Tag Archives: poetry about domestic violence

16 Days of Action #day16


There are only two poems in a ‘traditional’ form in my first collection, and both are in the sequence.  The first is this one, a sestina.  I read somewhere that for a sestina to truly work, it must be about something that obsesses you, that you cannot stop thinking of, that goes round and round in your head.  As soon as I read this, I knew I could try and write one.

The words at the end of each line repeat in a set pattern, and then all six words must be used in the last three lines in a specific order.  To me then, those words then, are like the key in a piece of music.  They set the atmosphere or the tone of the poem.  The words I chose, stone, bird, moon, dark are important and recurring images in the sequence.  But so is ‘it’ the idea of something that is nameless, that cannot be spoken, and so is the concept of asking, and the idea of questioning which is maybe the energy that drives this sequence.  Stone means stone, but it also means danger.  It also means the part of you that gives up, the part of you that hardens, the part of you that cannot speak.  The part of you that is a victim but also the part that fights back, that becomes stone instead of nothing.  And bird means bird, but it also means being transformed, being acted upon.  But it also means flight and freedom.  And dark means dark, but it also means danger, it also means hiding, it also means not seeing.  And the moon is the moon but it also means the things that carry on anyway, it means indifference, it means listening but it also means witness.

I started this poem in Clare’s workshop as well, although the first draft of it had no intention of being a sestina.  The next week, I was running a workshop session on form with my young writers, and after talking about why you would want to write a sestina (something that obsesses you, something you can’t stop thinking about) I had a go at writing one along with them.  It felt like following a thread of language, with the words squatting at the end of the line, unchangeable and insistent.

I’m writing this whilst tutoring on a residential course, the Poetry Carousel in Grange-Over-Sands.  Finishing off these blog posts during this weekend has made me realise how much my teaching is bound up with my writing.  I wrote many of these poems during workshops on residentials, writing along with the participants, who over the course of time have become friends, colleagues, even a large, dysfunctional and a geographically distant family.

I read from the sequence as a sequence for the first time on a residential course, and had to run into the sea afterwards to get rid of the tension that was running through me.

It has been cathartic, thought-provoking, sad, anger-inducing process to revisit some of these poems as part of the 16 Days of Action.   I also feel proud, of how far I’ve moved from them and beyond them, that the pain I was writing about is no longer the same pain.  Time, and poetry really does make things better.

The last poem in the sequence is a sonnet, but I won’t be posting it here.  I wanted to write that poem as a sonnet, because it is the most closed, most self-contained form.  The way a sonnet functions like a box, the way it snaps shut at the end made me hopeful that if I finished the sequence with it, it would stop the poems continuing.  I could stop writing about it, stop thinking about it.  That was possibly naïve however.  The ‘you’ at the beginning of the sestina is Clare Shaw, the speech taken from a conversation we had about writing about trauma.  She didn’t  meant it in the way I heard it back then.  In fact this is a mishearing, a misremembering of what Clare said.  Luckily she is a generous enough person not to mind.  I misheard what I needed to hear, which was permission to write about it.

The writing I’m doing now are looking at what makes it possible for things like domestic violence to take place, what are the conditions in our society that mean some men become perpetrators and some women become victims/survivors/resisters or just lucky (if they don’t experience it)

If you would like to read the last poem in the sequence, you can buy a copy of The Art of Falling here

Thank you all for your reading, and your supportive comments, and messages.  I really appreciate them all.


How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping

What happened sits in my heart like a stone.
You told me I’d be writing about it
all my life, when I asked
how to stop saying these things to the moon.
I told you how writing it makes the dark
lift and then settle again like a flock of birds.

