Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Healing Power of Poetry

Backward Walk In Footsteps Going Forward – The Healing Power of Poetry

this is where my footsteps began
where my footprints
appear in snow, in grass...   (Skydancer)

Muscogee Nation poet, Joy Harjo, talks in the introduction to her new and selected poems 1975 - 2001, How We Became Human, of how poetry "showed up" and helped her turn away from self-destruction and despair.

"Poetry approached me in that chaos of raw inverted power and leaned over and tapped me on the shoulder, and said, "You need to learn how to listen, you need grace, you need to learn how to speak. You're coming with me." I did not walk off into the sunset with poetry, or hit the town with a blaze of gunfire with poetry guarding my back. Rather, the journey toward poetry worked exactly the same as the process of writing a poem. It started from the inside out, then turned back in to complete a movement."
Adrienne Rich has written about the frightening 'tunnel of silence' women poets find themselves in when there have been no women writing before them. In Canada, Cree poet, Louise Halfe, also known as Skydancer, experienced that dreadful silence, and knew, like Joy Harjo, what it was like as an indigenous woman to be driven almost to the point of self-destruction. It was only by going on a long and painful personal journey, what she calls in one poem ‘the backward walk in footsteps going forward’ that Louise has been able to begin to heal wounds inflicted by a history of colonisation.

Skydancer, now in her early 60s, was taken from her family and her Cree people in Saddle Lake Reserve in Two Hill, Alberta at the age of seven, and forced to attend a Catholic residential school.
This was a common experience for about 150,000 Indian children in Canada from 1876 – 1996. It was government policy to remove children from their culture, to ‘assimilate’ them. 

Some of Skydancer's forebears

An estimated 6,000 died. Many were physically and sexually abused. This is the silence Louise is breaking. In one poem, in her recent collection Burning in this Midnight Dream, published in 2017, Louise writes:

Confusion was the ultimate glutton. He came from far away
wore black robes and carried a crucifix. 
He was armed with laws, blankets
and guns. 

He fixed us with a treaty
that he soon forgot.

Feminist Carol Hanisch said in 1969, “The personal is political”.  And in the case of Indian girls in Canada that personal experience too often included rape, unwanted pregnancy, forced adoption of subsequent babies and all the psychological problems of drugs, alcoholism, depression, low self-esteem and prostitution that follow.

Writing ‘Burning in this Midnight Dream’ about residential school was a difficult process, says Skydancer. 
“I have to honour the story and the voice,” she explained in a recent interview. “They need to be witnessed and they need to be given their own life so that a person can move forward. In order to go forward in a healing way, we need to go into that darkness and rip it out and give it legs to walk away from us once it's been told.”
Skydancer at Glasgow Women's Library
In the second poem  – aniskostew – connecting , after trying to piece together, to reclaim, her parents’ and grandparents’ story, ‘That little story is bigger than I can tell’ she writes:

this is where my footsteps began
where my footprints
appear in snow, in grass, 

I don’t like walking backwards.
old ones haunt my thoughts
tiny spirits that brush
the colour off my wings.
I need them now
to help others understand what happened.

And that poem finishes with

Sometimes the end is told before the beginning.
One must walk backwards on footprints
That walked forward
For the story to be told,
I will try this backward walk.

And as Skydancer tries the backward walk, we learn how the young Indian people, even if they graduated to high school and college, still found they didn’t fit into the white Canadian world.
The Indian teen is left in a place where, as Adrienne Rich has described her own struggle with her mixed heritage, she feels the ‘history of denial within like an injury’.  Louise’s poem, moves between her two languages. (Indeed, I find myself moving between her two names as I write this piece.)

Wisakan – a bitter taste      

I am a slasher, I’ve cut deep
To ooze this disgrace. I’ve waited long
To be decapitated even though my aunt
Tried to medicine me. Gave me dirt
So I could be rooted to the soil I left.
Yes, I ate her medicine

 “There's seven phases of people's decolonization…’ Louise says, “— one of them is to be aware of the colonization and to know the history, and then to explore the ways of acting out and how it impacts oneself and others, and then there's the rediscovery of Indianness, and then the recovery, then a mourning, and then a dreaming, then commitment and action to make change.”
In an email to me late last year, Skydancer said: 

“As for Burning In This Midnight Dream, I cannot help but think of Eavan Boland, an Irish Writer. In her essay “A Kind of Scar” she writes “The more volatile the material – and a wounded history, public or private, is always volatile – the more intensely the ethical choice. …. I had tribal ambivalences and doubts; and even then I had an uneasy sense of the conflict which awaited me.” I believe Eavan Boland describes almost accurately what I went through emotionally, spiritually and mentally, as well as politically when I wrote Burning. It was a private struggle and a political move in hopes that it will reach those who need it at this time.”
And this sentiment is echoed thousands of miles away in Australia by another poet, Ali Cobby Eckermann, whose personal story is both different from, yet bears echoes of, Skydancer’s.

