Ten years ago, I discovered a collection of poems titled ‘Holocaust’ by Charles Reznikoff’s. During this time, I was working as a consultant in London in the arena of gender-based violence. Reznikoff’s work resonated with me. I had grown up with stories of the war in my family. Also working with survivors of abuse, I had a deep awareness of the impact of trauma in the ‘ordinary’ settings of family and intimate relationships. ‘Holocaust’ is a unique collection of poems depicting the atrocities of war.
Reznikoff's collection draws directly from the official government transcripts of the Nuermberg Trials and the records of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. This technique of creating poems, literally by carving out the poem from the original text, is a technique known as Found Poetry. Found poems take existing texts or other source materials and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage.
Charles Reznikoff’s work is an exceptionally skilled piece of work, created solely from source text and pure to form. Reznikoff’s collection presents multiple narratives that may have otherwise remained locked in the court room and buried in history. The accumulative effect of his poetry is powerful and gives a stark insight into daily atrocities. At the time of discovering this collection, I attended a series of courses at the Tate Modern in London led by TS Elliot Prize winner, Pascale Petit. These courses were magical; one evening a week for 8 weeks we would have exclusive access to exhibitions in the Tate Modern gallery and workshop our poems.
Inspired by Reznikoff’s collection, my poems were clearly influenced by the trauma of abuse. Using art as a stimulation to write poetry, prodded my subconscious and the poems that emerged were strangely surprising, and quietly familiar at the same time. I began to notice that a recurring theme was the ‘ordinariness’ of abuse with glimpses of change and escape.
after I’m here but Nothing by Yayoi Kusama
She grows wild wings
under the dinner table
where fields of begonias flower.
Thoughts of escape
travelling from the television,
a confetti petal.
Edward De Bono who is credited as the inventor of lateral thinking claims that creativity is the ‘most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress, and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.’ As I worked on my poems, inspired by being in such a magical place, with such a generous teacher, it became an important part of my de-compressing and ‘processing’ vicarious trauma.
In addition to the healing properties of creativity, uncovering otherwise hidden ‘truths’ is a powerful learning tool. Our language and communication reflect our thoughts. The French philosopher Foucault believed that systems of thought and knowledge are governed by rules which operate beneath the consciousness. He named the process of revealing those hidden rules the ‘archaeology of knowledge’. Poetry has the power to take something familiar or ‘accepted’ and make it unfamiliar which confuses ‘the rules’ of our thought processes and creates an opportunity to think differently about the subject. Yevgeny Yevtushenko says, ‘poetry is like a bird; it ignores all frontiers.’ Where this happens, it can be a transformative experience; a ‘light bulb’ moment.
I use creativity consistently in my work. Where possible, I introduce art, music, poetry as tools for transformation. I have used these techniques with children, young people and adults, as a vehicle for self – expression, mindset shifts and mindfulness. I would not have called it mindfulness 10 – 20 years ago, it was fun, it was play. I noticed particularly with boys how their aggressive, competitive behaviour changed when they engaged in tasks that focussed on creating, rather than winning. The poet Pablo Neruda refers to poetry as ‘an act of peace’ and in my experience, creativity and creative expression not only bring the individual peace, as their gifts are shared, others also benefit. I could trace my own personal transformations through my poems as new realisations emerged.
after Tree of 12 Metres by Giuseppe Penone
I cast off innumerable skins, emerged
as an amber tree with spokes,
reminders of a gnarled self.
The cracks in the wood became oubliettes
where devils crept out,
descending to the earth from branches.
Now, with careful attention,
a finger or an eye may trace the circles.
This appeared as a guest blog for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. For more information about their work, click here to visit their website ncadv.org/about-us
*The following article appeared as a guest blog for the Suzy Lamplugh Trust in the UK.
At the Suzy lamplugh Trust, the impact of stress on our work supporting survivors of stalking is significant in ‘ordinary’ times. Advocacy services supporting those victimised by stalking and coercive control are typically already stretched to capacity. Overwhelm of services and staff is a daily occurrence and there can be little latitude to focus on self-care and building resilience.
