At thirteen the sudden impact of poetry overwhelmed me, in the powerful voices of those doomed young poets of the First World War like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who survived the trenches long enough to evoke their hellish experience. A new world of language unfolded as the poems of John Keats and John Donne inspired and moved me. When I read Sylvia Plath I realised that women too could write about life with such heartbreaking eloquence. My own early poems arose from the pain of being fourteen, with feelings too vast and improbable for ordinary language to express. Although I was already writing fiction, I found that I had a different voice when I wrote poetry. It was at times lyrical and melodic, beating out in its heartfelt rhythm the stanzas of my inner elegy. At other times it was rough-edged, raw and brutal with its honesty. Above all, it was intensely personal. I look back on now with affection for that girl I used to be.
COMING TO TERMS
I abandoned the poetic form at seventeen and focused on writing short stories and novels for publication - a prolific outpouring that brought a degree of success and acclaim that lasted throughout my twenties and thirties. The vast and improbable feelings hit me again in my thirties, during the agonising death throes of my marriage, and a sequence of poems later entitled 'Coming to Terms' evolved between 1979 and 1987. I never sought to publish these poems, and showed them only to a limited audience of friends and lovers, both at the time and in the years since.
IMAGERY BEYOND TIME
I realised all over again that the poems came from a different voice in me. My stories were sometimes darkly humorous, smiling wryly at the predicament of being human. When I fell in love with a photographer, in 1986, I saw that my poems were like black and white shots of empty rooms, desolate beaches, a story that could only be hinted at in the expression on a face, or the curved droop of a defeated hand. Years later, when I fell in love with an artist, I saw that my poems were like pictures, imagery beyond time of a captured poignant moment, resonant with significance.
THE VOICE THE SOUL RECOGNISES
They still speak in that voice the soul recognises as its memory of love and loss – as well as the remembrance of joy, passion and realisation. In later years I added to the original collection, having by then lived through very different events from those that stirred me when I was younger. The more mature poet’s voice reflects some of the wisdom and self-acceptance acquired along the way.
THAT PLACE OF SUFFERING AND UNCERTAINTY
Some of my later poems came directly from a place of suffering and uncertainty, while undergoing a prolonged period of illness. Others were forged in the crucible of intimate relationship, or were inspired by other people’s journeys, and by art. A core belief in the transcendent nature of the soul has continually underpinned my life, and this has been reflected in my work as a therapist as well as a writer.
THE ALTAR OF INTIMACY
I am sharing with you here poems that demonstrate the changing nature of my experience of self and my shifting focus through different ages and stages of my life. Some of them deserve an explanation, in which to place them in the context of my journey. With others you may easily construe the circumstances out of which they arose – or perhaps I prefer to leave you guessing, knowing that you will have had similar feelings, and the fine details are best left to your imagination. For all of us, our lives are experienced as a narrative, a story into which we wake and which continues to unfold – often apparently beyond our control or understanding. Like most of us, I have been blessed with both magnificent and disastrous experiences of relationship. I have loved richly and deeply, and sometimes foolishly. I have suffered and exulted at the altar of intimacy. I have learned many lessons, and forgotten them, then been reminded once again that love with all its complexity and many contradictions exacts a price. The thread connecting all of it has been my ability to be fully present to life, to seize the moment, and to recognise it for what it is.
Written when I was 16, for my friend Vicki, after visiting her in a Psychiatric Hospital, where she was undergoing electric shock treatment. She was subsequently diagnosed as schizophrenic, and eventually died, aged 18.
The neurotic wakes to a world of drifting shadows,
people she does not like, people she knows
are strange and powerful, and very mad,
their every murmur making her feel sad.
A part of their world, and yet not one of them,
she is aware of her unhappiness, wonders when
the treatment will begin to work for her.
A memory of her former life begins to stir
behind the mists that block away her mind
from the reality. In time she’ll find
she’ll grow quite used to being thus protected
from the myriad of problems she’s rejected.
This life is easier, waking up to days
of simple and uncomplicated ways
of mere existence, while reality is but a dream,
and this, the make-believe, is, it would seem
to her the truth, although to us the lie.
A month or so ago she wished to die,
but they have proved to her this life is better,
And who are we to say they should have let her?
MAD AS HELL
Written at the age of 31, during my own descent into depression and temporary ‘madness’ – I would call it a necessary spiritual emergency, as the self that emerged gained deep strength and awareness from the experience.
Dark, gaping mouths and eyes, imploring arms:
Forgive me, understand me…
The landscape of hell
a silent scream within my skull.
