Writing Poems in My Year of Silence
“When you lose desire, you lose language. Language is desire enacted: I want to tell you something.” —Solmaz Sharif
Most of the poems in Pilgrim were written in darkness. I don’t want to be melodramatic, but it’s what happened, and what I remember: the faint glow of white text on a black background, my phone screen the only bright thing in a dark curtained room.
To the healthy, illness is illegible; it’s hard to imagine the tedium of managing pain. That missed-the-last-step jolt of unease when you think one word but hear another come out of your mouth; the humiliation of squatting faint in the shower while someone else inexpertly washes your hair. When I’m feeling generous, I ascribe the baffling actions of those around me in the year I became ill to this illegibility. It is human nature, I remind myself, to shrink away from what is difficult and embarrassing.
These days, when I show that I’m in pain, my toddler runs a sweet comforting hand over my skin. Then he asks: Are you better? Is it better now, mummy? Is it still painful? He will keep asking until I cave to dishonesty and say, Yes, I’m better, no, it’s not painful. Each time this happens I reconsider the actions of my friends and family during that long year — the childlike scrabble for reassurance, the childish fear of being unable to magic pain away. And just as I love my son, I find that I love them a little more, too.
At the time, however, I mostly felt alone. I was also angry and inarticulate and dull. I had developed, I learned, mild aphasia, a symptom of frequent and continuous migraines. Unable to follow even basic conversation in the office, I pretended to understand what my colleagues were saying. Used to finishing at least three books a week, I was now unable to finish a single Harry Potter chapter, selected for its ease and familiarity; I read the simple sentences over and over, but they made no sense to me. I found myself substituting words with nonsensical ones without meaning to, or reversing basic word order. Doctors asked me, again and again, to explain myself, but the words would not come.
This was not the most painful or even the most inconvenient of my symptoms, but it was the worst. Language had always been my friend, and it had abandoned me. The loss of my job, to which I was bonded by a government scholarship, was destabilising in a way that’s easy to imagine: in a culture that prizes productiveness, utility, above everything, a scholar who fails to complete her bond is useless. Shameful. But the loss of language was something else. A black gaping hole unshaped by words, unshaped by thought, terrible in its vagueness.
When Emma emailed me the back cover blurb, I was delighted by her characterisation of Pilgrim as a series of underworlds, a journey out of the dark. But I was a little embarrassed, too. This feels fancier and more exciting than what I was trying to do, I told my husband. In writing this, however, I have come to believe that she’d seen something I had not, and that she was right. Only a few of the poems are about illness, but the book shifted clumsily into being during a time of darkness, a nothingness I tried to reshape with what scant language I had. If I was alone, then I alone would bear witness to myself. Though it hadn’t felt like it at the time, I had, I see now, tried to write my way out of the dark.
Sometimes I read the poems and hate them a little. They’re too simple, too strange, operate on too subconscious a level. But perhaps I shouldn’t begrudge them their oddness, for they were written out of silence. For they are proof of desire in a time when I thought all desire had gone.
It seems strange to talk so much about illness when Pilgrim has been marketed with a focus on its mythologies. But I am writing this with an opposite spirit, I think, to how I wrote the poems: to lay bare a part of what I previously sought to disguise.
I wrote in the EP newsletter that ‘Pilgrim is a book of myths; not only the recognisable ones like Chang’e or Eurydice, but also the everyday myths we tell each other, and the secret myths we tell ourselves. I have found that there are narratives lodged so deep in my psyche that I can only approach them sideways, tilting at the truth — that it is easier, and perhaps more interesting, to investigate memory and behaviour through the flickering, changeling light of story. One thing becomes another under this light. Symbols are worn and shed like so many disguises. There is a kind of safety in the substitution.’
The poems in Pilgrim are about many different things, some of which I will probably never talk about in public. But the collection begins with an illness poem for a reason: it contextualises its genesis and overall shape. And it is strangely timely, in the sense that I feel more comfortable talking about it, undisguised, because the pandemic has demystified illness for many of us, brought it closer in ways previously unimaginable. Abled people talk about how lonely and tedious lockdown is; now they know a little of what it is to be disabled. To ‘[hoard] inside themselves / what rain comes / for a future restoration’ — ‘dust or skin / or aren’t they the same / and in the end what we return to’ — ‘all things in the end / all things mysterious / desperate to be bright at last’.
Order Pilgrim, a collection of poems by Lisabelle Tay, illustrated by Reena Makwana.