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

birdsong

and the sound of cars passing –

 

I do not believe in silence.

(from Head On 2012, Bloodaxe)

Some reflections on this poem from Clare:

 

Each month I’ve posted a totally new poem. This month I’m posting an older one – this one was published in 2012 -because of its direct relevance to the events of the last month. Im thinking specifically of the #metoo campaign; the power and force of it. For some of us, the act of speaking out about sexual abuse and harassment has been liberatory and transformative. For some of us, it comes at a very high price. I belong to both groups. I spoke out about my sexual abuse – and the abuse of another young people around me – because I had to. Speaking out was both cause and consequence of my recovery; it was necessary to my survival. But it also meant that I was scapegoated, blamed, judged, threatened and ostracised. I understand now why I stayed silent for so many years.

 

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 the 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 there are times in my life when I value peace, I cannot accept silence. Because I can’t imagine how, in this noisy world there is ever true silence. And maybe even more importantly, even if there was true silence, I wouldn’t want it in my life.

 

Silence does my head in. Because the world is beautiful precisely because it is full of noise and colour and mess and motion. But also because this beautiful world is full of cruelty and injustice and we should never be silent about that. Silence does my head in because of the harm it did me.

 

As a child, I was instructed – very directly – not to talk about how I felt and thought.  At home, horrible experiences 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.

 

But as Gwyneth Lewis says – “I speak six different tongues/ so keeping mum isn’t an option”.  People find a way of speaking out. They speak out in words. They speak out in actions. They speak out 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.

 

I used self-injury as a powerful and compelling way of making my needs and feelings real, visible and tangible. Think for a moment about what an injury says to us. “I am hurt”. “I am in pain”. “I need help”.

 

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 that 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, to express the distress I was feeling; and to ask for compassion and care. Instead, I was described – like many people who self-injure – as “manipulative”, “attention-seeking” and “personality disordered”. 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 – of poets to bear witness, particularly to that which would otherwise go unacknowledged. Thank you for listening. Thank you for joining in.

 

#metoo