When disasters and emergencies occur, like COVID-19, those stressors are amplified significantly, and create unforeseen, logistical challenges. The pandemic experience is an experience of collective vulnerability and in the words of Brene Brown, ‘we can be our worst selves when we’re afraid, or our very best, bravest selves’. More than ever teams need resilience strategies embedded into individual and organizational management.
Psychological resilience based in self-care is very different from forcing yourself to be constantly positive, particularly in difficult circumstances. Ignoring difficulties actually breaks down our resilience. Psychologist Susan David challenges societies unhealthy obsession with happiness in her critique, the Tyranny of Positivity;
'humans must develop the skills and capacity to deal with difficult times — not sweep it aside as a glitch in the smooth delivery of constant happiness. Sadness, heartbreak, and grief are not signs of weakness, and pretending these “ugly” emotions do not exist only hinders our authentic existence and how we experience life. Moreover, it lowers our resilience in dealing with future difficulties as well.'
However, in these ‘unprecedented times’ where is our reference point? How can we know that this will pass? How do we anchor ourselves through deep uncertainty and where is the balance between positivity and the acknowledgement of uncomfortable emotions? In this article, I offer you three key perspectives to assist you:
Strategies for Resilience
Firstly, it may be useful to acknowledge the courage of survivors who have lived with, or currently live with danger and uncertainty from their abusers and stalkers. The more dangerous and coercive the abuse, the harder and more dangerous it is for that individual to leave, particularly if they have caring responsibilities. Yet we ask that survivor, in the midst and often at the peak of the danger - a time of great threat and paralyzing fear, to take a leap of faith and trust that this will pass.
We ask survivors to trust an imperfect criminal justice system. We ask them to trust that they can create a fulfilling future despite being broken down by months and sometimes years of stalking. Perhaps during this time of lockdown and physical distancing, we are more connected to the complexity of traumatic experiences and the visceral impact this has on our ordinary abilities to function and trust. When our daily distractions and safety blankets are removed, we are left overhearing the loud chatter of our forgotten fears and darkest insecurities.
Secondly, we can challenge the notion that the impact of the recent chain of events is unprecedented. The current situation is unusual, but the level of fear and uncertainty that connects many of us now, is in itself not unprecedented when we think of the impact of war, naturel disasters, sexual violence, stalking and fatal domestic abuse. If we fill our day by focussing on the possible and future danger, we trigger our fight, flight and freeze responses. There is benefit in noticing where we focus our mind and adjusting that focus as needed.
On 12 March the WHO released a briefing paper – “Mental Health and Psychosocial Considerations During COVID-19 Outbreak. This document includes guidance to health professionals and their managers. Under the General Population item number 3, WHO advise that we minimize watching, reading or listening to news that causes us to feel anxious or distressed. They recommend the following;
Thirdly, notice what is going on in your ‘whole-body system’– your mind, body and emotions. In my coaching practice I share powerful tools and techniques that do this, such as mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises. All are simple, time efficient techniques that can be used anywhere and will quickly calm your physiology and fear responses. In addition, implementing simple things such as walking away from your computer and stretching will release stress and allow you feel more comfortable.
While working from home, it is important to take regular breaks and where you can, check in with colleagues or friends to reduce the feelings of isolation. For those essential workers who have continuously been at work, follow the health and safety guidance and seek support from peers and managers as needed. For managers, listen to your staff and know that ‘being human’ may be your greatest asset at this time.
* Cath Kane is an associate consultant to the Suzy lamplugh Trust providing specialist advice to the MASIP Project Management Team. MASIP is a pioneering research and partnership programme, managed by Suzy Lamplugh Trust and funded by the Home Office, bringing together psychological services, victim/survivor advocacy and criminal justice responses to address the harm and impact of stalking. For more information on the Suzy Lamplugh Trust visit their website www.suzylamplugh.org