When I close my eyes
I am one of those lost souls.
The sound of sadness
echoes in my hollows.
I am so alone:
I feel everything
and can touch nothing.
You call my perceptions madness.
For me it is unremitting
LATER, IN CONFIDENCE
One of many poems composed during the last years of my marriage, a process which ultimately led to a painful but necessary surfacing of a more integrated, honest self.
Anxious not to lose such a wealth of love,
I store the unspoken words
Inside my head,
Afraid of wasting them
On an unappreciative ear.
Still, in however a small proud part of me,
Selfishly demanding an exact
Alone, now, thinking of you,
I sit with my miserly store,
Counting the shiny unused coin,
Wondering what value it can possibly have
An obsolete currency,
Worth nothing unshared,
THIS IS THE POEM I DIDN’T WRITE
Written following a conversation in Brasenose Lane, Oxford, with the man I’d once been married to, feeling grief and disappointment for what was never to be fulfilled between us in our relationship.
...It was exactly here,
in this walled, secluded walk towards the Camera,
I composed the other poem:
It was all about memories,
footsteps echoing mine across the cobbles,
and how I turned,
almost expecting to see us,
then turned back
and seemed to see our ghosts
laughing, heads touching, hands held,
ahead in the misty splintered sunlight...
Ahead, in time? ...Behind, in time?
Apart from this moment of my aloneness, anyway.
And I remembered here,
and in all the other places
where grey footprints followed -
everywhere in Oxford I walked without you -
the way it had been, and not been:
times of smiles, deceitful togetherness,
hopes since swept away
with last autumn’s leaves along this passage.
I walk with you now, in present time
as we attempt to reconstruct a friendship
and still hear footsteps.
“Why are you laughing?” you ask.
...It seems funny, in that ironic shift
which comes with sadness,
that the ghosts still walk:
my dreaming, imagining, mourning self,
and the illusory couple
I remembered, envying.
Here we are again -
and yet, here we aren’t...
The past still dogs my footsteps
and we make future ghosts.
THE POETESS RESORTS TO IDLE FANTASY
I've included this to demonstrate how my life got better and my sense of humour remained intact!
...Last night while dreaming in my bed,
I kissed a poet, who then said:
“Your eyes are deepest indigo
as an icy ocean of drifting floe.
Let me twine your angel’s hair
around my wrists to bind you there.
Oh, how soft your downy cheek,
your swelling breast - no, do not speak -
and what teasing lips are these:
that hint of hardness so intrigues…
my eye along your length shall go
from honest brow to dainty toe,
taking in with pure delight
the bounteous gifts of such a sight.
Oh, my love, I fear I must…”
And then (thank God) we moved to lust…
This poem, and the following two, were written in 1986 while in love with the photographer, who lustily and romantically encouraged the poet in me to live and breathe, as I explored my new-found freedom… and our friendship has endured the many changes in both our lives since.
You asked me not to make a novel
out of knowing you.
Will you allow a poem –
just a bit, this much of one?
You are always showing me things.
One night it was a sliver of moon
high above blood orange dusk
beyond our river bank:
that six o’clock morning
there was only us inside your jacket,
my face turned out to you.
Laughter made us lovers,
and you got as deep in me
as I could let you be.
It doesn’t matter
the reasons why not.
Love is a mystery, anyhow.
I could wrap us up
in a parcel of knotty explanations,
throw us away with a line about
getting on with my life.
But anyway, here you are,
1:30am, in my head with me:
one of those late-night conversations
you have in cars,
in smoky back rooms,
by the river,
as dark gives way to dawn.
I see your face, holding pain
in your eyes, a gift for me,
a rose in your hand,
a smile in your mouth:
“I want to always say
hello to you,” you said,
and your sentences, scattered
with commas, are like
the story I won’t write –
how can I make a novel out of
From the phone-box in the daytime city,
and from the late night pub,
you call me and leave messages
on my machine.
You want to share street-sounds,
people sounds, carousing sounds:
a silence between friends
with noises off…
And inside me, you have left
I talked of love and said
it made no sense to me.
Celebrate the mystery,
That’s life’s charm,
that we can’t understand.
And in my arms,
you spoke, and I
This doesn’t seem like the first time.
You really are beautiful.
I want to hold you inside me all day.
I shall really miss you now
in a different way…
…And on the edge of sleep
where the mind grasps at shifting images,
It’s like fishing for
the other end of me…
And touching you,
BUCKETS AND SPADES
The image is two children on the beach
could be any time
it’s a dream landscape
lots of flat sea
wet sand with footprints
filling in with water
and higher up the shore,
their backs to the camera,
the two lost babes
with their buckets and spades.
