Whilst I was writing these poems, this sequence, once I realised that was what I was doing, I started to look around for other poets who had written about violence or trauma.
My friend, the poet David Tait was leaving to live and work in China and asked me to look after part of his collection of books.
Looking through the box, I found Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
It was a huge and heavy book,written in blank verse. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say I fell in love with it.
This is from Book 1, available online here and translated by Ian Johnston.
Before the sea,
land, and heavens, which cover everything,
the entire world of nature looked the same.
They called that Chaos, a crude confused mass,nothing but lifeless stuff and scattered seeds of matter not yet properly combined, all piled up in the same place together.There was no Titan yet providing light to the world, Phoebe did not grow larger and renew her crescent horns, nor did Earth remain hanging in the surrounding air, balanced by her own weight. Amphitrite had not yet pushed her arms through long margins of the coastal shores, and where there was land there was also sea and air, but the ground was not solid, the water was not fit for swimming, and the air lacked any light. No matter retained its own proper shape—one thing would keep obstructing something else, for in one body cold things fought with hot,wet with dry, soft with hard, and heavy thingswith those which had no weight.
In the Metamorphosis, there are more than 250 transformations as women (and sometimes men, but mostly women) fall afoul of the gods. They are transformed into trees, birds, animals, flowers.
I started to think of the violence of that act. The transformation of the self by another.
Which is what happens in an abusive relationship.
The self is transformed. Maybe this is the most violent act.
Which sounds ridiculous, because physical violence is obviously more painful, more immediate, more obvious, more measurable.
But then, once the self is transformed, it can’t be reversed.
In Ovid, hardly anyone comes back to human form.
If they live, they live a different life.
I also, around this time, before, during, after writing this poem, found this wonderful and positive portrayal of transformation by the poet Liz Berry. I’ve always wanted to ask her whether she’d read Ovid – the line ‘I found my bones hollowing down to slender pipes’ is particularly Ovidian, in its detail. You can read her poem ‘Bird’ here.
When I Was a Thing with Feathers
When I turned mimic and could sing only what I’d heard
a hundred times before, when my throat changed shape
and left me unable to articulate the edges of words,
when feathers pierced my skin growing from within,
when I tried to let my head fall to my hands and found
only wings, when I was able to fly but chose never
to stutter from tree to earth and back again, when I
could live on almost nothing, when I saw myself reflected
in windows, my eyes like tiny stones and my beak
the smallest sword, when I knew fear was just a thing
to be bargained with, inside my feathered heart
was another feathered thing, born white but slowly
turning black, the way the crow in all the stories
was turned black for speaking truth.