I’m guessing the fact that you’re here online means that you don’t just enjoy reading poetry – you also like to read about it. Me too. In fact, sometimes I enjoy it even more than poetry itself. The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukeyser is a case in point.
I first read this book on an overnight bus in Spain. My recall of it is bound up with travel sickness, people dozing in a low yellow glow, the shadows of mountains outside. That book spoke to me at the deepest level; and its message – that poetry is a vital element of personal and societal change – is imprinted in me in ways I’m still making sense of.
Listen to this:
“I think now of a boat on which I sailed away from the beginnings of a war. It was night time, and over the deep fertile sea of night, the voices of people talking quietly; some lights of the sea coast, faraway; some stars.
This was the first moment of stillness in days of fighting. We had seen the primitive beginnings of the open warfare of this period: men running through the silver groves; the sniper whose gun would speak, as the bullet broke the wall beside you; a child staring upward at a single plane. More would come; in the city, the cars burned and the blood streamed over the walls of houses and the horses shrieked; armies formed and marched out; the gypsies, the priests in their purity and violence fought. Word from abroad was coming in as they asked to meet in the Summer leafy square, and told us what they knew. They had seen how, as foreigners, we were deprived; how we were kept from, and wanted, above all things one: our responsibility.
This was a stroke of insight: it was true. “Now you have your responsibility”, the voice said, deep, prophetic, direct, “go home: tell your people what you have seen”.
Go home: tell your people what you have seen. That sentence runs through the centre of my life.
Now consider these words from Anna Ahkmatova:
“During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’. On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear (everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face”.
We have an obligation to talk about what we have seen. And poetry gives us a uniquely powerful way of doing so. During this residency, I’ll be explaining how my ongoing work with photographs of patients in the closing days of the Rainhill psychiatric hospital is informed by those beliefs.
I wrote the poem below in response to The Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. In it, Sara engages with silence as a positive but undervalued experience, pursuing her goal of total silence from the Yorkshire moors, to the Outer Hebrides, to the Sahara. It’s a beautifully written book, but it left me with the sense that while there are times in my life when I value peace, I can not accept silence. Because I can’t imagine how this noisy world can ever be truly silent. And maybe even more importantly, even if there was such a thing as true silence, I wouldn’t want it.
I do not believe in silence.
Because, tonight –
however I try – I cannot get downstairs
without waking my daughter
I do not believe in silence.
Because of the Warboys enquiry,
because of the one hundred-plus women he raped –
because of the policeman defending the findings
unable to utter the word –
“this (herrrrm) crime, this (ahem)
assault, this category (cough)
of offence” –
I do not believe in silence
because of the stairs and the banister’s crack;
the sound of the lock
and my hand on the door – the fifty-tone creak –
the magnificent echo of light-switch and click –
I do not believe in silence.
Because of Neda – and everyone’s sister –
and the man who said ‘Don’t be afraid’;
for the sake of my daughter, because of the burkha,
because of the patter of rain;
because of two hundred-thousand years of human history,
thirty-seven of them my own –
I do not believe in silence
for the sake of my arms, the wrists especially.
With respect to my legs
and my belly and chest
and the comfort long due to my throat
because of nightclubs at one am
and shouts in the street and feet in pursuit
and shops that don’t shut;
because of sirens and the dealers downstairs;
because of Levi and Akhmatova;
because of the blue-lipped prisoner;
the itch and the scratch of my pen;
I believe in the word.
I believe in the scrabble of claws
on uncarpeted floors.
I believe in my daughter’s complaints.
I believe in the violin, the E-string,
the see-sawing bow; the cello
straining its throat.
I believe in the heart and its beat
and its beep and the dance of the trace
on the screen, I believe in the volume
of colour turned up, and my blood
which was always too loud.
Because of the nights, and the sweats,
and the same rowdy thoughts;
because that one afternoon
when I nailed my own voice to the air
and because there was nobody listening
and through it all
and the sound of cars passing –
I do not believe in silence.
(from Head On (2012), Bloodaxe)
Because silence does my head in.
Because the world is beautiful precisely because it is full of noise and colour and mess and motion.
Because this world is too full of cruelty and we should never be silent about cruelty.
Because of the harm silence did to me.
As a child, I was instructed – very directly – not to talk about how I felt and thought. At home, horrible things went unnamed and unacknowledged. Emotions were hidden and denied. At school and church, autonomous thought was crushed by faith; desire was stifled by shame. Though I read widely, I lacked the most basic language to describe my own reality; and the most basic sense of entitlement to begin to acquire or express it. The silence ran deep and wide.
Without the ability to give experiences a verbal form, we lay them down within ourselves at the darkest level – somewhere at the level of what we call the unconscious, beyond rationality and our ability to make sense of them, the trauma and lasting hurt.
But as Gwyneth Lewis says – “I speak six different tongues/ so keeping mum isn’t an option”. People are very clever. Even in the most oppressive of situations, they find a way of speaking out. They speak out in words, in actions, by what they do, or don’t do, to themselves and other people. They speak out by being silent. Psychiatric hospitals are full of people speaking out – in the most powerful ways they can, about what has happened to them and how it has made them feel.
Just think for a moment about what an injury says to us. At its most simple, a wound says “I am hurt”. “I am in pain”. “I need help”. I used self-injury as a powerful and compelling way of making my needs and feelings real, visible and tangible.
