‘I think my poems are full of words that I’m afraid to say’ – Pam Rehm*
In the weeks following my baby daughter’s death, there were days I could not speak. One particular day, my husband and I went for a drive, in silence. Not the silence we had sometimes known before: both of us sulking, after a petty row. This was a dumbstruck silence. We were dumbstruck by what had happened to us. It had taken courage from my husband that morning to pull me from our bed, get me upright and out of the house. Still I couldn’t speak. My mind however, swirled. It wouldn’t rest and five years later there would be a book of poems.
That book is being published this year, in August, the month that stores the anniversary of her death. It is finally going to be a tangible thing and of course, I’m pleased. I have a great publisher, a fine editor and feedback so far has been kind. But all of that has come at such a cost. The book would not exist if my daughter was still alive.
Writing the poems has given me a certain amount of control over my grief. I have been able to express, share, reveal things – often difficult things – that I would have struggled to “say”. By that I mean, say to people around me, in conversation. If asked questions about my daughter, I give brief answers, because I’m terrified of upsetting people. I avoid situations where I might be asked how many children I have, or general ‘baby talk’. I feel I am the ‘bad news’ in the room – the death of a child is just too awful to explain. So I keep quiet, but it doesn’t feel right. Writing the poems has liberated me from that self-censorship.
I was once asked ‘Why didn’t you just write a memoir?’ Well, I’m a poet and there is a place in poetry for this type of autobiographical collection. Look at Christopher Reid, Tim Liardet, Jill Bialoksy, Julia Copus, Penelope Shuttle – the list for ‘loss’ is endless. Poems offer up a huge amount of information in a small, intimate space. That’s what I love about them. They are also an invitation to look very closely at something and that’s what I want to do with this book. I’m asking people to look closely at the details of child loss. I promised myself I would write this collection. As a mother I long for my daughter, as a poet I am inspired by her. It took me four years to write. It’s a manuscript of only 6,438 words. But if I hadn’t written those words down, I’m not sure I would have ever said them.
*From:The Grand Permission: new writings on poetics and motherhood, ed. Patricia Dienstfrey and Brenda Hillman, Wesleyan University Press, 2003).