Ali, now in her early 50s, was one of Australa’s Stolen Generation children, taken from her Aboriginal mother as a baby for forced adoption. She was brought up by what she describes as a kind, decent white couple on a farm. There she felt loved, and she only realized she was different when she went to school. By high school that dissonance became unbearable. She went off the rails, getting pregnant as a teen and giving her own child up for adoption, repeating the cycle of pain the birth mother she had never met had gone through.

 She too has healed by reconnecting with her original people, the Yankunytjtjara - that 'backward walk in footsteps going forward - and recording, exploring, breaking the silences with poetry. She has now travelled the world telling both her personal story and the story of the indigenous people of Australia. In 2017 she won the prestigious Windham Campbell Literary Award, one of the most lucrative literary awards in the world.

Ali in Foreground visiting Loch Lubnaig, with Chiew-Sia Tei and Magi

Ribbons, recounts her first visit to what should have been her childhood home.


‘See you’ I said to the children
as I memorised
their Anangu faces
filled with laughter
and trust for family
innocent in their youth
and strong in culture

‘See you’ I said to the Elders
as the tears flow
in my heart
and I bend down
to shake their hands
and gain my strength
by skin

‘See you’ I said at Murputja
and the dust from my car
as I drove away
was like a ribbon
across the desert sand
tying me to that place

In these excerpts from the longer poem, Circles and Squares, we see how Ali tries to square the circle of her two senses of belonging, with her trademark mix of wit and wisdom.

I grew up in the white man’s world
We lived in a Square house
We picked fruits and vegetables from neatly fenced Square plots
We kept animals in Square paddocks
We sat and ate at a Square table
We sat on Square chairs
I slept in a Square bed
I looked at myself in a Square mirror and did not know who I was

We gathered closely together by big Round camp fires
We ate bush tucker, feasting on Round ants and berries
We ate meat from animals that lived in Round burrows
We slept in Circles on beaches around our fires


I have learnt two different ways now
I am thankful for this
That is part of my Life Circle

Like Skydancer she writes poems to reclaim her broken bloodline, to weave again the thread to a past that she was forcibly removed from. Finding her birth mother was a huge part of that journey to recovery.


my mother is a granite
boulder I can no longer climb
nor walk around
her weight is a constant
reminder of myself
I sit in her shadow
gulls nestle in her hair
their shadows her epitaph
I carry
a pebble of her in my pocket

She also writes powerfully of the historical injustices done to the indigenous people, with a sense of the natural world, with which the indigenous people are so in tune, being in sympathy too with their suffering.

Wild Flowers

Mallets pound fence posts
in tune with the rifles
to mask massacre sites

Cattle will graze
sheep hooves will scatter
children’s bones

Wildflowers will not grow
where the bone powder

But Ali is not only recording injustice. She is not only healing the wounds she and the indigenous peoples of Australia have suffered. Like Skydancer, her family now straddles both the indigenous and the white cultures, so she is aware of her responsibilities, the need address injustices both current and historic, yes, to call to account in no uncertain terms, but to heal divisions too. With her poetry she seeks to build a new inclusive vision for the future.

Ali and an eagle owl meet in Aberfoyle, Scotland.

“I write in the hope that my grandchildren will be safe in their true identity in Australia,” she says. “I write that they will not have to assimilate or change any cultural aspect of themselves to achieve what they want. I write in the hope that Australia will become more mature, to embrace the values that only diversity can bring.”

In 1977 Audre Lorde wrote an essay “Poetry is not a Luxury”.  “It is a vital neccessity of our own existence,” she said. “ It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.’

But here I am in Scotland. A far cry from Alice Walker and Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich in America. 

Or Louise Halfe in Canada and Ali Cobby Eckermann in Australia. 

But in my own work in creative writing workshops with women in both Scotland and Ireland, with women who have suffered domestic violence, incest, racism, mental health issues, and many other marginalisations, I have witnessed the power of poetry for them to break their silence, to acknowledge their suffering, heal themselves, for them to realise their own strengths, and through poetry envisage new futures, perhaps not on the large canvases of nationhood, but on smaller personal and domestic canvases. The larger body politic is made up of us all as individuals, and being given permission to break one’s silence is powerful.

Here is what Lorraine, someone who in many ways might be deemed a 'loud' person, but who is not used to being listened to, or having value placed on her words, wrote after reading Alice Walker's poem 'Remember Me'. This was in a workshop I led in the women's wing at Greenock Prison in Scotland. Lorraine writes in urban Scots which adds an amazing energy.


Dae ye mind me
When a wis wee?
The wee lassie wae the durty knees,
The wan they could niver git in a dress 
The girl who beat aw the boys up the trees
The wean whose ma ayeways says “Oh whit a mess!”

