really see and hear me. Not in a weird tokenistic or racialized or classist way, as sometimes is ‘the way’. She read me un-bemused, nonjudgmentally, deadly seriously; essentially. That was radicalising for my poetry, for my practice, and for my personhood. Over that year I was able to let go of a lot of shame and therefore I could begin writing it. That came from finally not being or feeling judged, or boxed, or expected of. I realise that you’ve asked me about women of colour influencing me specifically and I have immediately offered Caroline, who is not a woman of colour – how can I phrase this so that it doesn’t sound ‘colour blind’ – let me access my own perspective… I don’t write (or read, or sleep or dream any of those essential, private, self-onto-self things) as a ‘woman of colour’. I write as myself — by that I mean, I don’t think our truest, deepest selves, at spirit level, register or identify with concepts of race, gender ecterea, the spirit doesn’t need these codes I don’t think, they aren’t necessary, and if the spirit level is also likely where the writing is from, then essentially do any of us write as our society-necessary, society-inflicted, society-worn labels? It is only later, when another person reads the work, that certain societal lenses may be worn to read and interpret the work. For example, in my poem, ‘Jail Letter’, I sit between my mother’s legs getting my hair plaited for what feels like all of Saturday. Only to go to school on Monday and be laughed at because my hair ‘looked like spiders’, but also because I had a Wednesday clip in and it was Friday or something. Sitting there as a girl, I did not realise the racial politics of hair, its implications, the perceptions of beauty and the precedence of European ideals, none of that, at least not consciously. I might have felt, suspected, some of it. I was just sitting there, bored out of my mind, in some discomfort. I wanted the poem to reflect that. I didn’t want the poems to have a knowledge of a context that is implausible for the little (mixed-race black) girl in it to reach yet. I badly want to leave the brackets out there because to constantly be a bracketed girl is not the girlhood I wanted, nor should any girl be bracketed, does this make any sense?
AH: Yes it does.
RL: Anyway, I wanted the poem to stay true to her authentic universe rather than be unhonestly aware of her place within the wider context, or indeed other people’s perceptions and dictations of it. And I think, I hope, that by doing that it makes the poem sad and funny, because she doesn’t realise, as she’s sitting there getting her hair plaited, what the reader might think about who she is and what she means, or what her hair means in the world, to others. I was supposed to be talking about Caroline and other influential women and I’m talking about authentic poetic universes!
AH: I was reading Toni Morrison in the 80’s. I felt understood by her writing, and I felt I understood myself. I was born in 1964 and sexual abuse in terms of children wasn’t discussed much until the 80s, by which time I was in my 20’s. It was to do with finding myself in her work as someone who was living a life, carrying a history, that most of society denied and excluded, before I could even articulate my own experience coherently.
RL: Morrison is one of the best writers that we have had on this planet. The fact that you feel personally understood and encompassed by that work, and that it also speaks to a universal experience – maybe it’s to do with identity, but also bloody good writing.
AH: Also, being formally inventive, because you need to make a language to say something that hasn’t been said and isn’t being said. You have to find a language that will actually do that. We both saw the Faith Ringgold Exhibition at the Serpentine. I feel that about her work. And in terms of our work as artists, that is a fantastic challenge to be set – because you know you really have to rise to it. That creates newness, originality, invention.
RL: ‘Apples’ is partly inspired by the experience of reading Morgan Parker’s collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night.Parker really harnesses a multiplicity in her work. She has all of these apparent contradictions and juxtaposition, allgoing on at once, which is, of course, most like life. One particular poem of Morgan’s is ‘How to Piss in Public and Maintain Femininity.’ Just the way it runs, it switches up, it is sliding-doory. This being of multiple things all at once inspired ‘Apples’. I think I have long felt lots of different things at once, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes only things other people said or thought were contradictory, but I knew them intimately to be one. I realized when writing ‘Apples’ that I had long felt like lots of apparently-different selves presenting as a single person.
AH: I love her work, and the way it takes from daily life, and makes it strange and powerful. In his memoir The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nihisi Coates makes a point of recording complex situations in direct, accessible language. Was that part of your intention for My Darling from the Lions?
