Thursday, 3 December 2015

Review: The First Telling - A Contribution to the Literature of Hope

The First Telling

A few weeks after writing my post on Poems about Rape, I found myself, in a workshop with Pascale Petit, sitting next to Gill McEvoy who showed me her pamphlet which deals with a rape and its aftermath. Naturally I was interested and bought a copy from her. It was the beautifully produced The First Telling, published by HappenStance, which I'm delighted to say has just won the Michael Marks Award for best pamphlet. It’s a very powerful piece of work which stayed with me long after I’d closed the book.

From the beginning the reader is engaged and involved in the narrative. We hear the narrator's thoughts and have to orientate ourselves in the story as it unfolds. The language is sparse, sometimes ungrammatical, sometimes inarticulate, which by its very nature reveals something that more eloquent speech would fail to do. The printed poem works well visually - the dashes, italics, repetitions and slashes give a physical dimension to the telling enabling us to hear the incoherence, the sobs, the silences - how does one find the words to express such appalling experiences after all?

can’t run
can’t breathe
can’t breathe

Birds are present as a motif throughout with some short bird poems becoming a metaphor for what the narrator can’t say, adding texture and dimension to the sequence:


Stabs itself under its wing
with that great beak…

Hides the scars with feathers.

But the sequence moves beyond horror, pain and suffering towards the beginning of hope and healing. And this is more than welcome. All the poems I mentioned in Poems about Rape, apart from that of Farhan Akhtar (which calls on men to wake up to the treatment of women and oppose it), document the horror of rape and the way it damages lives. This is a powerful telling because when the knowledge of rape is hidden away and unacknowledged, society can ignore it. Added to that, in the words of John Berger: "Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter to, the experience which demanded, which cried out.” ― John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

But the poems I highlighted do not move beyond this acknowledgement and shelter to offer a way forward, bar perhaps through the unstated hope that society might listen and do something about its treatment of women. The First Telling, however, does show us something more. Through the means of objectifying the experience of rape and its aftermath in language and telling it to a wise listener who hears and understands, rather than being condemned to live in isolation with the raw, unspoken and unedited re-living of what happened, the narrator is able, in small, realistic steps forward, to find a path out of the ever-present prison of the unresolved past; the colours, the images, the thoughts start to change. We are left with the possibility of healing:

So bright the blue.
Like new air rushing in.

The writer Barry Lopez has said that he wants to “contribute to a literature of hope… to help create a body of stories in which men and women can discover trustworthy patterns. Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story in the end is social. Whatever a writer sets down can help or harm the community of which he or she is a part.” Elaborating, he says he has to believe “that imagining a story will somehow help people to imagine a way around difficulty. And that by encouraging a sense of hope, some woman, some man, will exercise their imagination in a way we could not have foreseen and that will be our blessing and our release from pessimism. Somebody will see a different way to do things. Stories, in some way, work as blueprints for the imagination”. ― Michigan Quarterly Review

I recommend The First Telling to you not only as a welcome contribution to poems about rape but also as a contribution to the literature of hope and a blueprint for the imagination.