Note: this blog contains non-explicit references to childhood sexual abuse in a context of witness and healing.
Preparing to travel to St Andrews, in Scotland, for the StAnza Poetry Festival 2022, I flickered between nervousness and excitement. It was my first long trip since October 2019. The traveller in me was thrilled to be seeing new places after so long. But I was going there to speak about ‘Erasure – what cannot be said and how we say it’, alongside Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Maria Stadnicka. Writing respectively about Ireland’s foundling homes, and Romania’s orphanages, and my own childhood experience of being sexually abused, our work does not hesitate to enter complex areas, while being strongly committed to healing through creative witness. I knew the event would be a powerful one, and would need to be approached carefully. I spent the days leading up to departure working on my talk and performance, which you can read at the end of this blog or watch via the video link on the StAnza website which includes Annemarie and Maria’s readings as well.
To reach St Andrews from London meant five and a half hours of constantly changing landscapes, and a succession of passengers sharing the communal table where I was working. Around York, three generations of women settled in beside me, the same beautiful bone structure playing like variations in music across their faces as they laughed and chatted. Later, a mother came with a toddler, who rode firmly standing. He was mainly eating crunchy snacks or wailing the extremely convincing siren on his police car. This repeatedly turned heads down the carriage as we sped through roadless fields. Finally, from Newcastle, a woman whose hair made a waterfall over her face as she fell into peaceful sleep. So many strangers in close proximity, after months of limited contact, felt bewildering – but wonderful.
Towards Berwick upon Tweed, the sea became the train’s companion. Winds had blown away the grey that we left London under, and the waves were turquoise under a blue sky. Beyond Edinburgh, as we sailed through the air over the Forth Bridge, the clouds returned and the sea became shades of pewter and silver. This same wind was blowing hard as we disembarked at Leuchars, then travelled onto St Andrews. It was whipping up the waves as I followed the street on which my guest house stood, down to the sea which lay beyond a fence and low granite cliffs.
After watching events on zoom from London, the live festival began for me with fellow Pavilion poet and former civil rights lawyer, Mona Arshi’s, inaugural address in the auditorium of the Byre Theatre in the centre of town. Mona’s subject was the Nationalities and Borders Bill currently passing through the UK Parliament. If passed into law, it will reverse many of the key tenets of the 1951 agreement on refugee rights. These were put into law following the genocides of the second world war. With examples from poets, and guidance from a barrister who has written on the proposed changes, Mona left her live and online audience in no doubt about the urgent need to protest the bill. She explained that it seeks to criminalise and penalise the seeking of refuge in all but the most narrow and restrictive of circumstances, and make it impossible for people to arrive in England without prior approval, even when the channels for this approval are largely absent.
Why our cultures are so deeply enriched by travel and migration was borne out by the headline event for Friday evening. Kayo Chingonyi, who came to the UK as a child from Gambia, and now lives and teaches in Leeds, and Safiya Sinclair, who originated in Jamaica, but now works and teaches in the USA, shared the stage with the Syrian poet Nouri Al-Jarrah, reading from A Boat to Lesbos. As an audience, we were on the edges of our seats for nearly two hours with a short interval, as you can see if you view the recording via the StAnza website, where Mona’s is also available. At other events, brilliant Irish poets included my fellow Forwards judge Stephen Sexton, Gail McConnell, whose The Sun is Open, was one of my most compelling reads of 2021, and Padraig Regan, whose Some Intensity has just come out with Carcanet.
The following morning the clouds were gone and the skies were blue again. From my room, I could hear the wind was still blowing hard, feathering the sea with a lace of frothed foam. I’d come down to breakfast shaken by the news from Ukraine, and nervous about my own reading. I found Stephanie Sy-Quia already in place, having travelled from France to read from her debut Amnion, which responds to her families’ multiple heritages, reaching around the world from the Philippines through Europe and beyond. Stephanie was followed in short order by the Latinx-British poet Leo Boix, who was performing both his own poems and those he had translated. We were then joined by Saturday and Sunday nights’ headliners, Holly Pester and Luke Kennard. To breakfast amid so much kindness and friendliness was the best possible start to the day.
Then it was time to thread through the streets of granite houses back to the Byre theatre again, to catch Pascale Petit and George Szirtes talking with Yang Lian’s translator about rendering Chinese poetry into English. They discussed the very different structures of the two languages, and also the implications in Yang’s poems of working within a literary tradition that extends back 3000 years. As a bonus, Yian Lian was on hand to comment, and read one of his poems in Mandarin before a Saturday evening showcase. For the travel-starved among us, Pascale and George remembered their own journeys to China to meet Lian, and visit the Forbidden City and Shanghai.
