‘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

Like spring after winter – growing and claiming life beyond disaster.

When I think of adolescence, the unruly rush of spring growth, that transforms woodlands after winter comes to mind. Trees burst their buds into leaf, and plants grow towards the light following months of dormancy. Walking with my dog Ithaca in Shotover woods, above Oxford, as the seasons changed this year, I observed and photographed this almost ecstatic transition close up. I saw it with senses made more acutely responsive by the restrictions of lockdown. Like everyone, my daily life through the winter was defined by ‘sameness’ – without access to the visual stimuli of museums and films in cinemas and the different landscapes that travel and social contacts can open.

And iridescent carpet of nettles in Shotover County Park, near Oxford.

At the time, I was getting ready to launch bird of winter with my brilliant fellow Pavilion Poets Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott in May. The collection responds to my childhood experiences of being groomed, and then sexually abused, by my mother. It also documents the difficult teenage years beyond this as I found my uncertain way towards reclaiming myself and living again. When I was writing the individual poems, I would necessarily be in a single emotional space or remembered time. It might be reconnecting with my late father and grandmother, whose love helped me come through, or finding ways to bring much more complex memories of the grooming and the abuse, and their aftermaths, to the page.

Ithaca in a field of buttercups

With the poems orchestrated into their structure by my brilliant poet-editor at Pavilion, Deryn Rees-Jones, what became uppermost in my mind was the movements between them. Divided into three parts, the collection flows together like waves rising up a beach to lift their tide of moods and images into the shore of creative witness. Then it rallies its forces to carry the darkness of the abuse far out to sea – revealing the gleaming seaweed and new sands of the healing with which the final poems close.

cover of bird of winter

Holding the sea-coloured book in my hands, turning its pages, I saw, and felt, how the way I was groomed set up and fed into the abuse, making it impossible to refuse. I also recognised with a new clarity how even when it was over, the abuse left me acutely vulnerable as a teenager, through having broken down any boundaries I might have had. But reading over bird of winter’s teenage poems, I also re-experienced the ferocious life force that puberty awakened in me, along with a hunger for the world beyond what I had known. This helped me reach towards my future like a plant towards the sun, in many different ways. These included forming new friendships, deepening my interest in books and the arts more generally, and beginning to travel alone. Adolescence also gave me the confidence to experiment, however awkwardly, with my reclaimed sexuality, and through this begin to separate myself emotionally from my abuser.

Foxgloves in June.

Once bird of winter was launched and out in the world, with many warmly generous responses from readers and people who watched the launch online, my thoughts kept going to my teenage self, surrounded by danger and possibility both at once. On my woodland walks with Ithaca, the foxgloves we spotted seemed like young girls, flamboyantly delicate, standing out from the foliage around them, but also susceptible to injury – as a flower can be picked and broken because it is not able to defend itself. When I turned sixteen, in the summer of 1980, I had a short white playsuit that I wore all the time. The bells of the white foxgloves in particular, cupped one on top of the other, brought back to me my own young body within that light cotton, and my unawareness of how I might be perceived.

White foxgloves growing up between the ferns and brambles.

During those teenage years, I faltered in my education, and was harshly judged by those around me as the impact of the abuse started to shape my behaviours and choices, as many young people are still today. Reconnecting with those times made me realise that it was not enough only to publish poems. I also needed to write and speak directly about the experiences held within them to expand the discussion. Children and teenagers who have been subjected to this crime deserve to be understood compassionately and respectfully as they work to reclaim their lives. Creative witness, and the discussion it engenders, are powerful tools for supporting this. Even, and especially, if recovery is necessarily messy and stumbling at times.

View from the path up to Shotover from Risinghurst

To further the work of changing awareness around sexual abuse in childhood, and help generate engagement, I wrote a performance text for Neptune’s Glitter House, which I also recorded as a podcast, exploring adolescence as a time of reclamation for those of us who have been subjected to sexual abuse in childhood. It features live readings of nine of my poems including ‘sea level’, ‘tessellation’, ‘wall painting removed from the house of the surgeon’, ‘mirror’, ‘when they begin to have feathers’, ‘sagittae’, ‘becoming your channel of pearl’ and ‘quadrant’. In addition to the poems themselves, I speak about their contexts, and the subject more generally. These words which are lifted from my introduction to the podcast:

As a bi-queer woman, club culture is something that resonates with me.  I love its strobed shadowiness, and potential for transformations, and discovering new selves through playing with  refractions of your identity.  And of course all that glitter, ironic and otherwise.  When I was a teenager in the late 1970s and early 80s, the time I’m going to explore, punk and two tone gave way to the ruffles and swags of the new romantics, and glitter balls were mainly synonymous with low-fi seaside discos in unfashionable towns, often along hot European coastlines.  There time slowed to a trickle.  Adventures could open into the night like strange flowers.

