I’m a highly vulnerable person. A psychiatrist sent me a letter telling me so. In my early twenties, I bounced between psychiatrists and received various explanations for why I found life so hard. “Highly vulnerable” made some sense to me, but needed a warning: “likely to write and enjoy poetry”.
In my poem, The Proof, I describe this time in my life, saying “I see myself as I was then, braced / against wind in the underpass, / wearing a thin black coat, and trainers / that never dried.” I wanted to capture the feeling of being porous, which I suppose is another way of saying vulnerable. I couldn’t protect myself from wind, frost, raised voices or bright colours. Every sensation rattled through me. In response, I oozed, leaking sweat, snot, tears and drool. As I say in The Proof, “everything is wet.”
What I’ve learned since then is that I’m autistic. My mind processes sensory stimuli differently from other people. It’s like being at a rock concert all the time. When I went to see Metallica as a teenager, it didn’t feel much more overwhelming than standing on Dame Street or being in a supermarket.
“Tomatoes / pulse with fluorescence” and the vacuum cleaner can shatter “my skull and teeth / like eggshell,” I say in my poem Jack-in-the-Box. For a long time, I tried my best to “not to make a fuss / putting my hands in my mouth / so screams press / against them,” but when I left home, it got harder and harder to cope. There were more things to juggle, from romantic relationships to work dynamics, and even a trip to the shop was painful. Hence, the psychiatrists. I longed to get up at 7am, and go to work; instead, I was awake all night, pacing, my head too chaotic for rest.
Over time, from chaos, poetry began to emerge. Reading poems was a lifeline: I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read a novel, and TV was exhausting. Poems were small but expansive: I disappeared into their little worlds. I loved the intensity of John Donne’s emotions, which seemed to mirror my own, and the clarity of Mary Oliver’s landscapes. Because I’ve never felt comfortable with spoken words, writing has always been the place where I’m fluent. In poems I can be vulnerable, earnest, and also hold many different truths at once. It’s the opposite of speaking out loud, which is like using a foreign language. It took me until I was 25 to realise that the correct answer to, “How are you?” is “Fine, how are you?” and not a description of what I’m reading, or a story about my cat.
When I write, I have time to explore nuance and even to escape the boundaries of one particular bodily form. The title of my collection, In Her Jaws, comes from a line in one of the opening poems describing “the flash of a stoat at dusk”, which has caught a rabbit and holds “everything / in its jaws”.
In poems, I can become that fierce stoat, while also being the rabbit, limp and helpless. The poem, The Light Comes in the Name of the Voice, is a meditation on Jeanne d’Arc, military leader and saint. In 2011, I went to a lecture by Anne Carson about Jeanne d’Arc – I remember it being a profound experience and what has always stuck with me is Carson’s descriptions of the questions Jeanne was asked when she was on trial for heresy.
In my poem, I frame these as, “where does your voice come from / do you hear it like you hear my voice / when do you hear it do you hear it now / does it echo”. I didn’t give them question marks because they’re not looking for an answer. They reminded me strongly of questions I had been asked by psychiatrists.
Centuries after Jeanne d’Arc’s execution, we still don’t know how to talk to people who’ve experienced things outside the norm. Jeanne’s life is unique, but, like her, I knew what it was not to have words. I couldn’t give a concrete, simple explanation for my problems, and because of that, I was viewed with suspicion.
I was captivated by this aspect of Jeanne’s story, but I was also fascinated by the many dichotomies of her life: her power to command soldiers, and yet her extreme vulnerability; her illiteracy and humble roots, and her intense spiritual experiences. Only in poetry is there room for me to explore these sorts of contradictions, to ask who we are in the face of the inexplicable and how to express what cannot be said.
Another thing that’s hard to put into words – although people keep trying – is love. As I worked on the poems that became In Her Jaws, I wasn’t only in the stoat’s jaws: I was also in the teeth of love.
When I say I’m working on love poems, people get edgy. Romantic love: isn’t that a bit 1822? But the transformations of love charged my writing with a new sense of expansiveness. When I write about my wife, the body is mutable. I see her as a snail, a werewolf, a walrus, a hazel tree. We become sea-water. I worried how she would feel about these interpretations, but when I showed her the poem in which I imagined her as a werewolf, she welled up. “You understand me,” she said.
Without her, I don’t think I would have felt brave enough to look back on the struggles of my teens and early twenties, or to reframe that vulnerability as something positive. Being “highly vulnerable” allows me to be open to the world, to change, to different perceptions, and to love.
By far the most popular poem I've ever written, Pride 2017, is a celebration of gay marriage and love, in which I write, "This is old as kissing – / two bodies of the same kind // loving one another." When I began these poems, I didn't know that was the story In Her Jaws would ultimately tell: of moving from a cage to an open space, from hopelessness to a June night where I sleep safely with my wife and "wake to a rainstorm // frogs leaping in yarrow and lady's bedstraw."
In Her Jaws is published by banshee press