Pascale had mentored me very generously under the Jerwood Arvon scheme when I was finding my feet as a poet. Afterwards, we caught up as we walked her back to her room through sunny St Andrews. Saturday morning shoppers and university students were beginning to head out into the town’s coffee shops, boutiques and ice cream parlours. Next it was back to my room to run through my own reading which was due to begin at 2.00.
To steady myself, I practised my set for an audience of seagulls, who were more interested in launching themselves into the gusting wind from the chimney pots of the rooftops opposite. Within the performance, the poems fall down into my personal underworld of being groomed and then sexually abused as a child, before climbing back up into the light of witness and healing. Reading what I was going to say to a sky of rushing clouds helped anchor what I was going to share into light and life. I wanted to absorb and transmit that energy. I had read, and loved both Annemarie Ní Churreáin and Maria Stadnicka’s work, but finding Annemarie waiting in the auditorium by stage, and Maria guarding us from the screen like an angelic presence, further strengthened my hope that we would be able to create something of value together.
Annemarie opened with the foundling hospitals and mother and baby homes of the Irish state, remembering those who had brought their babies there because they had no other options. Helping us feel their great loss, and the loss also for Ireland as a nation, Annemarie set it within the larger wound of the country’s forcible colonisation. She also reached back into an early, mythological past to create songs of healing. Maria Stadnicka’s work is likewise a place where institutional and state actions are examined – through the impacts on Romania’s population of Ceausescu’s and the Communist party’s rule. Specifically the ban on abortions, and the resultant filling of state orphanages, where over 10,000 children would contract HIV Aids. Like Annemarie, her work engages with great compassion, as well as creative strength, in bringing neglected experiences to the page and through this into our lives.
And then it was my turn, to introduce and then perform the full sequence of the erasure poems in bird of winter. As I mentioned, you can see the video of us all, on the Stanza Poetry website until 31 March. To speak out of my childhood darkness into the light and warmth of the Byre Theatre felt like an act of profound transformation. Closing, I led a safeguarding exercise where we could join together, to honour the space we had made between us by our co-participation in the works shared by Annemarie, Maria and I.
Once the event was over, and the book signings and warm conversations with the audience were all done, Annemarie and I realised how very urgently we needed coffee and cake to put ourselves back together. Heading out with our StAnza chair Robyn Marsack, we were stopped short by a broad rainbow. `It was rising like a realised wish up over the blue sea, that lay at the end of the street down which we were heading. In that moment, it seemed as if the light we had created together through our readings had assumed a visible form.
Annemarie’s and my conversation was as warm as it was nurturing. After, I wanted to get myself out into the sea air and feel the hugeness of the beach backed by dunes. Walking across the sands, lit by runnels of water holding the last of the light, that sense of being supported by the living world stayed with me as the sun dropped and the sky dimmed to the glimmering purples and greys of a Scots mid March dusk. The following morning, before and after seeing Emily Berry and Fiona Benson perform for the Poetry Book Society showcase, I discovered the ruined cathedral and stone-walled harbour, and climbed down onto the small enclosed beach below the ruins of the castle, where the water swirled in over the coarse granite sand and luxuriant seaweed.
I had slept fitfully, still caught up in the energies of the places my poems had opened, but being out in the North Sea air dissipated those memories and helped me re-enter the present more fully. Boarding the train south again, albeit with considerable regret, I took with me the certain knowledge that, through the sharing of our work, Annemarie NíáChurreáin, Maria Stadnicka and I had brought about an alchemical transformation that we and our audience would carry forward into new adventures.
Below you can read the text of my performed set at StAnza, together with recordings of the individual erasures. Play them by clicking on the title as you read through. The video will be available until 31 March here:
If anything you read is difficult for you, the Mind website has valuable resources.
Erasure: what we cannot say and how we say it : text of performance by alice hiller
Is it possible to translate silencing back into sound? To voice complex experiences, we need first to access them. As some of you know, bird of winter, offers creative witness to my childhood experience of being groomed and then sexually abused by my mother, but also of finding healing beyond this crime. Like many, who share my history, the impact of what was done to me meant I wasn’t able to talk about the abuse until my thirties.
When I came to write about it in my fifties, through bird of winter, I found that making hand erasures created scratch cards through to my unconscious, and allowed some of the toughest, but also most needed, poems onto the page. The erasures also generated the fractured narrative spine of the collection, as I’m going to show you, by reading them in sequence.
Before that, I’ll say briefly how they came into being. All bird of winter’s erasures grow from texts about Pompeii and Herculaneum, which have absorbed me since childhood. As an adult, the eruption of Vesuvius, and subsequent, laborious excavations of materials buried under the volcanic rock and ash, became central to how I understand the slow, often dangerous, recovery of my buried past.
