It is Baby Loss Awareness Week, a week where all the different charities and organisations that are involved with miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal death do their best to draw attention to it, to get people to talk about it. Last year I posted a poem a day to mark the week, but in all honesty I found it draining. It’s very important to me to raise awareness and I use my own experiences and talk openly about it, because I know that when miscarriage, infertility and the death of my little girl happened to me, I was comforted to know that other people had felt like I had. It is a lonely place to be, grief. Life moves on around you and you are left sagging, emptied out and unable to continue. To see people surviving and coming out of the other side was something to hang on to. When someone who had lost their baby son told me ‘you don’t get over it, but you do learn to live with it and I promise it gets better’ I was able to believe them.
Similarly, writing poetry, reading the poetry of others helped me to, not deal with it, as such, I don’t think it’s a cathartic process, but it helped to acknowledge it, it helped me to ‘own it’. The creative process of writing, especially writing poetry, is complex and beautiful. At its core, poetry is a form of communication, but like other art forms it is an emotional communication. I read a quote somewhere this week that said that ‘art has the conversations that we can’t’ and that really struck a chord. That’s how it is for me, with any subject but in particular the poems I have written about my daughter and the experience of her death, and infertility. I take the subject and place it a safe distance away, like a bomb, and then I make it safe, I walk around it and examine it and find the connection and find the things in the background of my mind that are connected to it. Often there is a period of procrastination before the poem is written, I used to get very cross with myself about my tendency to procrastinate, but now I realise that actually, while I am doing the ironing or cleaning the kitchen cupboards, my brain is working away examining the thing I want to write about.
I attended a brilliant Jo Bell poetry workshop a few weeks ago, I don’t get a lot of time to go to workshops, but I inevitably come away with the sparks of poems when I do. The thing about workshops is that they don’t give you a poem, the exercises just bring out the poem that was already there, it gives it an exit out of your head. In this particular workshop one of the exercises was to write honestly about an intense physical experience. I initially wrote about sex. But when I took the workshop home in my head and tried it again I ended up writing about the intensely physical experience of holding my daughter, but more than that, about the smaller things: of having my c-section scar touched, of how the sheets got sweaty and uncomfortable but it hurt too much to move, and about the IVF, the ‘dildo cam’ the egg collections, the probes. Jo encouraged honesty, there was no reading the poems out, unless we wanted to at the end, so it was very freeing and I found that brutal honesty of writing hard, physical poems about sex and sexual experience, and then later about the other intense experiences very cleansing. The poems were already there, they just needed letting out.
The work I am doing on my PhD is around a similar theme. My PhD uses the sea as a model to explore something like honesty in the writing process, it’s about containing and naming and in it I am looking at aquariums in particular, and how language is like a tank in which we examine and make safe the things that frighten us. I am loving grazing through poetry, looking for the connection, looking at art and artists and seeing the language that connects us. I’ve had to change how I write, to a certain extent, to be able to write poems that are so specific to the theme, but the poems are still arriving in a similar fashion, it’s just that I am guiding them more deliberately. I seem to write three poems on the same theme before it finally arrives where it is supposed to be. That’s no bad thing, they turn up eventually.