RL: It’s the way I speak. It’s uncomfortably pronouncing words I confidently but silently read, it’s mispronouncing the same words my mum does, the dreaming holidays in the countryside talking to grass. It’s the mediocre comprehensive secondary school, using a flirtier voice to convince the bus driver to let me on without a ticket, and that voice sticking. It’s the sudden grammar school sixth form, University upt North, and only just now realising that I speak in about five different registers. Sometimes I am very aware and ashamed of it, and others I’m like, well, I start sentences with ‘I’m like’. I want to write in a way that feels true. Poetry is opening up a little in terms of reflecting a plethora of different voices and moving away from having one overarching voice that we must all listen very carefully and above all others to. My poem, ‘Helena’ was written after a conversation I had with a poet, who is from Peckham — not so far from where I grew up in south east London also. He was like, no you don’t talk like you are from South London, and sort of laughed at me for even thinking that I did/still did (did I ever?). So, then I went away and thought, OK, how did we used to speak when we were at school? –and or just after, at like 20, 21. As I was writing ‘Helena’ I realised that it is starkly different to how I speak now, even the pace of it is different, we spoke all in a rush to each other, all the time – and we swore a hell of a lot more. What I found interesting to was recalling old sayings, old ways of using language, ‘swear down’, ‘I’m not being funny, mate’, ‘at the end of the day’ (not all of these made the final edit, but at one point they were all in there). The poem is not a pretty poem, but it was liberating to write in a vernacular that was so essentially us, ours, that felt so much like I was speaking to Helena again, like, really. Our kind of ‘girl-speak’ was so rooted in a specific place and time.
AH: I love that. Going further with the idea of ‘girl-speak’, and the collective, you work with experiences you identify as not having happened to you personally, but that open to larger themes. In ‘Helena’, the speaker is witness to Helena coming round to their mutual friend Tiff’s flat, after being attacked by the bouncer at the nightclub where she worked. The language is raucous, high-energy girl-talk, that takes a turn for the nasty. Helena is speaking. Scarlett is Tiff’s daughter
The er/a and i/e/y rhymes punctuate the sonic patterning of this section with groan and cry sounds, without compromising the spoken feel of the language, or the heartbreak-humour with which Helena creates a retrospective shield for herself against the rape, which the reader is left to imagine. You translated the Brazilian poet and artist Adelaide Ivánova for a chapbook with the PTC last year, whose work denounces crimes of sexual violence. I wondered if this collaboration informed your work of witness in ‘Helena’, and if you could say something about the poem?
RL: I don’t think until I read your question that I truly understood how influential actually translating Adelaide Ivánova’s work was for me. In being invited by The Poetry Translation Centre to translate Adelaide’s work from the literals, and in being introduced to her when she came to the UK to launch and tour the collection, I was influenced, massively. I was moved by her activism, in life and on the page. You’ve made me think about what the act of translation does spiritually; to read someone else’s work, to be deep inside it, to experience and walk around in it. When I’m translating, I always feel like I’m in somebody else’s room. I look around this room trying to work out who this is, essentially, where things go, trying to understand why things are placed where they are placed, and I can, as the translator, move some things around, ask questions, understand. But it’s Adelaide’s room, her creation and design. When translating I aim not to rearrange too heavily, small touches, to extend my room metaphor, I suppose quarter-turn certain plants towards the window, smooth the covers, plump some pillows. Being in Adelaide’s room, the rooms of her poems and experiencing each of them was a joy and a challenge and a privilege.
AH: And they have incredibly tough subject matters.
RL: Incredibly tough, incredibly brave and dangerous too. Working with Adelaide probably did give me the permission, however subconsciously, to write ‘Helena.’
AH: Because it is a very tough poem. You give the story of the rape very clearly. It’s a horrible rape. We know it wasn’t the narrator’s experience. That’s made quite clear. It seemed to me something that was very important to get on the page. Rape is something that people do to each other, and the person to whom it’s done often feels so bad that they tend not to talk about it. That silence makes it more possible for the crime to continue.
RL: Absolutely. It was a tough poem to write – alleviated only by the fact that I kept going back to writing in our voices, and that did alleviate it in a way, because the way we used to speak, in a rush, all at once, angry and sad and laughing at once felt true, and like taking something back, her voice, her clear-as-a-bell voice. That’s what I think I wanted to get to with ‘Helena’. When things happened like that, we didn’t have the exact language, but we knew how to speak to each other, we knew how to tell each other things – but no power to actually help each other. Now, god forbid, if a friend of mine came and said something like this to me, I would be so better equipped, even in terms of language, and then other things thereafter, to be able to offer assistance to that friend if she wanted it. We didn’t, as girls. We glossed it over, at least in terms of what we said aloud, because we all knew that it was bad, but it was so bad the consequences of doing ‘nothing’ always seemed better than the repercussions of saying ‘something’ to people outside of our circle, outside of our experience and language.