Sadly, a message is only as loud as those who listen. I told the story of my childhood and adolescence to a group of mental health workers who asked me “So for all of those years, did you not try to tell anyone what was going on for you?” I starved myself, I stole, I vomited, I cut myself, I banged my head, I wore black, I overdosed, I beat myself up, I wrote unhappy poetry, I listened to Leonard Cohen. How much more loudly could I have spoken?
Psychiatric hospitals and prisons are loud with language, in all its forms. Verbal, written, physical, visceral and visible. But for centuries, that language has gone unheard. There are few ways of invalidating someone’s opinions, experiences and thoughts more effectively than by calling them “mad”. Psychiatric patients – especially those subject to forcible detention and treatment; and those detained in secure psychiatric services – are amongst the most silenced peoples in this country.
I used self-injury to ‘talk’ about what I’d experienced, and to express the distress I was feeling; I was also asking for compassion and care. Instead of being heard, I was described – like many people who self-injure – as “manipulative”, “attention-seeking” and “personality disordered”. Mad. I was treated with forcible detention, constant observation, and medication. I was written off.
I do not believe in silence. I believe in telling what you have seen. I believe in the political imperative to speak out about silenced issues, especially – but not exclusively those that have affected me. To speak on behalf of the silenced. I am motivated by a deep belief in – if not the obligation, then the ability – bearing witness, particularly to that which would otherwise go unacknowledged.
We speak out because it is the right thing. For us, and for the world. And because in poetry, we have a uniquely powerful vehicle for giving form to those realities which might otherwise go beyond words.
In poetry we don’t only have words; and their entire social and political history. We have their landscape and the rise and fall of every letter. We have the cultural and personal histories inscribed there; the associations, the connotations. We have those words in their infinite combinations. We have breath, texture, shape, rhythm, space, song, pattern, geometry. We have line-break and stanza and lay-out and form; we have music. We have the silence between words and what is whispered within it. We have the scream of the white page; the world of negative space. We have the entire language of punctuation; the precise personality of the full stop; the gentle, steady semi-colon, the careless comma, the impudent dash. In that visceral, textured world of poetry I can write from every part of myself – heart, body, brain, guts – through a deep immersion in the particular reality I want to convey.
I write by Selima Hill’s words, “Go naked into the shower of truth”, whatever that truth might be. Part-unconscious, part-intellect; part-alchemy, part-sculpture; born of sheer graft and stormy weather – poetry can carry us whole-bodied into the breath-taking, nuanced, scouring, scourging nature of realities we might otherwise never find ourselves inside.
Three sequences published by three women this year – Choman Hardi’s ‘Anfal’; Kim Moore’s ‘How I abandoned my body to his keeping’; and Pascale Petite’s ‘Fauverie’ – give us the most compelling examples of this. All write with tremendous skill and intelligence, they immerse themselves in the truth of those experiences they describe. Their writing resounds with integrity; their creativity is harnessed to a rare passion and urgency. I cannot imagine this being born in anything other than the lived realities of rage and fear and grief, as well as the lived necessity of survival and hope. All give a meaningful, communicable shape to the most intractably painful and complex experiences. All allow us, for a short period of time, to walk their shoes; and in doing so, to be more completely human; more completely ourselves.
Pascale speaks about the experience of nursing her abusive father in the final stages of a terminal illness; Kim writes about a violent domestic relationship. Though the two writers are very different in tone and style, they both draw heavily on the metaphor as way of meeting unbearable reality sideways. In the words of Emily Dickinson, they “tell all the truth but tell it slant”; and in this way, they render it inhabitable – at times, even exhilaratingly knowable.
Choman adopts a very different strategy. As a Kurdish woman who, with her family, was forced to flee from Saddam Hussein’s murderous regime, she spent several years as a doctoral student speaking to survivors of the Anfal genocide. In her sequence, she ventriloquises these survivors – speaking in their voices, telling their stories. There is little need for metaphor in these poems. This truth is met head-on, largely unmediated by metaphor or simile. Imagery is minimal. The tone is often deliberately flat; emulating the flattened tone of the deeply traumatised. Informed by her own experiences, driven by a passion for social change, fuelled in a shared and collective identity, Choman reaches into and beyond herself in an act of true empathy to talk directly from the lives of others. She walks their path; they talk to us directly through her.
Speaking in voices other than our own – what I cam calling ‘ventriloquism’ in poetry – opens us tremendous creative opportunities for all of us. We step outside of ourselves, view our own reality from new perspectives and are invited into realities beyond our own. In doing this, we change ourselves and our worlds. On my Open Workshop this December 2nd-9th, I’ll be working with CAMPUS poets to explore how you might harness this approach in your own work.
But before we do this, I want to consider some of the ethical and practical complexities inherent in ventriloquism, it’s way of opening ourselves to new understandings, but also the possibility that when we speak in someone else’s voice, we effectively silence them – by imposing our own voices, our own perspectives and priorities, on their realities. How do we find the right balance? Described by Moniza Alvi as “Compelling poetry of international significance”, Choman’s ‘Anfal’ sequence is possibly the most powerful example of how ventriloquism in poetry can successfully give voice to the voiceless. Next week, by the power of modern technology, I’ll be talking to Choman in Iraqi Kuristan about this – and about how she engages with the ethical dilemmas and difficulties of speaking in other people’s voices, about other people’s experiences. See you there.