part two of a blog series on compassionate self-witness and my new book still life
If compassion is the ability to feel and connect with the suffering of another human being,
self-compassion is the ability to feel and connect with one’s own suffering.
I remember when I wrote the first eleven poems in still life. I wrote them fast and then stepped back from the computer screen and thought what is this?
It looked like a jumble of words—just a bunch of phrases thrown together. There was, of course, more artistry involved than this, but at the time the phrases moved through my body I only saw their fracture and had no idea how to identify their source. This language was coming from my subconscious giving voice to something I could not yet express coherently or in a linear fashion.
Such is the nature of trauma speech. It is fractured, non-linear, and a poor testimony to what actually happened to cause the original trauma or what is happening presently, in the psyche, as it is relived. My own trauma speech has taken many forms depending on the immediate situation and what I feel I need to say/explain at the moment my memories of the traumatic act are stirred up.
But some of that trauma speech turns in to poetry. As an artist still recovering and organizing memories of the trauma, I write regularly. Constantly crafting this fractured dialogue into poetry clears space in my mind that I need for other things and empowers me through creativity. I make something deemed art out of the confusion, terror, and grief that begins in trauma speech but ends with careful attention to craft. I rearrange this speech, add words, take some away, fine tune the details, and make conscious choices about how it will appear on the page. Then I name it and have a finished poem.
I took those first eleven still life poems into one of my MFA workshops at New England College after going through part of this process. But, to be honest, I had no idea what they were. They had no names. At the time, I had not yet identified all of the trauma I was experiencing or how much it was affecting my creative process. Now, years later, having more control over this process, I am aware of what is coming from my subconscious and conscious minds respectively; it’s a welcome change. But there was also something wonderful about the mystery of letting the fractured narrative spill out and then asking it all sorts of questions to understand its particular dialogue and purpose.
Thankfully, a couple of my MFA classmates praised those first eleven poems and encouraged me to do something with them. I did. I set them aside. After more rumination, I realized they had worth but had no idea how to identify that worth or use it.
A few years later, I revisited those poems. Having done some more trauma work and therapy at that point, I was able to read just a few and exclaim this is my pedophile! As an artist, I was undoubtedly more excited about my discovery than others would have been. But maybe not. Having once been a victim of a destructive act, there’s something powerful about being able to name it for yourself.
In The Wounded Storyteller, Arthur Frank has much to say about both fractured trauma narratives and naming trauma. He tells several stories of chronically ill individuals who are disempowered by a healthcare system that seeks linear explanations for illness experiences and names those experiences on their own clinical terms. As a result, chronically ill patients feel disempowered, divorced from their own illness narratives.
(God bless my therapists who never did this to me!)
In truth, I feel lucky, truly lucky, that I am stubborn enough to listen to my own body. Throughout the course of writing poems of trauma, I’ve had many well-meaning acquaintances, family, and friends encourage me—sometimes insistently—to stop. The darkness I have been exploring is too uncomfortable for them and its fractured energy, to be fair, too difficult for others to hear and process—really.
Our brains crave the linear even though very few things in life happen in a linear fashion. Yet, it is human impulse to seek a linear narrative or experience no matter what is actually happening in or around us. Frank refers to these nonlinear narratives as chaos narratives, because they are, well, chaotic. Trauma speech, especially at first, is very chaotic and “the challenge of encountering a chaos narrative,” he explains, “is how not to steer the storyteller away from her feelings . . . the challenge,” he continues, “is to hear.” But, for those of us who are craving linearity and who have not been trained to sit with trauma stories silently bearing witness, this is an almost impossible task.
I’ve experienced my own intense heartbreak from those who have walked away from my story often expressing dismissal or irritation with my inability to make it all make sense at the time or allow them to name and alter my experience—to imagine it differently. There’s a helplessness that comes with listening to a chaos narrative and an honest human desire to overcome that helplessness with some sort of mechanism that will fix, soothe, or synthesize.