AH: As human beings, when tough things happen to us, sometimes we shut them down to some extent, because we are at a point in our life when that’s the only safe thing to do. Helena said what happened, and then she took the shower. She was supported, and she took the shower, and washed it away. That’s an honest account of how we cope with very difficult things.
RL: I think about being that age again, with my girls, my sisters, my old friends or just other girls I went to school with. Really horrific things happened. Regularly. You’d come back to school on a Monday morning and each Monday there would be some standardly horrific story of what had happened at one party or another at the weekend, or at a bus stop, or in a local park. The frequency of these violences done unto us girls almost normalized it. It’s so heartbreaking to remember.
AH: I grew up in the late 70’s, early 80’s. I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s memoir, Recollections of my Non-Existence, which has just come out. She describes that omnipresent violence and threat of violence so strongly. I thought It wasn’t only me. She was having that experience on the West Coast of the US, in San Francisco. She described that predatory environment, being followed home, feeling that she was permanently on verge of being raped. She managed to escape rape, but some of her friends didn’t.
RL: This is not even a long time ago. So, it makes me glad to measure at least how far we’ve come in terms of speaking out about these. I think we have to be careful, or I do, not to be angry with our previous selves, because that was the world only moments ago, and it was the world that made those conditions, not us.
AH: Often when I have written about something difficult, I do a short Buddhist meditation around self-compassion. I never think I need to. But then I do it – and I feel so much less bad. I have to keep going back and being kind to that girl who I was.
RL: We had to survive in the only ways we thought were available and possible, right?
AH: I think a lot of tough things that happen to us as children, as adolescents, as young women, we seal away inside ourselves. We build protective tissue around them. At a later point, we often have to deal with them. When you’re young, you’ve got such a strong instinct just to survive, that you keep going through it somehow. I think you have a different level of life energy at that point, that drives you forward. It changes as we get older. That’s my sense of looking back on the hair-raising escapades of my teenage self, operating in a menacing world.
This is the point at which Rachel Long and I felt there was a natural break. In the conversation that follows, which was all part of our single meeting, we talk about how you can respond with agency and creativity to very difficult experiences, and the ways in which this process of articulation can become of itself reclamatory and healing.
AH: This seems the right place to ask you about the sequence of five or so poems within My Darling from the Lions, recording the sexual abuse of a young girl child by one of the minsters in the church she attends with her family, and the aftermath of this crime in her subsequent life. Because of my own background of having been sexually abused as a child, these made a great impression on me from when I first heard you perform them live. The first of these is ‘Night Vigil’, which is the third poem in the collection. It begins in a child-adult voice “I was a choir-girl. Real angel/ – lightning faced and giant for my age.” There is tongue in cheek wonder at its midnight start – “a time too exciting to fathom. / How the minute and the hour stood to attention!” The miracle stops there, however, as the rest of the poem falls down through time, to an ending its beginning could never have anticipated:
During the Three Members’ Prayer, my sister fell asleep under a chair, so she never knew
how I sang. Or how I fell silent when the evangelist with smiling eyes said in his pulpit voice,
Here, child. Had she woken, I would have told her Sleep, sleep!
so, she’d never know Smiling Eyes also meant teeth,
or that he had blown candles for hands, with which he led me down an incensed corridor,
and I followed.
While this is a very difficult experience to take on board, you generate protection for the reader and creator alike through the child’s desire to shelter her sister, and through the way the imagery lets what happened be apprehended step by step. The “blown candles” and “incensed corridor” are simultaneously sacred and penetrative. We have in that moment the choice to understand the simultaneous desecration of an act of faith, and a child’s body.
Workshops I have taken with you instigate an alchemy of deep, internal self-liberation. ‘Free-writing’, along with engaging with secondary sources, such as dreams or artworks, help generate less ‘managed’ creative responses? Was that how you put ‘Night Vigil’ together? How did it come into being kind of creatively?
RL: Maybe I should keep a kind of diary or a log of how each poem was written because I find it really hard to remember them.
AH: Like dreams.
