Sharon Olds : Trauma and the Secreted Self

 

How can art made in the present re-engage with past experience? The question has a particular urgency for works responding to severe trauma – because their task is to bring into the reader’s domain material that may seem incomprehensible, and therefore alienating.

Sharon Olds signs up for this challenge in ‘How It Felt’ – published in the April issue of Poetry. [1] The poem’s business is the severe beatings experienced in the first twelve years of the speaker’s life, when “my breasts-to-be/ accordion-folded under the skin of my chest”.

In a similar way to how Fiona Benson’s translation of rape in ‘[Zeus] Anatomical Dolls’[2], conjures “details under their pants you wouldn’t believe” – Olds’ description confers a de-familiarising strangeness on the pre-pubescent body, and through this lays down a marker for the qualities of resistance and survival that ‘How it Felt’ explores.

Organised into four continuous free verse sentences – respectively 12, 5, 5, and 13 lines long – ‘How It Felt’ opens with gestures of folding and unfolding as the speaker states “Even if I still had the clothes I wore,/ the clothes would take off before my mother / climbed the stairs towards me: [….] I think I could not get back to how/ it felt.”

The clothes themselves form Proustian receptacles of memory – a marvellous “glassy / Orlon[3] sweater”, smocked, sashed dresses, and the “cotton / underwear like a secret friend.” Registering the innocence of the child who wore them, the clothes also bear out the resonance of even the smallest details in childhood, whether good, or bad.

‘How It Felt’s second sentence questions whether the difficulty of return hinges on the changes brought about by the gap of years between ‘then’ and ‘now’, or the alterations effected by each beating.

 

I study the stability
of the spirit – was it almost I who came back
out of each punishment,
back to a self which had been waiting, for me,
in the cooled-off pile of my clothes?

The fracturing recognised as inherent to trauma is here posited as a strategy of survival – as if the clothes themselves anchor their wearer to the upper world no matter where her naked body may have been taken by her mother.

Having gifted both reader, and speaker, the ‘safe place’ of the “cooled-off pile” from which to inhabit the action, the poem then drops down into its core, which is held within the third sentence.

As for the
condition of being beaten, what
was it like: going into a barn, the animals
not in stalls, but biting and shitting, and
parts of them on fire?

Where better to site the betrayal that is an assault by a parent on a child than in the farmyard – traditionally the source of life-giving nourishment? With a terrifying doubleness, which embodies a world where all safe boundaries have melted, the animals are both abuser and abused – beater and the beaten. Because we cannot determine whether the “biting” and the “shitting” figure the acts of desecration and violation of the beating, or the terrified attempts at self-defence of the child/animal/victim, meaning oscillates in a moment of continuous horror.

After making a form of expression for the experience of being severely beaten – by holding it within a sequence of imagery which bears witness and makes it accessible to a wider audience – the poem concludes by working towards a final thirteen line sequence of tentative redemption.

Having the speaker check herself “10 fingers, 10 toes”, and also “whatever I had where we were / supposed to have a soul”, the poem shows this act of self-cognisance, and bodily reclaiming, as the gateway to the child’s final, hesitating, speculation that “in some / tiny chamber my mother could not / enter – or did not enter – I had not been changed.”

Veteran excavator of personal history, Olds in this poem speaks beyond herself to the millions, past and present, attacked as defenceless children. She offers them a form of language which has the capacity to interrogate, and illuminate, the “ground” of their being – and still find a safe way home.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/146221/how-it-felt

[2] published in the Spring issue of Poetry Review

[3] a durable, synthetic fibre, introduced during the 1950s, capable of holding its shape, and taking richly coloured dyes.

 

Our launch line up – 4th November 6pm at the Poetry Cafe

Anna Kisby is a poet to follow – her work is as delicious to consume as it is fierce in its energy and critiques. Anyone with £5.00 to spare should invest it in ‘All the Naked Daughters’ from Against the Grain and buy themselves the privilege of spending time with a deeply interesting, original mind whose thought enacts itself in visceral, radiant close-up.

Against the Grain Poetry Press

Launch

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Art as hope

Last Saturday I spent two hours in a Word Factory workshop with writer and community artist Dave Lordan.  He spoke about the ways in which his online podcasts and videos are widening the access base of his work.  16,000 people have so far logged onto a recent filmed poem – as opposed the few hundred who might buy a book.

Hearing Dave speak made me feel as if walls round the houses of art were dissolving like barley sugar, allowing work to reach hungry people who would never experience it through the established channels.

For someone who wants to change understanding around sexual abuse through the art I make, this was a powerful experience.  Right now the world seems like an increasingly harsh place. Being able to connect with people who have the potential to be informed or nourished by what you have to give is good news.

Below is a photograph of ‘Humanity’, a sculpture which my father-in-law, the sculptor Oscar Nemon, made to commemorate victims of the Holocaust.  They included his own mother, brother and grandmother.  It was unveiled in 1967 in Osijek, in Croatia, from where they and their fellow citizens were deported.