My poetry unravels in front of me at 5 AM every morning for several years. I sit with myself; the poems sit with me. We converse. I ask the phrases to explain what they are doing. I pick at the language, change its colors, orchestrate its sounds. Ah-ha! That’s it! And I say thank you each time as, together, we learn what it is named.
My pedophile materialized this way—through the poetry. I wrote ten more poems for still life. I let him resurrect up and out of my body and into a little book. Now he lives between two covers in an object much smaller than me—the woman he first harmed. I tell him he won’t ever get to do this thing again. I take pity on his captivity inside the prose blocks I have crafted. I explain that this captivity is the space in which he will have to learn to be and I think I even understand him better now. How difficult for him to possess such a limited imagination, to be inspirited inside such a tiny orbit, to crave the same strangeness over and over again—to make only a few decisions day after day after day. While I move on to other poems and always have a fresh vision to celebrate, he will remain in my book as if an arrangement of objects in a painting, a framed and hung still life.
This is the second of a series of blogs I will write on assault, trauma, and compassionate self-witness, as well as the hope that comes from taking the time to sit with ourselves in the dark. After all, as Martin Luther King once said so brilliantly, “But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” In our darkness, the hope of gentle light.
Order still life from PANK Press in October of 2020 at https://pankmagazine.com/shop/still-life-kimberly-ann-priest/
part one of a blog series on compassionate self-witness and my new book still life
There’s a reason poets often say ‘poetry saved my life,’
for often the blank page is the only one listening to the soul’s suffering,
the only one registering the story completely,
the only one receiving all softly and without condemnation.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes
I was reading a lyric essay piece about living with PTSD before a very small audience in a classroom at Michigan State University, when I noticed an older man in the audience tearing up as I read. The piece was fresh, another of many pieces I had written at that point while processing a history of traumatic experiences throughout my BA, MA, and MFA.
After the reading, the man approached me, still teary-eyed, and explained that he was a war vet. We shared some story about our experiences with PTSD, noting the similarities between trauma experienced as a result of sexual assault and trauma from military combat. Few people have your narrative impulse he told me, keep writing.
Honestly, I was surprised by his statement. Few? To that point, I had somewhat assumed that most people turned to some form of expressive art to work out the episodic nature of physical and psychological trauma; perhaps because I had engaged this art from such an early age, or maybe because I have been part of vibrant writing communities for almost a decade now. It hadn’t occurred to me to even imagine that I was working through my traumatic memories and experiences in an unusually healthy way.
In Beverly Engle’s It Wasn’t Your Fault, a book that addresses the trauma, and subsequent shame, of childhood sexual assault, she coins the phrase “compassionate self-witness” when referring to the way victims of assault should bear witness to their own pain and trauma. I read this book several years ago when the memory of my childhood abuse came at me full-swing. I wish I could say that every word and phrase she wrote completely released me from all the repercussions of the pedophilic act, that my eight-year-old self was completely soothed and restored—but this simply wasn’t, and isn’t, the case.
Today, as I anticipate the launch of my second chapbook addressing childhood sexual assault, I am confronted again with a particular conundrum: I still feel the shame of this past experience and an impulse to hide every poem I’ve ever written about it, even as I am also compelled to encourage others to honor the harmed parts of their body and soul, giving voice to this harm via artistic expression—to be their own compassionate self-witness.
When I look up the word “witness” in my nifty computer dictionary app, I am drawn to its verb tense. Extracting its essence, I observe that it refers to being seen, having knowledge of, being present, testifying to, and professing. These are all powerful words.
A few years ago, I wrote a poem titled “What It Holds” in which the speaker carries the broken shell of a bird’s egg in her hands and asks several others to simply look at the broken pieces. No fixing. No attempts to name the damage. No impulse to dismiss lightly. Please simply witness this with me, she asks each person on her journey through the poem. Ironically, as I have discovered over the past several years writing and seeking witness, this may be the most difficult task anyone could ever ask of another human individual. Our impulse, it seems, is to meddle, label, and (often) escape; and as much as I want to condemn this impulse in others, I know I do it too.
