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Poetry at the Bleeding Edge

Poetry at the Bleeding Edge

CW: the poem under observation today, and the discussion of it, is focussed on issues about self-harming. There are no graphic descriptions, nor any representations of cutting. But if this is a subject matter that you don’t wish to think about, I won’t be upset if you choose to look away now 🙂


Beyond this is a life
an easy come or often
easy go decision
creating storms from sorrow,
refracting prisms
building rainbows out of pyramid tears,
and every sacrificial piece
perchance to know;
shards tearing, shaping
nightmares out of dreams,
living with
and through
and always because
of peculiar individual fears,
underneath the blackness
in every day and every year
leaving me as Pharaoh of a thousand secrets
in the seizure of a collapsing star.
Beyond this blanket shrouded world
smothered, sometimes suffocating
leaking light like a dripping tap
through puncture marks that say
this. is where it stops,
bringing second after second
as inevitable as the next
as empty as the last
tick tick
tick tick
tick tock
but priceless
for I cannot capture even one single second
once the last is lost;
just wanting reason to give you
flowers not leave you
flowers for I would not know where to drop;
I could not put them down and simply go
not on my own,
always looking for you
in all that is in others —
as much as is as not
for that is where you leave me looking
for a reason
to bring daffodils to an empty spot.

As you’ll probably realise from reading this poem, it is not about the act of self-harming. It is about being friends with somebody who self-harms. I wrote it to help myself try to understand how I felt about two girls in an online poetry community I had joined. One of the girls previously had self-harmed, and the other was self-harming. I tried to be supportive, and they were mostly very cheerful girls. I remember one time though how the one who was self-harming at the time, had been absent for a day, and related the next day how she had been taken to the Emergency Room to have her cuts stitched up.

There was a great distance separating myself and these girls. I was in the UK and one of them lived in Texas; the other lived in California but previously lived in the same city in Texas. The year was 2002 when I first joined the poetry community. It was a very small group, but this was the pretty early days of the internet, so there was no Facebook. There was quite a difference, relatively speaking, between us as well — I would have been twenty nine years old, and they were fourteen and fifteen years old (the older one was the one who had stopped self-harming). Needless to say, I knew nothing about what self-harming involved, so I was learning as I heard about it.

I’m not going to do a line-by-line or stanza-by-stanza commentary on this poem. It is very much a flow of emotion that came from trying to understand the act of self-harming, and how I could best support them. around sixteen years later, when I met another person who became a good friend and also was self-harming, I felt I understood better how to be a supportive friend without being out of my depth.

This is a poem I do sometimes read at open-mic events. It is good to read a poem like this that makes audience members think, without being angry or assertive. It is a poem that benefits from pacing; the use of intentionally-weighted pauses to let air into the poem has a huge effect. Examples come in the isolated Tick tick / Tick tick / Tick tock. I don’t quite delay each sound to the duration of a second, but not by much less.

A working title for this poem was Cleopatra. I honestly don’t know exactly how I thought-up the lines: leaving me as Pharaoh of a thousand secrets / in the seizure of a collapsing star, other than the initial Cleopatra idea. When I read this poem at the final night of Abergavenny Writing Festival in April 2018, the poet headlining that night, told me after my set, that she thought them incredibly powerful lines.

One of the early lines in this poem deserves comment. Although I present it here in the way it was published, I felt uncomfortable with my choice of words when I say, “An easy go decision”. The decision to self-harm is not an easy one. The reasons why people self-harm are complex and painful. I now read those lines: An easy come / but never easy go decision. Even now I am still not particularly happy with those lines, and I may cut them (no pun intended) from the poem.

Another pair of lines that deserve comment is: Shards tearing, shaping / nightmares out of dreams. Originally this began, “Tearing shards,” but a friend whose poetic acumen I respect highly, pointed out that you can’t tear a shard. Let’s forget for now that the word shard is a poetry no-no for many poets! The problem is that the word tearing can be both a verb and an adjective. In my draft version, I was using it adjectivally. The shards were capable of tearing things. In the end I accepted the advice, but I didn’t ditch the use of the word shard. I simply altered the word order, so it became shards tearing. I actually prefer that version 🙂

One more illustration of how I chose to join how the poem is presented with how I tend to read it, is towards the end. I shall extract the lines here:

just wanting reason to give you
flowers not leave you
flowers for I would not know where to drop;

I wanted the way I deliver those lines to work equally strongly whether they relate to my friends, or to the flowers themselves. I pause at the end of each of those lines. “Just wanting reason to give you,” because I do wish I had the answers, then almost trivialising the sentiment by throwing flowers at it. Then again, in the next line, “Not leave you,” because I would have been bereft if self-harming turned into suicide, accidental or planned. I was promising that my support – my thoughts and platonic love would always be there. And then again, splitting the trivialisation by dropping the flowers onto the next line. and then the sombre ending image, of taking daffodils to an empty spot.

I totally feel this poem as I read it aloud. It is like I am experiencing all of those raw emotions all over again. It is hard not to get choked-up reading this poem. It is probably the most emotionally-charged poem I have ever written, and ever will write.

I will leave you with a recording of Sharp, when I did a set at the final night of Abergavenny Writing Festival, 2018.

Published inPoetry

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