Poppy photographed growing on wasteland in London this summer.

If you would like to listen to the full podcast, please follow the link below. In terms of safeguarding, be aware that it contains references to the aftermaths of sexual abuse, but opens and closes with poems of healing. If you need support with anything the podcast touches on, the Mind website has valuable links.

Neptune’s Glitterhouse Performance on ‘Reclaiming Adolescence’ : https://t.co/D1WKymRpGu?amp=1

A canopy of new green covering the woodland floor

Following up from recording this podcast, I also wrote a memoir-essay for The Friday Poem website, published in August, which looks closely at four of the teenage poems in bird of winter. Titled ‘I think she is beginning’, (from a comment in my medical notes by the psychiatrist who treated me for anorexia when I was thirteen), this tracks how the poems enact my journey from the darkness of abuse towards the new light of healing. Again, it’s a journey that millions of people around the world are making every day. The essay begins:

Adolescence is seldom tidy or straightforward. Trying to locate ourselves beyond the lives we knew and lived as children gives rise to exploratory behaviours that outsiders can be quick to condemn.   For those of us subjected to the crime of sexual abuse in childhood, the challenges and potential dangers are inevitably greater.  This was my own experience.  My abuser was my mother.   Without appropriate support, the changes of puberty may push us back towards our places of injury, and emotional disassociation.  If we have not been able to articulate or process the original trauma, there is also often little to mitigate the destabilising impact of reconnection with complex energies.

If you would like to read on, the full article can be found here. As before, I refer to the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood, and the Mind website is a valuable source of support should you need any.

Ithaca in rest mode with her ball.

While I write these words in London, beyond the city the woods are moving from the heavy, green vegetation of high summer, towards the very first intimations of autumn. In the next months, leaf fall will reveal the bones of the trees, and the shapes their branches print onto the sky, as their roots co-link underground. Working alone, but with Ithaca close by, I hope what I say here may speak to all of us making strong lives beyond sexual abuse in childhood, and give support to the larger societies within which these works of reclamation and transformation take place, as communities of trees share their resources in order to grow and flourish.

If you would like to buy bird of winter it’s available here: https://uk.bookshop.org/books/bird-of-winter/9781800348691

If you need support via the Mind website please click this link: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/

Reading with Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott introduced by Mona Arshi

I will be reading from bird of winter online on 9 September at 7PM UK time with Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott for Chener books. Tickets are free, but you need to email Chener Books in advance at chenerbookshop@gmail.com.

Flyer advertising Chener Books reading on 9 September with Alice Hiller, Alice Miller and Sarah Westcott

Introducing the bird of winter podcast series: exploring working safely and creatively with difficult materials through discussion and prompts.

cover of bird of winter

Link to bird of winter podcast no 1: finding words to hold things that can be hard to say : https://youtu.be/wnVHd5JR3cQ  It’s part of my commitment to changing awareness through working creatively beyond our places of silence.

How much does it matter what a work of art is ‘about’?  Do we only watch a film to find out what happens at the end?  Or is it to see the actors look towards each other, then drop their gazes? Do we also want to discover how they inhabit the skins of their characters, what landscapes are revealed by the bends in the road, how the mood changes when darkness falls?  All these elements are also the story.  They let us absorb the process of the film, and make us care about its outcome, because they involve us in what happens and why.  By engaging with them, we feel and think along with what we’re watching.  We bring our own imaginations, our own understandings, our own experiences into the mix.  

The same is true for poems.  Although their format is more compressed, it’s not only what the poem ‘says’ that catches us.  Of course that central energy matters.  But also how it is said – and why.  I believe the how and the why are particularly important when we write about our difficult things.  If we’re going to ask a reader, or a listener, to come on board with a complex or challenging topic, we need to help them engage actively, and with imaginative agency.  That way the material is not simply inflicted on them.  They can choose what to make of what rises from the page – and through this exercise a measure of control and safety.   

I founded, and have been facilitating a workshop for poets working with difficult materials since 2017.  It now has over fifty members, and has expanded into the Voicing our Silences website with dynamic sections run by different poets including Maia Elsner, Tamsin Hopkins, Rachel Lewis and Mary Mulholland. Others among our poets also include Romalyn Ante, Isabelle Baafi, Natalie Linh Bolderston, S. Niroshini, Natalie Whittaker,  Arji Manuelpillai, Jeffery Sugarman, Kostya Tsolakis, Joanna Ingham, Julie Irigaray, Wendy Allen, Patrizia Longhitano, Chaucer Cameron, Rochelle Roberts, Dan Fitt-Palmer, Holly Conant and SK Grout – to name but a few. 