This is a magic island.
The world’s a big, dark place,
lots of unknowns, backs turned away.
If you took a photograph now
we’d be side to side,
edges of our fingers touching,
heads straining round
to meet each other’s eyes:
that’s as close as the world allows.
We can escape
When night comes in our secret bay
we’ll build a fire.
Living costs nothing here:
Dig deep, little friend.
Fill up your pockets with sand
to weigh you down, and so will I.
Hold on to me.
Every grain is worth a
Look, love, we’re rich.
Empty your treasures over me,
and I’ll do the same.
Here on the beach
we’ll play castles
till the tide comes in.
Originally written on my daughter's sixteenth birthday, and updated some years later.
This was how we met:
I opened my arms to hold you
and you gazed at me,
with such a fierce, blue stare
Of course, I remembered you.
We always knew each other.
All that first night
I lay awake and looked at you.
You were such a miracle.
How could I realise
that such a small
warm glow of private love
would grow to such a passion?
We have laughed and cried together,
sometimes hurt one another
and each felt the other’s pain,
comforting and healing
those wounds dealt by the world.
All these years on from that beginning
I am so proud to be your friend.
You have had lovers,
a child of your own,
a fiery sun
gentled by your watery moon.
You have moved away from me
in time and space,
but never from my heart.
You have always had my blessing
For your whole life’s journey,
whatever you do,
wherever you go.
Your beginning was inside me
and my love will always be
safe from marauders
This marks the beginning of a new phase in my poems - reflecting the transition that had taken place in my internal world. By now I had a new identity in my role as a psychotherapist, and yet I had also learned that any identity was only as real as the importance that was attached to it. In the years since I have come increasingly to inhabit lightly this experience of being human. We are this and that, and in the end we are none of it, which is a peaceful, joyous thing to realise.
Such a simple thing
when you reach the heart
of the labyrinth:
showing you the face
you always knew.
FEAR OF FALLING
Acknowledging with affection how the more we change the more some aspects of us stay the same.
When I spoke with
of my desire
to leap from the top
of tall buildings
I was forgetting
THE DEAD BABY
This poem has spoken to many people, meaning something different to each individual who has been touched by it. I wrote it following a deep acceptance of the abandoned child within my self. However much we ‘know’ our history, and the genesis of the pain we carry, it is such a profoundly different experience to feel this – and the release from it – within our body.
All night I held the dead baby in my arms:
the soft ache of her spectral head
against my breast, solid as flesh.
We have passed her on for generations,
rejecting her cry, abandoning her
when her pain became unbearable,
preferring instead the smiling golden child.
The dead one is smeared with sin,
bruised with shame, soiled, defiled…
but it was crying in the empty room
where no one came that finished her.
You held her for me, as daughters do,
The way I held her for my mother, too.
And yesterday, in the midst of making
your goodbyes, all unknowingly
you brought her back to me.
You laid her gently in my arms,
leaving her finally to be honoured
as you strode off into your life
with tomorrow shining in your eyes.
In the dark, I rocked her
against a heart no longer blind:
My baby. My baby...
Lost, the far side of Eden,
cursed, denied, despised.
I will scatter white blossoms
all around her,
reverently tuck her
into a little floating cradle
to carry her along the river of my tears.
You have struggled to be free of her -
Oh, how we all have struggled, resisting
the dark pull of her drowning -
fighting your dragons, just as I did,
and finding your true knight inside.
Let me grieve for her:
that’s a mother’s place.
In losing her, in letting go,
at last, peacefully, I know
the sweet heart breaking bliss of love
as her true face is shown.
AS YOU ARE LEAVING
Written for my daughter and given to her when she embarked on a year’s travel to India and Australia – an inner as well as outward journey.
I wanted to give you a stone
to put in your pocket,
something to keep you safe:
a magic pebble
that would open doors,
enable you to grow tall
or small enough,
to fly like an eagle
or an angel,
in the deepest oceans,
dream the shaman’s dream.
Then I realised
you already know
how to do those things.
We’ve passed that pebble between us
a thousand times.
You hold it in your hand
even as you read this.
It was clasped in your fist
that day you arrived:
you opened your palm
and offered it to me,
and we exchanged the magic.
You know who I am,
Moonfish, my fellow traveller,
You know where I am.
You know where to find me.
Look for me in strangers
and you will never be lost.
Look for me in your inmost heart,
And you will never be alone.
Written just before her return...
