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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Underlay text of ‘je suis son petit chat’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further exploration: four books and StAnza Festival

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

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

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

 

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