RL: They are like dreams, that’s perfect Alice. Yeah, they are like my dreams. I can’t remember how I got there. Even sometimes with the edits, if I was to go back and find a real old version of that poem, I wouldn’t remember it. The only thing I do remember is that this poem was much longer. At that time, I was on the Jerwood-Arvon mentoring scheme with Caroline Bird. She was the first person to read that poem. As I said, I was grateful for the way Caroline read me. I had never written like this before. I had never framed such a peak experience. She didn’t do that awkward thing that people do, she read it as an artwork, or a draft of a work of art, and did not focus on the ‘apparently personal’ experience in the poem, but the poem as an experience itself. I’m trying to recall now, and I think part of what made the early draft longer is that it continued with the girl down the corridor. Caroline asked, why don’t you end it here?” — end at the girl following the man down the corridor, the poem becoming the corridor. In this way, the reader experiences it as the little girl, and becomes the girl, walking, ever-walking down that corridor with that man. The corridor then also becomes a metaphor for how the experience goes on, haunts you in many ways, forever.
AH: Exactly, and it’s much scarier.
RL: Much scarier, yes. And then she went “whoosh” with the pen, and she was like What do you think? And it kind of made me go eurgh like in my stomach. I was like yes; this is what it felt like. As a poem that was the closest and most fitting frame for it. If you end a poem in a place where you have refrained from summing it up or allowing your older voice to come in and intercept it – you leave the reader in freefall.
AH: That is an amazing answer. It’s just a stunning, stunning poem. I heard you perform it live, and really longed for the time it would be published, and I could read it on the page because it felt so important to me personally.
RL: Is that when we met that night, was that in the Poetry Cafe with Kaveh Akbah?
AH: I think so, yeah.
RL: It was so beautiful, and you were so generous afterwards, thank you.
AH: It was just so impactful for me. I had a hunger to be able to have those poems on the page. I knew they would make my life feel different – and they did. I’m really serious about that. There are many reasons why this collection has been important to me, but I hungered to be able to read those poems.
The next poem but one after ‘Night Vigil’ is ‘The Clean’. It starts out sounding like it’s ‘about’ bulimia – “Imagine/ eating all the snow/ you’ve ever wanted/ in one sitting, / not having to pay for it.” But then, after adding in “avocado”, “toast butter/ cascading your fingers” and “pink prosecco”, it morphs into something sadder. Or maybe just more specific, if you take the view that many eating disorders stem from something the individual cannot stomach. The second stanza reveals:
I know a place that is snow falling from the Artex ceiling into a room you will never return to. A promise piling like cable knit. 4-ply snow-day snow.
Some of the biggest things I write about are things which I had the least control over, but which have impacted me very deeply. Following on from ‘Night Vigil’, this room full of falling snow feels like a frozen, traumatic moment which is continuously happening, but cannot at the same time be properly felt. Does that seem like a fair reading to you, and would you be able to say something about these first two stanzas?
RL: I think it’s a stunning reading. What I wanted to do with ‘The Clean’ was to write about a woman with bulimia, and then in the second stanza, perhaps trace through the colour as it was, through this whiteness. But then in the same sense, trying to walk through the colour into why this woman is kneeling at this bowl of whiteness and expelling. Without wanting to say explicitly, because I don’t even know if that is necessarily explicit even to my understanding, but to wonder whether that because of sexual abuse, in childhood in that snow room, as in that frozen room, whether that is the reason, or a contributing reason, to why she has bulimia.
Is there something about her body that would be less, have been less desirable to someone else had she looked different? Had she been in a different body, if her body did something different, would that be able to change the outcome? This is what you said about lack of control. Bulimia is very much about what can and cannot be controlled.
AH: This is a generalization, but ever since the sexual abuse began when I was a child, I have always struggled with IBS. It is as if my body wants to throw things out. The snow room isn’t the end of ‘The Clean’, though. The final verse begins “I know a place where/ the sad can’t go.” Now, expulsion becomes a political act as the speaker instructs the protagonist “Go on, baby, give it back/ to whence it came. / Dispel three dinosaur dinners/ like forgiveness, / like it never happened.” The subject is told “Girl, you can be new, / surrender it all/ into one bowl. This, / your hollow.” The suggestion is that voiding, and expelling, are also creative acts, because resisting and rejecting what was forced in without consent. In this context, is it fair to think the holding pages of the collection make a kind of bowl, and create opportunities for restitution? Not just by vomiting forth, but by expressing things that were silenced at lots of levels.
AH: It seems to me that the turn in the poem was crucial. That’s why I wanted to put the question into two halves, that turn into restitution and beauty, without denying.