It’s hard—incredibly hard—to stare into an abyss, a hopeless situation, the damage of a careless moment, etc. etc. and not, at least, offer a platitude to encourage comfort or offload discomfort by assigning some blame. We need to feel better in the midst of difficulty. So do I. And I’m not sure that’s a wholly condemnable need.
It was hard—incredibly hard—to resist this need for comfort and focus all of my attention on a deep wound in my own psyche: the raw tear from a single act of pedophilia leveled again my eight-year-old body by a man who was basically a stranger to me. Previously suppressed, the memories of this act came rushing back to me in my mid-thirties; hence it was a “fresh” wound, experienced as though brand new, sending my mind and body into a strange physiological orbit.
I want to say that the reeling is over. But it’s not. There are days that spin so aggressively, I grip the ledges of my life until my bones ache. Those days are fewer and farther between thanks to my willingness to narrate, in my own words and on my own terms, the story of assault in all its forms—from the embodied trauma I still experience, to the reactions of others who get caught in a moment of my reeling, to ways I still feel vulnerable in a world where I am not (as a woman and traumatized individual) at the top of the sexual food chain.
None of this has been easy to explore or narrate. I’ve wanted to quit many times and, only a few months ago, seriously considered burning the box of books I will soon receive from PANK (my publisher) because still life is twenty-one poems all beginning “my pedophile.” What on earth was I thinking?!! Why give so much artistic attention to this disgusting act and then offer this very personally painful history to an entire world of readers?!! Yes, I was seriously considering dousing the cardboard in gasoline, lighting a match (drop), changing my identity, and letting this whole history of trauma go up in the flames.
But, that’s not really how a history happens. History is chronicled, remembered, and known no matter how much we wish to run from its traumas and shames. My veins, my DNA, carry the imprint of a this past. In running, it only comes with me. And trying to gain any sort of personal power over that shame through dismissal, defenses, or escape does nothing to alter its existence. It’s still there. The small huddled eight-year-old of my body is part of me and she needs me every time her system goes on high-alert or the grief initiates another soul shattering. “The truth is,” says Engle, “one cannot be truly empowered until the shame is brought out, examined, and healed by compassion.”
Even as I read the word “healed” I cringe a little, though I know what Engle means. You can’t suture a broken bird egg. The pieces cupped in the hand cannot be restored to their original state. Things have changed. The eight-year old is harmed; she cannot be unharmed.
But she can be loved.
The shell shards in my poem are beautiful, a fragile memorial to a winged-life attempted, and they can be honored for what they are as they are. They can be placed in a glass jar and set on a shelf for observance. They could even be dusted off with a fine brush, maybe polished and arranged—appreciated.
I am a woman with PTSD still learning to cope with physiological stressors and emotional pain from assault. I have looked at, even lingered, in the dark corners of my mind to see, gain knowledge, be present, and then to testify to what I found there and eventually profess those findings. My exploration, however, has no value unless I can offer a compassionate response to and about what I have witnessed. I am happy to say I can.
After all, what is a broken eggshell or a small child huddled and frightened in the corner of a room? Life. They are both a part of the living world. And in the dark places I have searched, I have always found life. Broken, shaken, unmoving perhaps—but evidence of aliveness all the same.
The war veteran sitting across from me that cold January evening was shaking too. Soft spoken and bright he told me a bit about his experiences and how little others understand PTSD. Few words were exchanged between us—instead, we shared a knowing. We bore witness to common trauma while the people around us gathered in more jovial conversation. The eggshells in our hands were trembling ever so slightly and, together, we observed their delicate edges where torn and the perfect roundness of some of their intact pieces. No need to label or fix this moment. It was beautiful. The shattering of our mutual existences, a few vulnerable minutes acknowledging our pasts, together honoring all of it.
This is the first of a series of blogs I will write on assault, trauma, and compassionate self-witness, as well as the hope that comes from taking the time to sit with ourselves in the dark. After all, as Martin Luther King once said so brilliantly, “But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” In our darkness, the hope of gentle light.
Order still life from PANK Press in October of 2020 at https://pankmagazine.com/shop/still-life-kimberly-ann-priest/