How like a song it comes,
for my wandering
flinging open a March day
with blessed spring
to let the dance
This is primarily about an archetypal mother - an internal figure that all of us might recognise.
And far away
I chose you.
And longer ago than that
And farther away than we know
We agreed to choose each other.
I was always inside you…
The part of you that struggled
To be born and love you.
You are always inside me…
The part of me that gives birth
To Love, and holds me
In angel wings of golden Light.
Thank you for making this
Sacred Contract with me.
Thank you for your beautiful
Presence in this life.
FREE AT LAST!
This is an experience many of us can relate to. We love and hate, and struggle with attachment and the need for both distance and intimacy in our relationships. And what is it that is really ‘over’ when we truly love another person? Sometimes it’s simply a phase in the life of a relationship that has ended, and this can be the beginning of something new and better… and sometimes it’s a final release from a negative enchantment that has blinded us.
Free at last!
Never again to feel the tugging hand
Of your need for approval or attention…
Never again to feel the heat of your desire
Burn up my need for separation…
Never again to hear the sound of your voice
Grinding on about the stuff that bores me…
Never again the relentless questioning,
The justifications, the homespun philosophies…
Never again the endless torrent of messages,
Reminders, and conversations about relationship…
Never again having to regard your feelings,
Consider your needs, and watch my words…
Never again the need to explain myself
And make sense of my folly to another person…
Never again being so unbearably vulnerable…
…Never again to feel
your hand in mine…
your approval and attention…
the heat of our desire…
the sound of your voice…
your limitless listening
and boundless offers of connection…
Never again your feelings…
in a space
could be borne…
And when we can finally see the bigger picture behind the reasons we thought were our rationale for blaming someone else for what went wrong...
You protected me from my own broken heart.
You loved me so tenderly
I hardly noticed that the fault lines
Were always there
Faint cracks just waiting for the next
Now I am drowning in my own tidal wave:
The grief of losing you
And finding where the fault lines lay.
LOVED INTO LIFE
This arose from my experience of life-threatening illness, which took me to a place I found terrifying, humbling, and ultimately liberating.
This part of me that has no name
curls quiet as a secret
against my aching breast
asking its voiceless questions
in every laboured breath:
Is it my body that is breaking
or my wounded heart?
Will I survive the ambush
of my fears and deepest grief?
Can the nameless be borne
in a life already full of pain?
Will Love bring me to birth
at last – or will I die again?
The female wolf is a significant image for me - I discovered her as my power animal a number of years ago, and she became incorporated into the loving and protective presence of my grandmother in spirit I felt during my long process of recovery in 2006.
So gentle, strong and wise
Walking between the worlds
On soft grey feet
Always at my shoulder
Watching out for me
My careful companion
On the path of truth
And silent spirit guide
Look on me with kindly eyes
Hold me where it hurts
Here at the very core of me
Heal the mother pain
And hold her in your heart
As well as me
This moon kissed bird
Inside my soul
On wings of love
That soar towards the light
Longs only to be free
This poem was a long time in gestation - a tribute to my father who died in August, 2004. He was my teacher, my fellow-traveller, and my friend...
"Where are you?"
is a question I have been asking you
from that final day I urged you onward,
your outspread wings broken by such suffering.
I never said: “Don’t leave me…”
or “What will become of me without you?”
The answer to that has unfolded in the creased cotton
of the winding sheets that since have wrapped around me.
In one of those last conversations your blue eyes
snatched at my heart with the same old tender complicity,
cradling me with your courage, even as you were dying:
“Don’t be frightened…” you said...
Were you frightened? Was there a moment
between the last breath and the no-breath
when you teetered awestruck on the brink of everness
remembering parachutes that didn’t open,
wondering whether yours would after all?
Once you held me high on your shoulders
bounding along with your young man’s stride
the safest place in all creation and me
younger than words but laughing as the world
rocked and bounced beneath me.
You were such an immovable presence in my universe.
Many years later when I was grieving
for all the unlived life and unmet love,
tears leaching the fractured rock of my protected heart,
you held me as I wept, your chest a citadel,
and said: “I know that place. I’ve been there too.”
You were frightened that time we climbed the mountain,
and it was my turn then to be the guide for you,
leading you towards your joyful peak experience,
your happiness a song inside my heart.
It was only after you left I needed to ask the dark sky,
the empty room, the silence of your remembered voice:
“Where are you now?”
Was it you who answered me that night
unknown hands tucked me round with an invisible blanket
so gentle it was like a consecration?
Were you letting me know that you had safely landed?
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