RL: Thank you, Alice. An act of restitution and freedom from your own body. You can be free of it. An action can be erased. You can float above it.
AH: Speaking it and putting it in words is part of that process of creative expulsion.
RL: Yeah, absolutely. You have reminded me. I always did feel like that – free and light.
AH: I am really interested in how we make it through and how we make it through partly creatively as well. Rather than just casting people as being without agency, also looking at the ways in which we claim ourselves. Bulimia is widespread through society. Many people experience who are not necessarily artists. There is a sort of restitutory justice in the body somehow.
Suggesting that maybe something has shifted, and become freer as a result of this act of voiding and voicing, the next poem, ‘Open’, moves from a place of potential trauma to one of freedom:
This morning, she told me I sleep with my mouth open and my hands in my hair. I say, What, Tiff, like screaming? She says, No, Rach, like abandon.
It is one of a sequence of poems, all titled ‘Open’, that link and orchestrate the collection, changing small but significant details with each iteration. You said in your Forwards interview with Kim Moore that Don Patterson encouraged you to develop this strand. I wondered if you could say something more about it?
RL: I was speaking to the brilliant Nuar Alsadir about dreams for a radio programme. She said something like, I liked the ‘Open’ sequence, I liked how they show these flashes of awakenings, these flashes of desire. She thought that they showed the waker’s unconscious desires. More and more with this book, post-publication, I discover new things in it. Oftentimes by readers – who have far more insight than me into what I have apparently ‘done’. Don Paterson really did encourage them significantly, I think originally there were three, but he suggested weaving them throughout the whole first section of the book. As soon as he suggested it, I was like, of course! It made poetic sense, narrative sense. Don is an extraordinary editor. I think that increasing my explorations into that ‘Open’ sequence opened up what the whole book concerns and interrogates, intimacy, desire, dreams, the material and immaterial, appearance and reality.
AH: I make all my work completely blind like a mole digging for the surface, with no clue really as to what I am doing. You find out later. The news catches up with you.
RL: I like that, like moles.
AH: We have very, very powerful paddles for digging up through the earth, as far I’m concerned. I have to work blind. I can’t just sit down and do it. It has to come to me.
AH: ‘8’ is another poem which continues ‘The Clean’s’ process of marking the white page. Its act of witnessing is also the relocation of a moment of private, concealed horror to a public externalized space. As with ‘Night Vigil’, the speaker moves back and forward between being a bewildered, uncomprehending child to a more knowing adult. So, readers can have a sense of how the poem works, I’m going to quote the first section in full:
‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’ – Psalm 51:7
this memory can’t skip it hops on one leg the other making the buckles on my mary janes bounce then clang cute shackles my feet will hopscotch-land on 8 wash me at 8 I can’t tell time i’m led through school and play tea then bed at 8 i can’t read faces tell hands to stop unfreeze my grin that room his weight wash me and I shall be the girls at school call that place mini but mum says it’s a front bottom
Later “time decides itself till i’m pressed/ apple against that wall that sunday/ that school”. The voice of the poem is somewhere between a playground skipping song and a crime scene report, with “wash me” breaking through over and over again like a child’s plea to undo the moment when “touched/ by the hand of his clock i am/ instantly older”.
While the narrative is devastating, sonically, this is a very lovely poem, especially when you perform it live, partly because of the way the rhymes and half-rhymes dance through the lines. I wondered whether choosing to tell ‘8’ in this way – weaving the everyday words the child might have used into the story it is suggested that she was unable to tell – is a form of restitution and reclamation of the child’s self and innocence, conferring a retrospective agency through beauty, and as well as through witness?
RL: The language had to be the language of the girl at eight. The lines all being of eight syllables was because I had the image of the girl playing hopscotch, the beat, the rhythm, the form came from that. Even like the lower-casing of the letters. I wanted it to look and feel on the page as if she is writing and/or telling it.
AH: Because it is the only lower case i/ first person in the collection?
RL: It felt right for this poem. She has been made less of a capital I, rendered less of a person by another, a big I.
AH: But it’s also like a sort of crime scene report. I mean we get what went on. She speaks, but she is also spoken for by the poem. That to me is its power. She stays small but the poem is actually pretty hardcore in what it delivers. That’s an amazing achievement that you can do both at the same time.