You said that thinking of the past like birds
who circle each year will make the stone
in my chest heavy, that the dark
that settles inside me will pass. You say it
is over, you say that even the moon
can’t know all of what happened that to ask

to forget is to miss the point. I should ask
to remember.  I should open myself to the birds
who sing for their lives.  I should tell the moon
how his skin was like smoke, his hand a stone
that fell from a great height.  It
was not what I deserved.  The year was dark

because he was there and my eyes were dark
and I fell to not speaking.  If I asked
him to leave he would smile.  Nothing in it
was sacred.  And I didn’t look up.  The birds
could have fallen from the sky like stones
and I wouldn’t have noticed.  The moon

was there that night in the snow.  The moon
was waiting the day the dark
crept into my mouth and left me stone
silent, stone dumb, when all I could ask
was for him to stop, please stop.  The birds
fled to the trees and stayed there.  It

wasn’t their fault.  It was nobody’s fault.  It
happened because I was still.  The moon
sung something he couldn’t hear.  The bird
in my heart silent for a year in the dark.
This is the way it is now, asking
for nothing but to forget his name, a stone

that I carry.  It cools in my mouth in the dark
and the moon sails on overhead.  You ask
about birds, but all I can talk of is stones.


16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #day14


16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #day14

Translated by violence – that witnessing violence, or carrying it out, or being the victim of it changes you in a fundamental way.  It sounds obvious written out like that, but there are lots of ways of knowing something without truly knowing it.

The many violences inflicted on women in Ovid’s Metamorphosis.  Echo and her stolen voice, Medusa with snakes in her hair, transformed by revengeful Athena because she was raped by Poseidon, the Theban women and Io’s maids transformed into seabirds, and Europa carried away by Jupiter in the shape of a bull and raped…and the one that twisted my heart, Daphne, transformed into a laurel tree to escape the attentions of Apollo, who then still touches her, even though she is a tree

Transformation of the self by another – maybe it is the most violent thing that can happen

It is not as easily undone

And afterwards, the knowledge that the self can be transformed, and what to do with that self, now it has changed, and whether it is a self at all, or something else, something not-self

This is one of the few poems in the book that directly address other women.  When I say ‘us’ I mean women, women who have been translated by violence, women who have been transformed by it.



Don’t we all have a little Echo in us, our voices stolen,
only able to repeat what has already been said:
you made me do it he says and we call back do it, do it.

Wouldn’t any of us, if pushed, sit on the riverbank
and comb snakes from our hair, or think that in our grief
we could become a sea bird, our outstretched bodies

like a cross nailed to the wind? Who amongst us
hasn’t sat astride a man more bull than man
as he knelt in the dirt, for no good reason we can think of?

There was a time when I was translated by violence,
there were times I prayed to be turned into a flower
or a tree, something he wouldn’t recognise as me.

16 Days of Action #day13 #16days

16 Days of Action #day13 #16days

16 Days of Action – Day 13

This is the other poem in the sequence that I don’t usually read out loud.

I wrote this at Treloyhan Manor Hotel, in St Ives.  I was tutoring a residential there with the poet Clare Shaw.  She led a kind of visualisation exercise, and I wrote this poem.

It was one of two poems that I wrote in her workshop – along with the course participants – the other one is the title poem of the sequence, and will appear here in three days time.

I’ve said thank you to Clare before, but I won’t get tired of it.  She was one of the first people I showed these poems to as a whole sequence and I honestly don’t think I would have published them without her support.

I’d already sent the ‘final’ version of the manuscript to Amy Wack, my editor at Seren, but I sent her this poem, and the other poem, because I knew they belonged with the others.

Part of trauma theory talks about part of you remaining in the time and place where the trauma took place.  I hadn’t read anything around trauma theory when I wrote this poem though.

Poetry can go back to that place and put a fence and a border around it, can contain it a little, so it isn’t just leaking out into and onto everything else.

All of these poems did this for me.  I often describe them as my shields that I put between myself and the world.

I said in an earlier post (I think) that there is a lot of knowing in these poems.

They are also a reaching towards knowing and a figuring out.

