On ‘Baring’ the Understory

Heidi Beck chats to Sarah about one of her poems, and on working with discomfort, containment and risk.

The Vampire Under the Hearth
We need to dig it out, she said. How can you live with this here?

I stared at the floor.

My father said, We’re fine. I have enough trouble keeping up with everything as it is.

But she’s terrified, she said. It needs to go.

She began sawing through the stained pine floorboards. I ran for the garlic. My father shrugged, pushing a crowbar under the stone.

He shouted at me to bring something to use as a wedge, shouted even louder because I was in the kitchen, clutching a bottle of garlic powder.

The woman used several volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as a wedge.

Under the hearthstone was a metal box, like a sardine tin, only much bigger. We didn’t have a key.

You must have a can opener, the woman said. I started to cry.

I think we should leave it, he said.

Heidi Beck, first published in Strix #7, July 2019

Sarah Barnsley: I’m really excited to talk about this poem with you, Heidi. We initially met at the launch reading for Brittle Star at the Barbican in 2018, where you read a poem that took the frame of Michael Rosen’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and reworked it into compassionate counsel for a friend in distress. ‘You will bear intensities of pain / as if the bearing down was endless’, you wrote, transforming ‘bear’ (noun) into ‘bear’ (verb), offering that ‘you can’t go over it, / you can’t go under it’ and ‘you can’t go around it, / you’ve gotta get through it’ (‘For Kathy’). It was moving and intelligent in equal measure and I sped up to talk to you afterwards about it, amid the bright Battenberg cakes and Party Rings provided by the hosts.

Now, by chance, we’re co-members in the founding Understory Conversation group and it seems there that we’ve been talking, in so many different ways, about this idea of ‘bearing’ in our writing. So when you showed me ‘The Vampire Under the Hearth’ I immediately thought of ‘For Kathy’ – because here’s a poem where a family (at least a father and daughter) have been trying to ‘go around’ with whatever is under that hearth and it’s clearly not helping. Nor does trying to ‘go under it’, by trying to dig it out – there’s no key, anyway, to that metal box. But there’s no clear resolution either, the poem closing with the father saying ‘I think we should leave it’. It’s disturbing, this avoidance and silencing, another kind of ‘going around’ what causes pain.

Are we meant to be left with thinking the girl in the poem has just ‘gotta get through it’? Does ‘bearing’ feature here too?   

Heidi Beck: Hello Sarah! I am fascinated by the connection you have made, placing my Bear Hunt poem in conjunction with ‘The Vampire Under the Hearth’.

The girl is bearing a terrible burden, yes, and part of the burden is the fear of ‘baring’ what it is. The father does not want to bear the burden of the child’s discomfort, nor of his own discomfort in opening the box. ‘The woman’, an outsider, can see that something is wrong, but her involvement isn’t enough to change the dynamic, and that moment, where something might be cleared and the girl freed of bearing her burden alone, passes. The box remains there, locked and buried in the centre of the home.

Of course all children have fears. A vampire might be one of them. Usually we outgrow them, but if that fear is associated with trauma, those feelings, stuck tight in a box, often remain unvoiced (unbared) and burden the bearer into later life.

In other poems of mine that sit in relation to this piece, the vampire can be identified as childhood sexual abuse. Questions about who does, and who should, bear this burden, and what happens when the box is opened are of particular interest to me. Disclosure is a fraught process. Part of this process is trying to appropriately place the bearing of the burden. In this case, the victim is bearing the burden, not the perpetrator, nor the adults responsible for the care of the child, and certainly not the culture which generally does not want to hear about or bear the discomfort of this crime.

Part of what we explore in our Understory conversations is discomfort and our willingness to sit with it, and what that might mean for and in our creative work. For me, as you know, one of my questions is how much discomfort the reader can bear. How can we lay ‘bare’ the contents of the box, shift the burden of both the ‘baring’ and ‘bearing’ from the child to an adult society, while containing the discomfort of the content creatively? As poets, what responsibilities do we have to the reader, to the child who has been silenced, to our own truths, our own (often hard-won) sense of safety, and to the poem itself as communicator and container?