RL: Thank you Alice. Do you know, it also came out of, Kathryn Maris’s brilliant Poetry School class which we were both students of at the same time One week she set us an assignment to write in the intonation or rhythm of a prayer. What I handed in the week after was not very good, but with much longer to think about it and let it ruminate and ‘come out’ in its own time, I do think that exercise was the catalyst for ‘8’
AH: Some of her prompts were very valuable to me. I did a really good Poetry School workshop with Shivanee Ramlochan online at the end of 2019. There are some poems that I very very definitely have no intention of ever writing. Those are the ones that it is useful to have prompts for – because otherwise I will strenuously protect myself from writing them for decades. A prompt can knock out that little peg that you have blocked into the hole. Then the poem pops out.
Thinking about healing, wholeness, and restitution, are central to the beginning of the second section, titled ‘A Lineage of Wigs’. The first poem, ‘Orb’, floats like a rainbow soap bubble of a praise poem. It calls to mind some of Selima Hill’s brevity, but takes it to new places:
Mum combs her auburn ‘fro up high. So high it’s an orb. Everyone wants to – but cannot – touch it.
The “auburn ‘fro” is an angel’s halo vested in human form, and an emblem of unbroken-ness. Is that ‘perfection’ something you wanted to assert and reclaim?
RL: Yes, absolutely. The word orb changed. It was crown at first, because in that sequence there is the image of the queen arrowed on a sofa.
AH: Yeah, I remember that.
RL: It did sort of look like that. I think to me when I was younger, looking up at my mother . I’m really enjoying the way that you have read and seen the poem. That was exactly what I wanted to do with it. I’m so glad you have read and seen it like that.
AH: It felt like a really important reset point. We go from a tough poem to a place of wholeness and beauty and unbrokenness. The last question I’d like to ask you is about the title and the cover, which shows a young Black girl in a candy striped dress, with her back to the reader, looking inwards towards the poems that lie ahead. Can I just ask you about the title?
RL: My Darling from the Lions is taken from Psalm 35. ‘Rescue my soul from their destruction, my darling from the lions.’ It is a ’ Psalm that I heard a lot growing up, either hearing it recited in church, or by my mother from her bedroom, or we were instructed to say it, for protection or for strength. The collection wasn’t always called My Darling… Even up to a year before publication it had a different working title. But, for some reason, I must have read Psalm 35 again or seen something of it, or was reminded of it, and by this verse particularly and it was as if it was the first time I’d read it, I was like that’s so beautiful. A darling for a soul. There is so much rich and stunning language in the Bible, the poetry of it all. . When I read that verse again, I thought, this is what I am trying to get to with the collection. The girls and the women particularly are threatened by different lions. I wanted it to be a sort of a call for help and protection from something higher, whether that be God, or art. I wanted the collection to pose the question: can the spirit survive life intact? I also love the idea of referring to oneself as a darling. You can, even when something ugly has happened to you, begin to love yourself enough to refer to yourself as you would another woman or another girl. I would call Tiff or Helena darlings. Hey, my loves, my darlings.
AH: That’s absolutely beautiful. I think that’s the perfect place at which to end. It’s been an amazing privilege to talk about this extraordinary book. I have waited a long time to be able to hold these poems. I’m so grateful that they are out in the world – and that they will be coming out in America as well with Tin House. My Darling from the Lions is a wonderful book to read – and will change how people think. Thank you Rachel Long.
RL: Thank you so very much, Alice.
Rachel is at @rachelnalong on twitter.
Rachel Long’s debut collection, My Darling from the Lions was published by Picador in August 2020. It was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and The Costa Book Award 2020. Rachel is the founder of Octavia Poetry Collective for women of colour.
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.
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.
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.
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 launchavailable 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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
amphitheatres carved from
bone stagger into stone
traps in floors
troughs to drain blood
bars protect the watchers
from the creature
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:
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.
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.
Performing, and writing, generate anxiety. It is as inevitable as adrenaline. You worry if your work is original. Does it communicate? How will it will be received? For those of us who explore difficult material – there is also conflict. We fear, or have been warned off, distressing our audiences. But we also know, from personal experience, the greater dangers of remaining silent.
The recent launch of The Dizziness of Freedom by Bad Betty Press, brought this dilemma home to me. By virtue of their strength, elements within the material were difficult to bear. But the searing, fierce, sometimes painfully funny performances by poets from this anthology responding to mental health, resolved many of my concerns – through their ability to transform creatively a raw subject matter into work no one could ignore.