As a group, we’ve had many conversations over the years, which have informed and shaped my own poems in bird of winter.  A considerable part of my collection passed through our workshop feedbacks at different stages.  I therefore wanted to use bird of winter’s publication this May by Pavilion Poetry, part of Liverpool University Press, to take some of our group’s and my own thinking around working with difficult materials out into the wider world. As with the Voicing Our Silences website, I hope we can support other people bringing their creative voices into the larger conversation. 

To facilitate this process, I’m launching the bird of winter podcast series. Each podcast includes a discussion and prompt, plus a performance of the poem I explore.  The first podcast is about working with things that live in the gaps and shadows of our lives, and finding words to hold things we find difficult to say. This is something which I know many of us face.  I investigate this theme relative to my title poem, (also called ‘bird of winter’), and specifically the creative strategies I came up with.  Because the poem looks at my experience of being treated in hospital for anorexia aged thirteen, and includes references to psychological vulnerability after sexual abuse in childhood, I have included the full text of the discussion and performance of the poem ‘bird of winter’ below the photo of the seagull. People who have concerns can read it first if they are concerned about being triggered.

If you would rather jump straight in and listen, the podcast is here. It’s auto-captioned and takes 10 minutes : https://youtu.be/wnVHd5JR3cQ

Text of bird of winter podcast no 1: finding words for things we find difficult to say. 

Hello I’m alice hiller, bringing you the bird of winter podcast series. The podcasts explore ways to be playful and adventurous with language, and share strategies for staying safe if you work with difficult materials, like I do.   A a word of warning – this episode mentions sexual abuse briefly, in the context of living beyond this crime as a teenager.  

What I’m going to explore today is finding words to hold things which can be hard to say – because they exist in the gaps and shadows of our lives.  To do this, I’m going to talk about the title poem of my collection.  It centres around meetings with the psychiatrist who admitted me to hospital in 1977, when I was thirteen.  I’d stopped eating, after being subjected to sexual abuse, and needed treatment for anorexia.  When I look back,  these conversations bring together silence and speaking – through the body, as well as with words. 

In 1977, sexual abuse in childhood wasn’t widely recognised, or discussed.  There was no framework for me to say or even think about what my abuser had done.  Aged thirteen, I weighed 28.5 kg, or 4.5 stone.  That’s the average weight for an eight or nine year old.  Seeing me,  the psychiatrist understood that something had gone very wrong.  She began the process of turning my life around, by giving me appropriate care.  

I needed ‘bird of winter’  to communicate her care, but also my experience of not being able to communicate fully with her, and the vulnerability that arose from this.  I also wanted to record what it feels like if your home is not a safe place to live in, when you haven’t yet finished growing up, something many young people face for various reasons.  

After trying out different approaches, I ended up setting short comments and questions from the psychiatrist down one side of the poem. I butted these into silent, unspoken thoughts from my teenage self, taking up the second half of the line. Because we were connected to each other within the therapeutic process, I then moulded our shared lines into an oval or pill shape that held our exchanges in its single, joined space. 

The pill shape made a record on the page of how talking was a key part of the treatment.  It also registered how I couldn’t really speak at the time, partly due to the drugs that were prescribed to help me to eat and sleep. The voice of the poem is fairly flat, almost muffled, suggesting how the drugs numbed my experience of the world while I was in hospital.

bird of winter

This is the text of the poem bird of winter which you can hear read on the podcast link

‘bird of winter’ is also a poem about healing. Seen another way, the oval looks like an egg. This extra layer of meaning matters.  It reflects how being in hospital put a safe shell around me.  Inside this shell, I could start to recover and grow beyond the abuse.  The new alice hatches out  in the poems about my teenage and then adult selves in bird of winter. 

The photo I chose for this podcast is of a gull flying alongside the cross-Channel ferry to Dieppe.  The way the bird stays close to the boat – while remaining free to tilt its wings and lift with the wind, or dive down into the green waves – made me think of how a teenager will progressively claim their independence, until they are strong enough and confident enough to take to the skies of their adult life.

Unlike the 1970s,  there are now positive options in the UK for young people who have been subjected to sexual abuse, to help them recover and feel strong and well. Support is also there for people seeking help in later life, as I did.  The Mind website has valuable links and phone numbers and your doctor can also give you advice. 

If you’d like to try writing something of your own based on how I put the poem together, I’ve created a three stage writing exercise which will come after this. Otherwise, thanks for listening. I’m alice hiller, speaking about my collection bird of winter which is published by Pavilion Poetry and I really appreciate you checking in with this project. 

You can buy bird of winter here, or read more about the project in the side bar.

shadow of alice hiller photographed falling on the sand through a small wave.

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.

Photo 05-08-2020, 15 11 29

‘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.

Photo 05-08-2020, 15 12 28

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.

Photo 05-08-2020, 15 39 21

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:

Photo 05-08-2020, 15 38 53

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.