I Know

I know this bus stop, the green and flaking paint of it.
I know this road I have to cross, I know the traffic
rushing past.  I know these seven steps.  I know
this door, its weight, its tone as it speaks in anger.
I know this hallway, the hexagon tiles, red and black
and red and black.  I know this second door.
I know what it is for the body to open one door
then the other while the heart stays silent.
I know these floorboards.  I know what it is
to lie here, the body like a boat, caught by its heels
in a harbour. I know what it is to kneel here
as if in prayer, if prayers were ever full of tears.
Ten years on, it’s almost heady to look back,
see myself kneeling on the floor, watching
the hysterical skittering of the phone.
His voice, trapped and low: pick up the phone. 
You’d better pick up the fucking phone.
I know the top of my head, I know my shoulders,
can see how everything I knew is scattered
across the floor, like love and all the weight of it.
I know this room.  I know that sofa, the orange of it,
this patient waiting.  I know how it feels to walk
backwards into it.  I know this place.  I leave my self
down there, kneeling, still alone.

16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #Day12 #16days

16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #Day12 #16days

The Oxford Dictionary defines a “doppelganger” as ‘An apparition or double of a living person’.  There’s an interesting article on the BBC here

I also found this rather strange website where you can register your details and find your very own ‘twin stranger’.

I have my very own twin who I’m often mistaken for, so it’s not that I long for a doppelganger.

But I’ve been fascinated by them since I heard a story from a friend about visiting a concentration camp, looking at the pictures on the wall of the victims who were murdered, and seeing a photo of a student that my friend taught.  My friend said it wasn’t a lookalike, it was his student, staring out from many years ago, from a horrific time in history.

And there are other names for doppelgangers – a ‘spirit double’, a ‘fetch’, a ‘firstcomer’.

So this is my doppelganger poem, my own private haunting, and one of the first poems I wrote in the sequence, examining an experience which led to me finally being forced to think about something I hadn’t thought about for ten years, something I hadn’t told anyone about for ten years, a ‘fetch’ that dragged me back to the past.


It was you, the set of your shoulders, your way
of standing, your arms folded across your chest,

your belly a small hill, it was you, it was you,
your hair dark and shaved, your skin brown

from the sun.  I turned on my heel and went
back into the classroom and sank to my knees

behind the door and I prayed you away,
to a God I’d never spoken to before,

I wished you away like a child.  I looked again
and again through the darkened glass,

it was you, but it was not you.  Your soul
had entered this man, his eyes and his hands

were yours, it was you, I could swear it
on anything you named, if I stopped looking

it would always be you.  So I looked
and I looked till my eyes burned from

not blinking and I watched him walk away.
Your soul left his body as if it had

never been there and all that was left
of you was a taste of smoke in the air.

16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #Day11


EDIT *Apologies – for some reason this post didn’t publish automatically yesterday.  Instead it went to my draft folder and sat there!*

Day 11

I wrote this in a temper, in a rush, in one go.

I think this is the angriest poem in the book.

they tried to make me say your name

Who is ‘they’? I cannot say.

I still cannot say the name.

Naming things is one of the ways we make sense of the world.  A name is a pact between ourselves, that we are talking about the same thing, that we mean the same thing.

Across cultures and religions, the act of naming the universe is a common genesis story.  Adam named the animals to gain dominion over them.

Jo Bell’s poem ‘Crates’ takes a slightly different approach to the act of naming.  It starts ‘Observe when I speak of crates/your mind supplies one straight away’ and then goes on to outline the different types of crates that the reader might be thinking of.

I remember when I first heard this poem.  The last three lines, the trick, the turn, the surprise of the poem, felt like the neatest fitting lid on a box.  After pointing out that merely speaking the word ‘crates’ conjures one into existence, the poem concludes

‘Now, let us speak of love.’

This poem is the first poem in Jo’s collection Kith, which is available from Nine Arches Press.  If you haven’t already got a copy, I would recommend it.