Nemon created ‘Humanity’ as a piece of public work and an act of resistance to genocide.  He wanted to bear witness to what had been taken from the town, and the world. It was a composition that he sketched and worked on for two decades. Creating the sculpture sustained him through dark years. It sustains everyone who stands beside the mother as she lifts her child to the future, hoping for better times.

If you want to know more about Oscar Nemon, his website is http://www.oscarnemon.org.uk

Heredity Park.

Two poems about anorexia

 

For many years I wanted to write about anorexia. But every door handle I turned came off in my hands, and I was left on the outside. Eventually, poetry gave me a way in.

When I stopped eating in 1977 there was no social media or internet. I hadn’t heard of the condition. After nearly four and a half years of being sexually abused, I made the decision to refuse food in order to take control of my entrances and exits.

Although I wouldn’t have been able to say this, I also believed that my body had forfeited the right to be fed as a result of what it had participated in. To starve it would be to clean myself.

There was additionally a pleasure in saying no. I remember liking food with defined edges like oatcakes and fruits with hard borders like oranges – as if by eating them I could grow my own rind.

The decision came upon me all at once when we were staying in a rented holiday apartment near Stranraer in Scotland at Easter. It was entirely white and modern. Outside there were deep green pine trees and blue lochs. It seemed as if the world had become a different place and I could choose my own path through it.

My feeling of empowerment was heightened by the copy of History Today that Mrs Webb, my teacher, had lent me. An adult publication, it made no concessions for nearly teenage readers.   I remember holding it in my hands and thinking ‘I can follow this. I am someone.’

To enact my decision, when we went shopping for food I bought myself two flat stick figures of a man and a woman. They were facing each other, connected by his peg penis that slotted into her wooden midriff.

The first thing I refused to eat after buying the tiny 2cm dolls was white mashed potato. I can still see the undefined, helpless mound it made on my plate.

Over the next six months, my weight dropped to four and a half stone and fine down grew all over my body, which began to resemble that of a concentration camp victim. When I went back to boarding school for the autumn term, the nurse weighed me daily.

I used to get up at five in the morning, unable to sleep for hunger, and alternately pace the wooden boards of the single room I had been moved to, and get down on my bony knees to pray. I felt I had been given a direct line to God, who would soon be lowering the ladder up which I could climb to Heaven.

It was only when I was admitted to hospital, at my school’s insistence, that I discovered that there could be a way out which didn’t involve my death.

 

The two draft poems which follow are designed to be printed one after another so that ‘salvation’ lies under ‘almanac’ as a reminder of all the bodies of all the children and young people who starve themselves.

 

almanac

that April when I first
refused her I shut
my mouth
to mashed potatoes

we went in June
to France for half-term
at her insistence I
ate pintade

like a raptor
she flew
at my first hairs
my new breasts

come August my skeleton
walked backwards
she watched me
from her deckchair

that September I spoke
with God directly
soon I’d step off the school
scales straight to heaven

the headmistress sent
me home in October
hospital pills melted
my mind like tallow

come November
I ate from plates
as big as straw hats
when Dr Daly said

 ‘Alice, you’re not your mother’
like fruit which the knife opens

it peeled off my old self

———-

anorexia nervosa

I have no place

at the table

I erase
until           all

I

am         is

gone

 

Pintade means guinea fowl in French.

 

Thanks to Ellen Crannitch’s ‘Fresh Approaches’ workshop members at the Poetry School to whom I read these drafts.

Travelling back to my Dad

Like many people who live through sexual abuse as a child, for many years I was deeply ashamed of myself. This shame had the effect of cancelling most of my memories of my dad, who died before the abuse began. It was as if by blanking out his love for me – I could keep it clean and separate from the child I became after his death.

Until I began to work with a psychotherapist in my thirties, all that came up when I thought of my dad was a few brief glimpses of him, amid a general blankness. Though our conversations helped give them definition, they were still isolated mountain peaks rising from thick, grey mist.

It was only when I began to make album without photos that I began to see the hills and fields of our daily life as father and daughter that the mist had been covering. This work is still on-going.

I am working on a poem about a photo my grandmother kept beside her bed. My dad holds me on my christening day. I haven’t seen the photo for thirty years, but I can still see his smile. It radiates joy and pride. Another poem is about when he came to my bedroom window early one holiday morning, with a creel full of shrimps fished on the beach for our tea.

When I draft and redraft, it is somewhere between sewing and darning. As I find the words, I join myself back together, thread by thread, stitch by stitch.

Last June, shortly before the Brexit vote, I made a daytrip to Brussels, where we were living at the time of my father’s death in 1972. I was eight then.

I took the Metro from the Eurostar the church where his funeral was held. It was a weekday and empty. Where had been a mass of flowers and noise and people, was quiet, maybe a little shabby.

Immediately I walked up the nave, I had a sensation of being surrounded by warmth and safety. By making this pilgrimage, forty-four years later, I somehow set free the part of myself which had locked away what my dad’s love actually felt like.