Dean Atta gave us depression in formal mourning clothes in ‘No Ascension’. Rachel Nwokoro made OCD the logical response to growing up queer, short-sighted, and female in a Nigerian/London household in ‘School Days’. And then it was Joelle Taylor’s turn to raise her hand above her head like a pistol – and proclaim an only half-laughing “trigger warning”. She told the audience, with absolute seriousness, if you feel the trigger, you hold the gun – and the power is yours.
Joelle Taylor’s blistering performance – of work about her own experience of having been raped as a child, and its aftermath – bore out her words. I was deeply impacted by hearing her, as someone who, like Joelle, was raped in childhood. But I was also strengthened. And I jolted home on the train feeling so much less alone in the poems, and memoir, I am creating on this subject.
When I write, or perform, poems about my own experiences of sexual abuse in childhood, I question my right to bear witness on a topic which people may feel disturbed by – no matter how much care I take to engender agency and safety within the work. From past experiences at live readings, and with contacts made through this blog and twitter, I know that there many of us out here. Either we have our own histories of sexual abuse in childhood, or we are connected to people who do, simply as a consequence of the widespread nature of this crime.
But I have found that it is this same group – my group – who can be most relieved to hear, or read, my work. We discover within it forms of verbal and imagistic play which we recognise as making comprehensible an experience which is difficult to speak of, even in a private or therapeutic conversation.
While my poems appear simple, operating largely through layered imageries, and using direct, accessible language, it took more than a decade of creative experimentation in prose, then poetry, to find out how to write them. Before even getting going, I needed nearly a decade of psychotherapy to begin to able to articulate and resolve what had happened to me, and thereby gain enough separation from the sexual abuse to exercise a measure of creative agency.
I was already 32, with sons of 14 and 8, and researching a PhD at University College London, when I first met the psychotherapist to whom my GP referred me in order to discuss my troubled childhood and adolescence. I had recently discovered legal evidence of other harmful actions, which my abuser had taken concurrently to the abuse in the mid 1970s. This gave me the spur to open up a part of my earlier life which had always seemed too devastating to re-connect with.
I can still see that murky, grey November afternoon when I stood on a doorstep in Earls Court in London, feeling more numb than scared. After a few moments, the grey-haired, soberly dressed therapist opened the front door of the apartment block to me, and led me up a dark stairwell, and along a narrow hallway, into her consulting room. Small, lined with books, it looked out onto the grey backs of other houses.
I had been confined to a similarly view-less room when hospitalised for anorexia aged 13. That period of my life, during which I had first received psychiatric care, was one the psychotherapist asked me to discuss, along with the events that had caused me to stop eating as a teenager. I gave her a factual, slightly detached summary of my childhood, including my father’s death when I was eight, and our subsequent move from Brussels to Wiltshire in 1972.
And then she dropped the bomb. She said You’ll have to go back there.
From my 32 year old mouth, a terrified 8 year old whispered Don’t make me.
At that moment, with the light falling, and the darkness seeming to press its way in through the net curtains of the consulting room, a third person was present with us – ashamed, dirty, frightened, barely able to make a sound.
For twenty-four years I had kept this hurt child locked away inside me. Inaccessible, and silenced, her only medium of expression had been my regular, terrifying nightmares, which made me, and continues to make me on occasion, fearful of sleeping.
When our first session was up, I found my way down the stairs, and out onto the street. I was shocked – and deeply shaken. After I got home, time started to run in parallel. I was a mother, feeding my sons, asking them about their school day. I was also a cold, scared little girl, who wanted to curl up and lie absolutely still under heavy blankets.
That same night, I dreamt I was standing alone, in darkness, on the edge of a shingle beach. The stones shelved steeply down into navy blue water, the colour of a silk petticoat my abuser sometimes wore. With the pebbles sliding, and giving way, I stumbled forward into the sea. I was immediately out of my depth. All round me – dark, chilled water, and the pink-orange whiskery antennae of shrimp, touching my skin, entering my mouth, going between my teeth. I smelt a distinctive, fishy smell that I recognised from before.
The following week, with the psychotherapist’s support, I connected the dream with the textures, and colour, of my abuser’s slippery pubic hair, when I was forced to put my face in her aroused genital area. Our work of articulating my experience, and slowly, slowly, finding some degree of healing, was underway.
Many years later, I came to understand that the imagery within my poems could operate as a transmitter of meaning in the same way that the shrimp whiskers had. Back in 1996, the dreams simply intensified as we worked more deeply. I continued the practice I had already evolved of writing them down, to separate them from myself, and gain some sense of control.
