The first poem I ever remember writing was early in elementary school. The summer before I had gone to visit my maternal grandparents, as we did every summer, and my grandmother had given me a rag doll as a gift.
I named her Sally Michelle. Sally was pale white with yellow yarn hair. Her eyes were canon sized and irrevocably blue. I remember loving her, throwing my arms out and spinning around in circles with her in the middle of the living room. On the drive back to Pittsburgh she never left my arms.
As the school year started my grandmother had fallen ill, and her outlook was not very positive. I didn’t know my grandmother very well but I cared for her and knew that I was supposed to be very sad. My mother was very sad. I sat down to write a poem for a school project and what came out was a poem about Sally and my grandmother. I tried to understand the idea of losing her by imagining her soul would get transferred (or trapped) into that of my doll. When I read this poem out loud to an audience of my fellow students and teachers, I got a very loud round of applause. Scuttling nervously off stage I felt myself start to smile, I knew I had something. A gift.
Two of the most profound relationships in my life were with women who were extremely emotionally abusive. Sometimes physical. After a particularly bad fight with my ex, she would try to pay her way back into my heart with a pair of shoes she knew I needed, a dinner, a get away trip. Never an apology. Just the motion of her arms extending out toward me, holding some object like a frail egg: See, here, I love you. Can’t you tell?
The fights grew more frequent and violent. When I broke up with her she wouldn’t stop crying. She came to my apartment to drop off some of my things and had hidden gifts in the bag: a pair of aubergine silk pants, a picture of us from a friend’s wedding, and a folded note. She had a talent for script and drawing that she never pursued until it was time to make her amends to me. The note, beautifully written, said: “If I ever let you down, I hope you feel my love.”
I couldn’t make sense of what that was supposed to mean, but the weight of the lack of apology, again, fell like a weight on my heart.
The other woman was unjustly cruel. She would hit me, choke me, tell me I was worthless, stupid, ugly, etc. etc; then, wordlessly, buy me a bar of soap. A candle. Something purple because it is my favorite color. See, here, I love you. Can’t you tell. I covered my body in lavender soaps and lotions for years. It helped to settle the fuzz in my head, but could never soothe away the memory.
Both of these women, I have found, were threatened by the most powerful gift I had been given: my voice My ex would make me write long Facebook posts declaring my love for her when things got bad. Other people weren’t so found of her, and she needed me to be a voice of dissent. My poems are things I keep quiet until they are ready for a reading or publication, and she hated this. She constantly needled me because I didn’t share enough of my work with her; she needed to know what I was writing in private, and control what I put out in public. One of the first poems I got published in 2017 was an ode to her. It’s one of the only love poems I’ve ever written that holds up. Her name is still attached to it which makes me a little ill, but I can’t rewrite the truth that my heart belonged to her, can I?
I lost journals and journals of poetry and non-fiction because these women were so threatened by what I had to say. The truth of what they did and how it made me feel. Poetry is a powerful tool. As Jeanette Winterson says: a tough life needs a tough language. I wrote poems through the turmoil of loving both of them as a means to hold myself up. They were something true and solid that I could hold onto while the rest of me wasted away.
I have spent a lot of the past two months writing about these women. Some of those things are headed to publication which is really exciting and terrifying. Telling the truth is tough business, especially when you still feel it’s your duty to defend that person with your life. I’m happy to be writing honestly about these things for the first time in my life, but I know that writing will have consequences. There will be no one there to present me with a small token when I’m hit with the backlash.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. My story is one you’ll be hearing along with many others for the rest of the month. It’s hard to leave when you’ve been told that there is no one else out in the world that can care for you and love you. It’s hard to leave if you’ve been isolated from all the other support systems in your life. My abusers made me feel worthless without them, but that was never true. We all have a gift that is more powerful than the love they gave us, the good love they refused to give us. We are far greater than what we’ve been told. I hope whoever needed to hear that hears it loud and clear. I hope you reach out to someone, or someone reaches out to you.
Also, remember this above all else: what happened to you is not your fault. You own your experience, it is no one elses to talk about, to take. If it helps, if you can, write about it. Don’t let them take your words from you.