Sitting in the pew I last sat in with his coffin right in front of me, close enough to touch, I became again my daddy’s Aly. I was a whole child, as well as an adult making a life as best I could in the aftermath of severe trauma.

That memory has served as a compass ever since. It informed my decision to share my own process of self-recovery through writing, in this blog. My journey is one that many people who have been sexually abused in childhood need to find a way to make for themselves, in order to reclaim the identities which should have been theirs from the start.

Below is ‘odyssey’, which I’m still writing about this experience.

odyssey

too high for my hands
you move in your orbit
lost under lilies
your loved face hides

daddy if I heard your voice
would you know me
hoist white heart sails
my ship of matchsticks

eurostar to brussels
slide into the platform
shut nave turn your key
rapportes-moi où j’étais

daisy june morning
jackhammer november
jelly down crusher rocks
I will shoot through you

 

*

church roof apex
tree song hymn place
jesus hang velvet dress
tears of not crying

bodies packed like chocolates
air of perfume prayer books`
before here always Sunday
now the lord is my shepherd

 tight-rope forwards
wind gift dips under me
oak gleam petal flowers
gold glitter handles

 big voice vicar
goodbye daddy
inside long box
quiet as pencil

 no more wheelchair man
no more floppy legs
no more electric motor fast on grass
no more run beside you

 from me night gone
iron lung breathing
wibbly drawing intensive care
you in bed from sideways

 DADDY SAYS HELLO ALY
I can write better
home before morning break
mummy on green sofa

spray again belly self
float out wind kiss
sea-saw arm fall
soft cotton daddy shoulders

 tip toe bristle feet
hairs read vibration
set down wet sand
six-eye swivel

 silver water wind ruffle
jump splish splosh
watch out slippy green
sea smell gull song

 heavy in big water net
me with daddy pushing
tired legs salt sting
mermaid up cliff carried

 

lie along nursery dark
sheets shiver hot nylon
baby brother sleep tight
scare-me shapes move closer

 big hand push back fringe
kind fingers stroke soft
lighthouse daddy strong as rock
here to save your aly

 

*

in dead body church
warm shawl cuddle
kindness thick as soup
come to feed this kitten

 

With thanks to Tim Dooley, Catherine Smith, John Mee and Emma Mackilligin who have all read this in various drafts.

Kicking off the year of #UNshame

When you’re fifty-two, you don’t expect to get lucky. Life has given you enough knocks to know to take it steady. The day I heard I’d been short-listed for the Jerwood-Arvon Poetry Mentorship – I didn’t believe it.

When I got to the interview, I had forty-five minutes to talk about my work to poet Pascale Petit and Joe Bibby from Arvon. I told them I wanted to change awareness around sexual abuse in childhood through the poems in albums without photos.

With every word I said, the world around me seemed to get larger, and more full of possibility. Not just for myself, but for other people making lives, as I am, in the aftermath of sexual abuse.

Back home, I sat stunned, holding the dog, and not seeing the TV. I could hardly take it in when Joe Bibby rang the next day to say I’d been selected.  My year of #UNshame was kicking off.

There was a week to send Pascale Petit twenty new poems, and get the beloved dog taken care of, before the initial retreat with the other eleven mentees at Totleigh Barton in Devon on 13 March 2017.

Irrespective of age, everyone seemed as shell-shocked as me when we wound our way through the tight, green Devon lanes. Waiting in a cup in the hills was the white walled, thatched manor house which we would make our collective home for the next five days.

Our welcome cream tea was served at a long refectory table in the wooden beamed dining hall which doubled as workshop. Every footstep we took, floorboards seemed to creak around us.

It was as if the house was bound together with threads of sound. In the days that followed, as poets, novelists and playwrights ate and talked, and work-shopped and walked together, it came to seem as if we were also becoming connected to each other by our shared hopes, experiences and ambitions.

On our first night, we had to introduce what we were working on. Under the rafters of the great barn, I explained that my collection of poems, album without photos, brought together things which couldn’t be seen or recorded any other way.

I said I wanted to document the process of being groomed as a child, and the sexual abuse that followed, but also the life that I have made, and am making, in its wake.

On our last night, we had to perform five minutes of our work to each other. My opening poem, ‘december night’ was a summoning to my child self to be with us at the reading.

The reaction I saw on everyone’s faces let me know that she was indeed with us. I read what I had written about being groomed on the night train to Victoria, about how it felt after my dad died, about what a school run was like when it took you back to the bed in which you would be abused.

My child self stayed with us as I finished with a poem about starving myself to freedom. I had also spoken for other voiceless children for whom I want to bear witness as I chart my way through my mentorship year towards the completion and publication of album without photos.

 The evening, and the week, ended on a note of euphoria generated by the news that the novelists’ mentor, Jacob Ross, had won the inaugural Jhalak prize. We couldn’t believe that he had chosen to sit listening to us all read when he could have been at the awards ceremony in London.

It may have been raining outside, but Jacob’s win filled the vast space of the barn with applause and exuberance until it seemed as if we were swimming in champagne with a fireworks display of flashbulbs saluting him.