There was an incident this week in which someone we know had a horrible scare in her pregnancy. It was spookily similar to what happened with us, except without the short falls and failings. The hospital staff had picked a problem up at the twenty week scan, within days she’d been given an in depth scan at the big specialised hospital, and before hand she was phoned several times to make sure she was alright and to offer her counselling. Thankfully things were fine and she was given the all clear. My immediate reaction was one of relief, I was pleased that it is so obvious that the protocols at the hospital have been changed, that the hospital is taking any suspicious pregnancy problems so seriously and I was so relieved for her. But at the same time this wave of sadness over took me, and I was suddenly reliving my daughter’s birth and death, in constant flashbacks: the phone calls to the midwives, the checking in at EPAU, the GP appointments, the desperation of trying to get someone to listen to me. The 20 week scan, the strange spotting of a problem, but communications not being passed on, the two months of feeling things were not right, the slowed movements, the admission, the being sent home for no apparent reason, the days spent telling them she wasn’t moving, the confusion, the drive to the hospital in Leeds and then the sudden flurry of activity, the running through the corridors, the signing of consent forms, while hospital stockings were hastily put on, the anaesthetist, the heart monitor, and then the sudden drop of her heart rate, the general anaesthetic. Her death. This is my flashback. It is like a a movie being played, like a film being placed over my physical life so that while I am walking the dog, or driving the car or doing the shopping, all of the world dissolves to the repeated images of that time. Sometimes when this happens I might have walked a mile and have zero recollection of it. It’s like not being present in your own life. It’s like literally being off your feet, something like a dream, but not a dream, much more real, with sounds (the sound of the heart monitor, the sound of the drugs trolly, the sound of the nurses at the desk in the wee small hours, the sound of the fan turning in our room) and smells and sometimes those physical sensations. And disturbed sleep again, the dreams again of the baby in the bed where I can’t find her and the waking up to suddenly want to shout at Chris ‘The baby’s not moving’ because she isn’t, and the realisation, again that it’s all done, all gone. Nothing to do, nothing to say, this is just part of my life now.
I have repeated Jo’s workshop on physical experience over again, I have had a conversation with myself about it, through the poems I’ve written through it. One of the things I have found during this six and a half year grieving process (not just for my daughter but for the miscarriages and the failed IVFs and now to be childless forever) has been that I have repeatedly retold our story, repeated it and repeated it and still now with an edge of panic and incredulity that this actually happened, but I haven’t really dealt fully with the pain, with the emotion, the thing that art has the conversation about. Recently I have been trying a meditation technique in which, once you have emptied your mind, you allow yourself to find the painful memory, but before your brain starts giving a monologue or playing the film, you reach for that pain, the physical pain that scrunches your stomach and hurts your chest and and you lean into it, you allow it a place in you. I visualise my chest, my ribs opening up like cabinet doors, and the pain is a sliver of red, very very hot like a newborn, and I visualise that sliver lying over the meat-red pulse of my own fleshy heart and merging into it, and it’s OK, because that’s my pain and it is a part of me and I don’t have to fight it anymore. It’s actually amazing how visualisation works in a meditative state.
All of this makes me sound, I am sure, like a hippy nutter, but I don’t feel mad. I felt insane with grief and serious crippling depression for a long, long time, but I don’t anymore. I am blissfully happy 95% of the time, but just sometimes my legs are taken out by a big trigger and the fear that I am going back to that dark, dark place threatens to drown me, but it never does. I have techniques and I have the knowledge that things do get better, and that I am allowed to be sad sometimes. The writing helps, but I still say it’s not really a cathartic process, more of a conversation with myself.
And on that note, here is a poem that I wrote. It is from my collection, Museum Pieces, which is available to buy at Prolebooks. I always feel a bit weird promoting my own poetry and this is the second time I have done this this week, the other poem I shared is on my Facebook Writer’s Page but I also think that if you have been lucky enough to be published, you owe a debt of gratitude to the publisher, you promote them, it’s a symbiotic relationship. And this is my blog and I can do what I like. *Cringe*. This is an oldish poem, which I have a desire to tinker with, but sometimes you have to just let them go. This one was written from a dark place, and boy, can you tell.
Back track your mind
undoing the red, the gristle-bound
biology that you’re sick with
and let them go-the Styx crossers –
let them pass from your keep
into the woods, ungainly,
in a clot of sticky deformities.
From here they can be seen clearly,
just an ooze of shame and a jumble
of body parts knitted together as kin.
Done to death with fighting –
and with a belly fat with blood
and bleeding and loss –
you’ve turned them out; each one
a tiny image of yourself getting smaller
in your sight. You long for the woodsman
to cut out their little hearts
so you may wear them round your neck
like teeth, Baby-killer, and know full well
that one day they will be back,
bearing your regret like a weapon.