When I read this poem, it helped me understand my strange reaction, my strange rule/law around speaking/not speaking a name.  If speaking a name doesn’t give you power over something, but instead conjures it into existence…


Your Name

Because they tried to make me say your name,
the shame and blame and frame of it,
the dirty little game of it, the dark and distant
heart of it, the cannot be a part of it,
the bringing back the taste of it till I was changed
inside the flame of it, the cut and slap and shut
of it, the rut and fuck and muck of it,
the not-forgotten hurt of it, they syllable
stop-dead of it, the starting at the throat of it,
the ending at the teeth of it.

16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #Day10


Day 10

Much of the information for this poem comes from https://medicalnewstoday.com and www.lenstore.co.uk

When I was writing this poem, I googled ‘black eye’ and ‘what causes a black eye’ and ‘facts about eyes’.

I knew what caused a black eye, but the internet did not give me that answer.

In the book ‘Wilful Blindness’ Margaret Keffernan examines the concept of Wilful Blindness, which is what happens when people choose, sometimes consciously but mostly not, to not ‘see’ in situations where ‘we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know.’

For domestic violence to take place, wilful blindness has to take place.

On the part of the victim i.e ‘How could I have been so blind?’.  It’s common for a victim not to recognise that what is happening is domestic abuse.

But also on the part of society.

Domestic violence is happening under our noses/in front of our faces/

and we/you/I are wilfully blind.


On Eyes

That we are not born with tears
but learn them in the passing of a month.
That a black eye can be caused by a tennis ball,
a fist or a door.  That blue-eyed people
share a common ancestor with every
other blue-eyed person in the world.
That there are microscopic creatures
living in our eyelashes.  That these
will not speak up for us.  That a black
eye fades from dark-blue to violet
to yellow-green.  That dolphins sleep
with one eye open.  That on seeing
danger the eye will close.  That we
do not enter this world with colour.
That it takes only a few days for
a black eye to heal.  That the eye
is the fastest moving part of the body
but not the fastest healing for that
is the tongue.  That to avoid a black eye
make sure rugs and carpets are well placed
and there are no wrinkles in your floor.
Scorpions have twelve eyes.
Worms have no eyes at all.
To avoid a black eye, always wear
protective gear, such as a helmet or goggles.

16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #day7


16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #Day7

Reasons you might stay in an abusive relationship

*Perhaps the violence has crept up on you slowly.
*Perhaps he apologises afterwards, and he’s genuinely sorry
*Perhaps he won’t leave.  How do you get someone to leave a house who refuses anyway?
*Perhaps it’s not really violence at all.
*Perhaps the arguments are your fault
*Perhaps you’re imagining it.
*Perhaps you’re making it worse.
*Perhaps he has threatened your family.
*Perhaps he said he was joking
*Perhaps you are tired
*Perhaps you’ve tried to leave and he’s followed you

Below is a video of the Army Ants in their Death Spiral.  According to Wikipedia, they are blind, and when separated from the main party, they lose the pheromone track and begin to follow one another, forming a continuously rotating circle, until eventually they die of exhaustion.

*Perhaps you’ve lost the way out
*Perhaps you’ve been tricked into thinking you belong where you’ve found yourself
*Perhaps you’ve been tricked

In the poem ‘In That Year’ (Day 1) you will find this couplet

And in that year my tongue spoke the language
of insects and not even my father knew me. 

The day I wrote this poem, I understood that I was writing a sequence.  Up to that point, I’d been writing poems, and keeping them secret, not showing anybody.

I was supposed to be writing a sequence at the time.  Under strict instructions from Ann and Peter Sansom.  I was a student on their 18 month ‘Writing School’ and that was the task.  Write a sequence.  Except I hated sequences.  Until I started writing one myself.