Another aspect of ‘bearing’ in this context is about bearing witness. Some of my poems might be called ‘confessional poetry’, although I think the label is reductive. I think it might be more fruitful to talk about these as personal poems which bear witness to something that many people experience, but which, by its very nature, passes in secret and is cloaked in shame. So I am, in effect, bearing witness for my childhood self and other children with similar experiences. I am ‘baring’ the understory, with all its inherent discomfort and risk.

SB: Thanks for this Heidi. I hear and am drawn to your observations around ‘baring’ an understory, ‘bearing witness’ and ‘bearing pain’ – this triptych of thinking and feeling that we’re conditioned to throw a heavy cloth over.

I was reading a piece this morning about Sharon Olds saying her poems are not ‘confessional’, but ‘personal’ – just as you say of your own work here. I’m also struck by the resonance between what you say about bearing witness and what Olds writes at the very end of  ‘I go back to May 1937’: ‘Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it’. Is Olds an influence on you in any way? The vampire poem isn’t anywhere as direct as an Olds poem might be, yet the connection is there.

HB: Strangely enough I was reading that very Sharon Olds poem in another context last week! I do think of Sharon Olds as an influence in the sense that I admire her directness and willingness to write/tell about uncomfortable topics. When I first read her work it took my breath away. Though stylistically I am usually very different, I would like to be that bold, and pack such an emotional punch, though I am slowly becoming more certain and free in my own work and more confident in my own way of telling.

I was also interested in Olds’ use of the word ‘tell’ at the end of that poem, rather than ‘write’. Again, ‘telling’ is something that is crucial to our Understory discussions and particularly in the set of poems I have been writing about this part of my childhood. Always there was this issue of who to tell, what to tell, not telling, no one to tell, shouldn’t an adult have been able to tell, surely if this really happened someone would have been able to tell (and in hindsight there were ‘tells’, but no one picked up on them). Telling is also predicated on having words for something in the first place. Then, as the child matures, the ‘telling’ picks up different freight. Why didn’t you tell (with all its inherent guilt)? Why are you telling us now?

Then there are the (mostly well-meaning) poetry critics…this makes the reader too uncomfortable, you shouldn’t be so direct, this isn’t entertaining, it’s too narrative, it’s not narrative enough, it doesn’t use metaphor.

This is one of the wonderful strengths of our Understory group. We are all experienced and care-ful practitioners. We want to wrestle with the nuts and bolts of telling and why that craft matters so much. In some ways that exactitude with craft acts as a bulwark against (what I perceive as) the cultural distaste for tackling topics like this in poems. Of course having them published is another whole topic!

SB: Indeed! Coming back to your poem, can I ask who might ‘the woman’ be, figuratively? That metal box is ‘bigger than a sardine tin’ but also like one, in that the woman asks for a can opener, so there’s a degree of illogic. And she’s also using encyclopaedias – tellingly, I think – to wedge open the floorboards, suggesting that forms of knowledge are important here?

HB: Figuratively for me the woman represents the idealised-mother-who-wasn’t-there. I believe that if a wise, interested, protective and emotionally intelligent woman had been around to engage with me and my family long enough to find the right ‘can opener’ (and when I pictured the sardine tin needing a key or opener, I was also playing with the idea of a ‘can of worms’) then perhaps the ‘vampire’ would have been revealed.

In reality there were many women who passed through as girlfriends to my father, a couple of whom had some interest in me. There were teachers too, and perhaps others in the community whom we came in contact with. When I pictured the scene, I had in mind one particular girlfriend of my father’s, whom I believe did see that something wasn’t right and was influential enough with my father to motivate him to help with the unburying, but like everyone else she never asked the right questions, didn’t have the right opener.

Perhaps the use of ‘woman’ in the poem reflects the crucial lack of what I want to call ‘women’s knowledge’ (in the context of the culture I was in) in my life, and of my deep yearning for it. And the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, which was in the house, was useful, but wasn’t enough; it was a different knowledge that was required.

SB: A different knowledge? Yes. Something much more instinctual and less ‘academic’? And yes, too, to the ‘can of worms’, and that search for the right can opener.

My own experience, in its different context, resonates with what you say about the mothers we needed but didn’t have.

There’s so much we could talk about, Heidi, and I know we will in our group. For now, thank you – for this illuminating and moving conversation. I really look forward to seeing your poems collected into a book.