Before My Voice Disappeared …



Before my voice disappeared
like a rabbit up a sleeve
I wanted to be a singer
in the Folies Bergère.

The doctor is a kind man
he keeps me warm,
he feeds me seed cake
and Assam tea.

But sometimes he makes me crawl.
Pick up the crumbs
my little goose.

At night I lie beside him
more silent than a blade of grass.
I allow his cold fingertips
to circle my heart.

Tomorrow, he says,
I must rehearse for the show
in the auditorium of the Saltpêtrière.
The doctors will love me.

He has made me a hat
of peacock feathers.
He has taught me to bark.

When he stares into my eyes
he can make me do anything

But he can’t make me sing.

That poem, written while studying for an MA in Creative Writing in Chichester, was an early attempt to write in another person’s voice. It became the title for my first small published collection.

The person in question was Blanche Wittman, a patient of Jean-Martin Charcot, the first of the great European theorists of hysteria. Blanche was among the main attractions at Charcot’s frequently staged events for members of his neurological service at the Saltpetriere Hospital.

A reviewer in Magma observed: ‘[Charcot’s] domineering personality is vividly evoked in the poem. Although I find it hard to square the poem’s purely submissive image of Blanche with other accounts – of a bossy, capricious woman who was nicknamed the queen of the hysterics – the poem, like the collection, succeeds beautifully on its own terms’.

However, perhaps the reviewer had missed the nuances contained in the last lines ‘he can make me do anything, but he can’t make me sing.’ Blanche Wittman, even under the hypnotic spell of the doctor, possesses the ultimate power.

Other reviewers described my voice as ‘beguiling’, ‘distinctive’, ‘brave and new’, although the voice that spoke to me, my own voice, had rarely felt that way. Meanwhile, I came to realise that the voice in the poem was not really that of Blanche Wittman, but my own. I had unwittingly tapped into my own psyche. Poetry had helped me to create a voice from the tension which hovered between between desire and fear.

In contrast then, here’s a relatively new poem which taps into the more defiant scale of my spectrum


I’m tempted to knock
a nail into your silence
to disturb your smugness

with an old bevelled mirror
or Goya’s painting
of the disconsolate dog

but I won’t – no
I will sit in the lotus
like a yogi before you

your pin-pocked plainness
instruct my bones

in the art of stillness
cast from my memory
my father’s hunched shoulders

my mother’s lost hat –
I’ll sit there so long
my nails will yellow and curl

and you’ll begin to moulder
until the day that you
me the world and its dog

transmute into an echoless blue –
so what do you say
to that?

Writing poetry is a way of discovering what you want to say by digging into the subconscious. Finding your voice is about finding out what’s buried, what makes you tick and when you’ve found it, it’s like looking into the soul’s mirror. It means not being afraid to say what you mean, to say what you feel.

The language of poetry is similar to the language of dreams and both can be analysed in a similar way. When a poem’s finished, if it’s a good poem, you get that ‘aha’ moment from realising exactly what it is you wanted to say.

Ironically – or perhaps not – for a large part of my life to ‘speak my mind’ had seemed dangerous. As a teenager I was thrown into a panic whenever anyone greeted me with the question: ‘How are you?’ I never knew what to say because I didn’t actually know how I was.

A key pay-off from the process of writing poetry is that no-one need witness the voice in its struggle to find the right words – in its fight to draw blood from the stone. I believe writing to be an intrinsic part of the emotional discovery; that the poem offers a safe house into which the silenced word can enter.

Here are two verses from a poem written when I was sixteen.

Sitting out on the borderland
I’m a pebble on the shore
I’m a night without a whisper
I’m a room without a door.

But the stars are in my pocket
And the moon is in my head
I’m a book of many poems
That’s afraid of being read.

Although unfamiliar at the time with the term metaphor, I had instinctively used it in an attempt to say the unsayable. Interestingly, when I asked a fellow poet what he thought of the poem (without telling him that I’d written it), he said it sounded as if someone was trying to imitate me!

Meanwhile, the voice in this next very recent poem appears more self assured (although the tension between defiance and submission hasn’t really changed that much). When the poem began to form I decided that each line would contain nine syllables. The poem began to take on a life of its own as I became absorbed in the practical details of trying to fit the words into this pattern. It’s written in the persona of a stone maquette, the sculptor’s equivalent to an artist’s sketch.

I caught your eye – something about me
put you in mind of someone long gone,
perhaps it’s this hole that once was heart.

Being nothing, I ask for nothing:
my weight is a sort of miracle.
Sculpt these hollows into what you will.

I won’t laugh or shriek – I have no tongue,
no legs to run, no hands to strangle
or stroke or tickle you pink, pink, pink.

Don’t try to talk to me – what’s the use –
I cannot hear – I’ve been dead too long.
Keep me as a charm – a silent muse.

When my voice almost disappeared as a teenager, I was continually told ‘to come out of my shell’, that trying to talk to me was like ‘getting blood out of a stone’. I was eventually sent to see someone.

This next prose piece is based on the memory of my first appointment with a psychotherapist. It’s written as an internal monologue, and although the real reasons are hidden from the teenage speaker, the process helped my adult self to analyse why I didn’t go back:


I can’t help you if you won’t talk. That was the first stupid thing. Didn’t he know that’s why I’d been sent there? Also he had manicured fingernails and a name beginning with Z that I couldn’t pronounce. It wasn’t because he sprang from his swivel chair and swept across the room to lock the door. Or because he invited me to lie down on the couch to talk about dreams. That bit was easy. Like stories.

I told him how I’d found myself in a bath in the middle of a hospital ward. The bath had clawed feet and was filled with pink paraffin. This, he said, suggests a subconscious desire to cleanse oneself. That was the second stupid thing. You didn’t need a psycho-degree to work it out. Next I told him about my mum in the matchbox. How I carry her over a mountain to the other side. How when I dig my hand into my pocket to pull it out, the matchbox is always empty. How does this make you feel? I didn’t answer. My voice had disappeared like a rabbit up a sleeve. Eventually he coughed and told me to get up.

I’m afraid I can’t see you for another two weeks – I’m away on holiday. He said this as he leafed through a big black book. There was a photo on his desk of a woman with blonde hair tied up in a pony tail. She was smiling. He wrote a date on a card and handed it to me. That was the third stupid thing.

The poet and critic, Al Alvarez likens the finding of one’s voice to the process of psychoanalysis:

‘The object of the exercise for both the patient and the analyst is to listen for the true-speaking self among all the inauthentic ones, to find it and then to stick with it …, the psychoanalyst in search of a talking cure and the writer in search of a voice seem to be dealing, as delicately as they can, with similar problems.’ (The Writer’s Voice, 2005)

It can be strange to ponder on exactly where the silenced voice is located within the body. Is it really inside one’s head, or at the back of the throat, on the tip of the tongue? If feelings are so intrinsically linked to voice, then why isn’t the voice felt to be located inside one’s heart?

Thinking about such conundrums doesn’t help a jot when you’re trying to meditate. I’m going to finish with a poem inspired by the realisation that you can never escape from your own inner voice – that all the time we’re alive, true silence is just an illusion.


You travel with me
silent, unseen.

I’ve done my best
to forget you

busied my head
with Sartre, Zen

books of endless

So why the need
to make me shiver?

I know you’re there
waiting to pluck me

from the air
with your ungloved hand

as if I were no more
than a flake

of blackened snow.

Adapted from a talk given at the Poetry and Voice Conference, University of Chichester, 2008

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