The Language of Insects 

This is the language of insects, this body
low to the ground, this single purpose,
this living with dirt, this stop-start-stop,
this construction of fabulous structures,
this non-human logic, this cannot-live-without
the-other, this no-good-as-a-single-entity,
this language, this language, please I cannot
meet your kind again, you showed me
what knees were really for, no forgiveness,
none at all, this movement, this movement,
there are spiders that eat one another,
there are ants that follow each other
in a spiral, smaller and smaller
until they take the life from one another,
a black fist, all I know creeps to the edges
of rooms, the flies on the windowsills,
the buzzing, the buzzing that made it begin.


16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #day6


16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence – Day 6


The painting above is by a fabulous artist called Fran Riley.  It hangs in my living room to remind me what I know.

Poets have always turned to myth and stories to talk about trauma and violence.  The figure of the woodcutter – just the word ‘woodcutter’ and the word ‘forest’ and all the old childhood stories are summoned from their resting places.

When a poem settles down on its hunches and the poet comes from out of the shadows and says something like ‘Listen’ or ‘I can tell you’ or ‘Let me tell you’ or ‘The story goes’ it can feel like they are with you in the room whilst you’re reading.

One of my favourite poems which does this is by the poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly.  The poem is called Song.  Listen, the poet says.  This poem is also about knowing.  Who knows, and who doesn’t.  Not only who knows, but what they know.  The type of knowing.

I read an article that told me that trees warn each other when there is danger.  That they communicate through an intertwined and complicated root system.  That if one tree is failing in a forest, other trees will divert resources to it to help it.

This poem is about a moment of knowing, of understanding, a moment of change, a moment of knowing. Although it is hidden amongst trees, and behind figures of woodcutters, and clever ravens, and throats, and light coming and going from the room as if it was a person.





The Knowing

The story goes that the light slipped past/and entered the
room like a shout/he stood over me/a woodcutter entered
the forest/and the trees began to warn each other/it was
July or maybe June/the knowing settled at my throat/a
clever raven/it never left/does not believe in trees or
flying/the light slipping past/it is sometimes painful/to have
a knowing at your throat/that clever raven/but better than
the alternative/something small and bruised/the raven
knows most things/it remembers nothing/this is really
about the trees/which saw it all

16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #day5


One must have a mind of winter

The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens is one of my favourite poems.  It is a poem that has haunted me.  I didn’t love it straight away – the first time I read it, I thought nothing of it, or thought I did.  But then, every time I’ve come across it, I take the time to read it again.

I like that the resolution of the first line, the conclusion, is held off, sustained by the poem until line 8, but then this is only half a resolution, and the poem pushes onward again.

What does a mind of winter feel like?

Who am I talking to in my poem? Not to him.  Maybe to you.  Maybe to myself.

Who is Wallace Stevens talking to?  There is a snow man.  There is a ‘himself’.  There is a male listener in the snow.  Could he be talking to me?  A mind of winter

Who am I telling this story to, where nothing really happened, apart from the snow falling, and everything, almost everything stopping.

Whenever it snows, I think of this poem.  I think of that night.

I am glad I live in a place now where it hardly ever snows.

There is too much salt in the air.  I live too close to the sea.

This is as close to a narrative as I can get.

I hardly ever read this poem out.

Even though it’s made of nothing but snow and air and light





It fell all day and cut off each street.
Nothing worked the way it was
supposed to.  Cars abandoned
at the sides of roads.  The snow
with a silent, insistent will of its own.
People in suits hurried past,
smiling despite themselves,
despite being late, snowlight
on their faces, opened up
at the slow speed of moving.
The traffic lights flashed
red/amber/green and every bus
brought shuddering to its knees.
In that quiet light he looked
taller than in the morning
when I left, everything black
about him, his coat and shoes
and trousers, his hands and heart
and eyes.  How pleased
he was to see me, his arm heavy
on my shoulders.  The smell
of his leather coat filled my nose
and took the cold away.
I told myself it was just a dog I heard,
that night on the street
when all I could see was snow.
I almost turned but then I followed.
I followed to the darkness of our home.

16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #day4


16 Days of Action Against Domestic Violence #day4

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.