Not that most of us are in a rush to sign up for a cruise any time soon … but here is my poem, BETWEEN THE ISLANDS OF THE PACIFIC, first published in Quadrant magazine June, 2018. It’s sort of relevant to the current situation. Hope you enjoy it.
Between the Islands of the Pacific
Because by now we know everything is not so blue
The cities had tipped rubbish into the sea,
and we let them without even noticing.
Not even feeling our breathing clear
as gusts reaching ten knots cleaned up our days.
Not even. Today pure blue sky, blue sea,
out there the horizon drawing a line
below the clouds, the absoluteness of it. Nights
of diesel engines shuddering beneath us.
We lounge on chairs side by side on the deck.
At dusk, we stand at the railing of the ship as the sun
slips into the ocean. In the fresh sea air, their backs turned,
some raise a selfie-stick or light a cigarette while others
It is essential to separate the creator and the editor, or inner critic when you practice writing, so that the creator has plenty of room to breathe, experiment, and tell it like it really is. If the inner critic is being too much of a problem and you can’t distinguish it from your authentic writing voice, sit down whenever you find it necessary to have some distance from it and put down on paper what the critic is saying, put a spotlight on the words—“You have nothing original to say, what made you think you could write anything anyone would want to read, your writing is crap, you’re a loser, I’m humiliated, you write a load of rubbish, your work is pathetic, and your grammar stinks …” On and on it goes!
Say to yourself, It’s OK to feel this. It’s OK to be open to this.
You can learn to cultivate compassion for yourself during this internal process by practicing Mindfulness Meditation. Sit up straight, close your eyes, bring your awareness to your inner experience. Now, redirect your attention to the physical sensations of the breath in the abdomen … expanding as the breath comes in … and falling back as the breath goes out. Use each breath to anchor yourself in the present. Continue, concentrating on the breath for several minutes. Now, expand your field of awareness to include the words of the inner critic. Turn your attention to where in your body you feel the unpleasant thoughts, so you can attend, moment by moment, to the physical reactions to your thoughts.
“Stay with the bodily sensations, accepting them, letting them be, exploring them without judgment as best you can.”—Mindfulness, Mark Williams and Danny Penman.
Every time you realise that you’re judging yourself, that realisation in itself is an indicator that you’re becoming more aware.
The thing is, the more clearly you know yourself, the more you can accept the critic in you and use it. If the voice says, “You have nothing interesting to say,” hear the words as white noise, like the churning of a washing machine. It will change to another cycle and eventually end, just like your thoughts that come and go like clouds in the sky. But, in the meantime, you return to your notebook and practice your writing. You put the fear and the resistance down on the page.
Do you struggle with an inner critic? Any words of wisdom you’d like to share?
Sometimes when people read my stories they assume those stories are me. They are not me, even if I write in the first person. They were my thoughts and feelings at the time I wrote them. But every minute we are all changing. There is a great freedom in this. At any time we can let go of our old selves and start again. This is the writing process. Instead of blocking us, it gives us permission to move on. Just like in a progressive ballroom dance: you give your undivided attention to your partner—keep eye contact for the time you are dancing together—but then you move on to the next person in the circle.
The ability to express yourself on the page—to write how you feel about an old lover, a favourite pair of dance shoes, or the memory of a dance on a chilly winter’s night in the Southern Highlands—that moment you can support how you feel inside with what you say on the page. You experience a great freedom because you are not suppressing those feelings. You have accepted them, aligned yourself with them.
I have a poem titled ‘This is what it feels like’—it’s a short poem. I always think of it with gratitude because I was able to write in a powerful way how it was to be desperate and frightened. The act of self expression made me feel less of a victim. But when people read it they often say nothing. I remind myself, I am not the poem, I am not the stories I write. People react from where they are in their own lives. That’s the way things are. The strength is in the act of writing, of putting pen to paper. Write your stories and poems, show them to the world, then move on. The stories are not you. They are moments in time that pass through you.
‘Neurologists at Exeter University, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, found that reading poetry activated different brain regions to prose – even the lyrical prose we find in fiction. When the research participants read poetry, it lit up the regions of the brain variously linked to emotion, memory, making sense of music, coherence building and moral decision-making. Poetry, the study’s authors concluded, induces a more introspective, reflective mental state among readers than does prose.’ – Sarah Holland-Batt, Weekend Australian, 21–22 March 2020
And they read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still.
And they listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced.
Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.
And the people healed.
And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.
And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.
‘Poetry is the quiet music of being human and in these days and nights when our humanity is fully vulnerable and exposed, poetry takes a small step forward. In our separate isolations, a poem is like the Tardis: bigger on the inside. Like spring – to recall TS Eliot – poetry mixes memory and desire.’ – Carol Ann Duffy, The Guardian
This poem by poet Ian McMillan, reminds of us of just what we lose each time a library is closed.