A wis the lassie who they told tae grow up 
The wan they said wid grow oot o’ it
They said if ye act like a boy y’el end up corrupt 
But a thought a knew best n’ that
Their aw full o’ shit

A wis the lassie in the tracky an’ the cap
The wan they said could keep up wae the guys
They say if yer a burd the boys take the wrap 
But if they think yer wan o’ the boys
They’re no really tellin’ ye lies

A wis the lassie who hud tae get caught 
The wan the boys said brought it on top
They said “Ur a burd ye’l git away wae the lot” 
But when yer caught bang tae rights
There’s nae escaping the cop shop

A wis the lassie who lost freedom 
tae gain independence
The wan who took a stretch ‘n’ fun oot she wis a wuman efter aw
They say tae the boys “Ye need tae man up, ye know it makes sense!” 
But when yer a lassie
Ye fun oot you’re the wans who really huv the baws

So here is the lassie who still gets wae the guys
The wan who’s gettin’ tae let yies know 
that we’re right on par wae yies
They say “They’re only wummen, they’ll take second prize” 
But if yer a lassie like me
You’ll no be huvin’ any guy 
steppin’ oan yer taes

Cos a’m the lassie who’d say “Excuse me mister!”
A’m the wan who’d ask ye “Wid yae like a game a poker?” 
Wae ma crafty poker face
They’d say “She’s nae chance, 
jist a burd nae older than yer sister”
But when ma eyes huv uttered, ma hons kept steady, yer jaws aw drapped
This lassie smiled n’ cleaned up the place 

Dae yae mind me now?

Lorraine, Greenock  (First published in Scottish Prison Magazine 'Stir')

Joy Harjo describes her first poetry as having "roots from the compelling need to speak", which characterises the following poem, written in a Wild Women Writing Workshop. 
A Letter to My Father arose from a simple prompt. A permission to break a silence. “Write a letter to someone who has wronged you.” 

A Letter to My Father

Dear father
who art in the pub
hallowed be thy distance
the day will come
when you will be gone
our lives no longer
lived in fear

Forgiveness, I'm afraid
is not in my heart
for you are the one who
taught me fear, pain, mistrust
your constant displays of violence
my daily bread

as you entered the room
my mother's battered face
invisble to you
her cries, her pleas unheard, ignored

Lead us not into contempt
for your situation now you are alone and lonely.

We do not forgive your trespasses -
let me make that clear.
Your pathetic excuses and apologies
thirty years too late
now fall on our deaf ears.

Nicola Burkhill

Audre Lorde says, 

“As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring ideas. They become a safe house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualisation of any meaningful action.”

Being given permission to dream, envisage new ways of being, is also powerful.

Nicola, in a later Wild Women Writing session also wrote the following poem.

A Goddess Poem

My goddess fell from the sky
clad in crimson, the wind at her back
and in her hair

a molten-hot meteorite
setting alight the world
with her brightness.

A sheath swings from her belt
where her sword hilt glints
like a diamond at her side.

Lithe like a cat, she purrs
with contentment, strikes
with no hesitation,
claws and teeth bared,
ready for action.

My divine deity is
precious like platinum -
steely, shiny, unbreakable
she is the spark,
the kindling and
the flame,

seeking only
to empower other women,
blowing life into their
forgotten dreams,
her breathy words a
gentle whisper
in their ears

My goddess
is the comfort
you feel in your
mother's arms.

She is all those little inklings,
your sixth sense, your third eye.
She is the mother
of all mothers.
The feminist
of all feminists.
The woman of all
She is you, she is me.

“Poetry is not only dream and vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. Poetry lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.”  Audre Lorde

I’d like to finish with a poem by Skydancer to illustrate this laying down the foundations of the future for change. Whether Skydancer is imagining what she would like to see happen, or recording what has already happened, I, as a reader, don't fully know. But what I do know is that this poem has been written. The idea has been voiced, beautifully and eloquently,  and the poem can now be passed from mouth to mouth, from ear to ear, or from laptop to laptop. 

Whatever way it is passed, it has laid down another piece of the road that we can all walk along towards the future.

Ospwakan – the pipe

He sat between the women.
Told the story of how the ancient Elders
Taught white men and their native brides
That their half blood children had no right
To the Pipe, to the ceremonies.
How this teaching applied to this present day.
When these people, he prophesied,
Took their last breath
They would remain as wandering ghosts
Disturbing the present peace of their lost land.

When the women
Spoke of their ancient grandmothers,
Spoke of being outcast
And how this applied to this present age,
They spoke of their love of their mixed blood children,
The love they shared with their men.
The condemnation that walked from that man’s tongue
Cut their blood line and spilled it.
They arose and left him
with his bitterness and hate.

Returned to their families.


She counts murdered women. Not women  wiped out in warzones by bullets and bombs,  nor the 63 million missing in India - Rita Banerj...