I was simultaneously trying to research and write up my funded PhD, be a partner to my husband, and raise our two sons as best I could. The dreams offered me a space to re-engage very deeply with my childhood experiences of sexual abuse, while also granting a degree of safety in the other parts of my life, where I needed to continue to function for the well-being of our family. My poems now offer this for other people.
There was always a backlog of material, but I would print out two copies of each dream, and then bring them to my therapy session, so that the psychotherapist and I could respond to and interpret them together – in much the same way that I did the texts which I was writing about for my academic research. The difference was that the psychotherapist would then channel my responses to the imagery that my dreams had generated.
Although it was a slow and halting progress, which invariably left me devastated for several hours after each session, the dreams helped me locate feelings which I had not been able to experience at the time of the abuse because they were too dangerous. They also gave me a language in which to speak about the regular anal rapes, the implement used to effect them, and the emotional impact of living within the climate of secrecy, shame and fear both during the abuse, and afterwards as a teenager.
Heart-breakingly, as the psychotherapy was reaching a measure of resolution late in 2000, my husband Falcon was diagnosed with terminal cancer. For the next 14 months I cared for him full-time, in and out of hospital. After his death in 2002, my priority was to put life back together for our sons, then both in their teens.
Losing Falcon additionally led me to re-engage with the death of my own father when I was 8, which had been the precipitating factor for the penetrative phase of the sexual abuse. Through the Royal Free, I received further counselling. The more I took on board how much what had happened in my childhood had hurt me, the more I realised the need to try and change awareness around the crime of sexual abuse in childhood.
In 2007, once my younger son had left for university, I began to ask if I could find a way of articulating what had happened to me creatively, with all the personal risk this entailed. With younger my son away during term times, and his brother working outside London, I could afford to risk laying myself more open to my past. I was also fortunate to have formed a new, deeply supportive relationship, with the man who later became my second husband, which also helped sustain me.
My first attempt at writing took the form of a novel, which I worked on for seven years, while also working, and undergoing surgeries for ovarian cancer, diagnosed in 2011. The gynaecological surgeries had the effect of opening up more tissue memories of the abuse – a common response according to my surgeon. Although very difficult to bear, this extra layer of memory ultimately hardened my resolve to continue to agitate creatively for change.
Having always been a hungry reader, and previously been a features journalist, the novel initially seemed a good way to explore my story. I could see its scenes, and hear its voices, and I valued the ability to tell a longer story, and show my narrator at multiple ages, alone and refracted through others. But then as time went on, it began to feel as if I was working with thick gloves – speaking through a ‘character’.
I came to believe, for political, as well as personal reasons, that I needed to bear witness directly to my own experiences. At the same time, as I wrote towards the novel’s climax, I found the scenes breaking themselves into shorter and shorter fragments, due to the power, and difficulty, of the material, and the need to contain and offset it within white space.
From here it was only a small step into poetry. Not knowing quite how to negotiate this new terrain, I signed up for Pascale Petit’s final workshop course at the Tate, in conjunction with the Marlene Dumas exhibition. Pascale’s encouragement, and that of poets on the course including Karen McCarthy Woolf, and Seraphima Kennedy, when I shared my draft work, told me that I had found where I needed to be – and set me on the path of developing my craft, and honing my voice as a poet.
I have since taken classes at The Poetry School, and Spread the Word, and was lucky to be awarded a year-long Jerwood Arvon mentorship with Pascale Petit, which also gave me the opportunity to collaborate on poems with fellow mentees Romalyn Ante, Seraphima Kennedy, Yvonne Reddick and Rachel Burns.
The poems may contain refractions of grooming, sexual abuse, and my troubled teenage years as a bisexual girl trying to find her identity after same-sex abuse – but I see them as jewelled musical boxes. They can be opened up, and allowed to play their harshly beautiful, sometimes shocking tunes – but they do so with all the resourcefulness and surprises of precise, beautifully made objects. When the song is done, and the tiny dancers have stopped revolving, the poem-boxes can then be closed down again until they are next needed, whether by myself, or another reader.
Although the materials at the poems’ hearts are given the resolutions of form and imagery, they nonetheless retain the danger, and terror of what happened to me as a child, which I re-experience every time I work on them. Without this, they could not do their work of speaking out on behalf of all those sexually abused as children – to help change how people perceive this global crime.