Each of the erasures I’ll read was generated over a day, circling words and phrases, and blacking out, allowing the poem to emerge. I was letting my eye see, my hand move – before my mind could censor. Working through texts read by many people, over the centuries, also gives communal witness to this global crime, which impacts millions of us.
Visually, the erasures in bird of winter ask the reader to hopscotch from phrase to phrase. But even as the islands of words travel towards revelation and reclamation, they co-exist with the blacked out passages witnessing the unarticulated materials which are also present. Reading today, I’ll tread carefully, to keep us all safe. If anything I speak about is difficult for you, the Mind website is a good place to go. I’ll close with a short, grounding exercise, to bring us all securely back into the present. In the meantime, if in doubt, keep breathing!
Erasure is of course a function of trauma. Our brains conceal or remove what is too dangerous for us to bear, especially when traumatic events occur when there is no support, as happens in the poem, ‘black river’, remembering my childhood.
when the fingers came
at night your weeds rose up
when the rocks arrived
you rushed my brain’s sluices
when the day returned
no hurt could surface
‘the stupendous task’, my first erasure in bird of winter, directly answers ‘black river’. From Herculaneum, Past Present and Future, it takes Charles Waldenstein’s demand for excavation of the site as the collection’s manifesto and call to arms:
The second erasure, ‘destruction impact landscape’ grew from the poet Martial’s account of the eruption of Vesuvius. As it took shape, I realised the poem held its own before and after, divided at a midpoint, like mirrored reflections. Taken together they signal that something is not destroyed merely because it is attacked.
The next erasure, ‘gardens fountains’, combines Columella’s and Flores’ descriptions of Pompeii and Herculaneum before the eruption. Explorations of trauma often focus on the aftermath of the crime. It was important also to witness the unhurt place, or indeed the innocence of a child’s body, where ‘spring flowers blossom twice’:
From this stronghold of beauty, we drop hard down into an underworld of darkness. The next erasure, ‘eyewitness’ emerges out of a Times article from 1863. Describing two figures revealed by pouring plaster into the voids left in the ash that fell over Pompeii, it also gave me a way to show my mother and I in her bed. Like the excavations, these plaster casts are central to bird of winter’s understanding of how artworks manifest out of voids or absences, and make visible what otherwise remains unseen.
Coming next, ‘remove the solidified mix’, responds to the difficulties of creating bird of winter. It began as a description of tunnelling down to the Villa dei Papyri during the eighteenth century in Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure. This work was often undertaken by convicts and forced labourers because of its risk.
What happened down one of those eight hundred dark tunnels is documented in ‘and now came the ashes’, erased from a letter by Pliny the Younger. His description of Vesuvius erupting becomes also my mother and my eight year old self in a cottage in Wiltshire. I was given permission by Pavilion to reproduce this erasure which you can see and then hear below:
As you’ll see, the lineation of the poem breaks down at its centre point, as my own life did following my father’s death in 1972. Indeed, beyond the word “death”, there is no single or clear path forward, playing out how trauma refuses a conclusive act of narration but in its fragmentation draws us back and back.
‘and now came the ashes’ is spoken by my child self, but bird of winter is in fact a dialogue between past and present. Immediately afterwards, the sexual abuse I experienced is revisited in ‘this happened during winter’, erased from Seneca the Younger’s Natural Questions. Here, my adult self asks the reader for their empathetic engagement within a process of transformation:
From this shared, mutually supported place, reader or listener and speaker can take their final steps down into the darkness of the repeated rape of a child by an adult, which is at the heart of bird of winter. ‘Gladiatorial training school’ works through an excavation report from 1766 to open a pathway to the deepest substrate of memory.
In “the hole/ the/ bolt/ passed” the secret assault by which my abuser controlled and subjugated me is finally out on the page. From there, only one more erasure is needed to guide us together, back up into the light. It’s from Fiorelli’s 1830 account of entering the ‘House of the Faun’, with additional words by classicists Alison E. Cooley, and M.G.L. Cooley.
As I end, I would like you all to place your feet firmly on the ground. Take some slow, comfortable breaths, in and out, holding in mind that “decoration/ in the shape of dogs/ gilded protecting deities/ with various colours and with gold leaf.” Breathing comfortably, we are passing together up from the underworld. Greeting us is “a large festoon of flowers and fruit” created by our mutual solidarity – online and in this physical space.
Where silence is refused, healing can come.
Thank you all for travelling with me today.
When we stand together, we stand strong.
The full source details of the erasures are credited in bird of winter. My deepest thanks to those writers whose works I have used.
Thanks to Dr. Katie Ailes for the final photo.