I always loved libraries, the quiet of them,
The smell of the plastic covers and the paper
And the tables and the silence of them,
The silence of them that if you listened wasn’t silence,
It was the murmur of stories held for years on shelves
And the soft clicking of the date stamp,
The soft clickety-clicking of the date stamp.
I used to go down to our little library on a Friday night
In late summer, just as autumn was thinking about
Turning up, and the light outside would be the colour
Of an Everyman cover and the lights in the library
Would be soft as anything, and I’d sit at a table
And flick through a book and fall in love
With the turning of the leaves, the turning of the leaves.
And then at seven o’clock Mrs Dove would say
In a voice that wasn’t too loud so it wouldn’t
Disturb the books “Seven o’clock please …”
And as I was the only one in the library’s late summer rooms
I would be the only one to stand up and close my book
And put it back on the shelf with a sound like a kiss,
Back on the shelf with a sound like a kiss.
And I’d go out of the library and Mrs Dove would stand
For a moment silhouetted by the Adult Fiction,
And then she would turn the light off and lock the door
And go to her little car and drive off into the night
That was slowly turning the colour of ink and I would stand
For two minutes and then I’d walk over to the dark library
And just stand in front of the dark library.
‘The astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999) was twenty-nine when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a blood cancer that typically invades people in their sixties and seventies. Throughout the bodily brutality of the treatment, throughout the haunting uncertainty of life in remission, she met reality on its own terms — reality creaturely and cosmic, terms chance-dealt by impartial laws — and made of that terrifying meeting something uncommonly beautiful.
‘When she returned her atoms to the universe, not yet forty, Elson bequeathed to this world 56 scientific papers and a slender, stunning book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library) — verses spare and sublime, drawn from a consciousness pulling the balloon string of the infinite through the loop of its own finitude, life-affirming the way only the most intimate contact with death — which means with nature — can be.’ – Maria Popova
Elson’s crowning achievement in verse is the poem “Antidotes to Fear of Death,”
ANTIDOTES TO FEAR OF DEATH by Rebecca Elson
Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.
Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.
Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:
No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
But unconstrained by form.
And sometime it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:
To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.
Hope you felt the positive benefits of reading these poems.
My contributor’s copy of ‘Not keeping mum’ – Australian writers tell the truth about perinatal anxiety and depression in poetry, fiction & essay – edited by Maya Linden, arrived by courier yesterday. Am very proud to have a story included in this important anthology to be launched on Wednesday 6 May (Maternal Health Day). $9.99 https://au.blurb.com/b/10013951
SUICIDE LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH FOR AUSSIE MUMS: NEW BOOK AIMS TO END SILENCE ON PERINATAL MENTAL ILLNESS
Perinatal anxiety and depression affects up to 1 in 5 new and expectant mums—and in Australia, suicide is the leading cause of death for mothers during pregnancy and the first year of their baby’s life (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare). Perinatal mental illness is common, and can be devastating for women and their families. So why aren’t we talking about it?
On Wednesday 6 May 2020 (World Maternal Mental Health Day) Not Keeping Mum, a new collection of writing, will be launched to help break the silence around the shocking reality of perinatal mental illnesses in Australia. The book features confessional essays, fiction and poetry by twenty-two authors from across the country, edited by Maya Linden (Just Between Us and Mothers and Others) with a preface by Anne Buist, Professor of Women’s Mental Health (Austin Health and University of Melbourne) and author of the Natalie King trilogy and The Long Shadow.
“As a perinatal psychiatrist I know how fearful women can be—but how brave and determined they are to be the best mother they can, sometimes against the odds”, says Buist. “Heartfelt, at times confronting and occasionally funny, this collection gives insight into how women navigate the profound changes that occur in their bodies, relationships and lives when they become a parent—and how they find the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Inspired by her own experiences of postnatal anxiety and depression—and knowing how writing through the illness helped her survive and recover—author and editor Maya Linden’s goal was to create a collection that opened up conversations on the topic:
“Nine weeks after the birth of my daughter, and with no history of mental illness, I slipped overnight into a terrifying episode of anxiety and depression which saw me hospitalised twice in the first year. But during all my many prenatal health appointments no one told me about this risk and how common it really is. Awareness needs to be increased so women can be prepared for the possibility perinatal mental illness and not feel so scared and alone if they do go on to be affected.”
All profits from sales of the book go directly to PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia).
Contributors to the collection are available for interview and comment. Extracts are available for reprint. Copies available for review, giveaway or promotion.
For all enquiries:
+61438 553 019
Not keeping mum: Australian writers tell the truth about perinatal anxiety and depression in poetry, fiction & essay, Maya Linden (ed.)