Writing Wrongs

Marilyn Ricci shares a poem from her new sequence, and chats with Charlotte about metaphor and trauma.

The Front Room

On bad days the elephant leans against
the mantelpiece, lifts its trunk but no
sound escapes

the tiger prowls up and down behind the sofa,
its snarl weaker and weaker until it drops
on the carpet

that raven sits on top of the bookcase preparing
to swoop on the mouse cowering near the skirting
in case it frightens the elephant into noise,
wakes the big cat.

Marilyn Ricci

Charlotte Gann: Marilyn, I love this poem’s clear, straightforward setting – in the front room – while all else is more abstract. ‘On bad days’ is also a refreshingly direct opening – and though that elephant leaning against the mantelpiece could seem almost cartoon like for a moment, any smile that might arise quickly dispels.

I read the elephant, tiger and mouse – which all seem horribly collapsed and deflated (and I like the way this is also reflected in the poem’s ‘collapsed’ punctuation) – as part of the speaker’s self? Those animals have had their natural instincts injured in this perilous environment.

And the clue that they’re connected – all one – lies, for me, in the mouse: which cowers

in case it frightens the elephant into noise,
wakes the big cat.

For me, then, that mouse represents a keeping of oneself small in order not to allow our full strength and anger to do their work.

And meanwhile there’s ‘that raven’, plotting his attack…

I love the closed-circuit nature of the poem. It gives me so much to explore and reflect on, at the same time as seeming beautifully clear and open. Metaphor at its best.

Marilyn Ricci: ​​Thanks for your lovely comments, Charlotte. I wanted to conjure up, as best I could, the atmosphere a bully can create around their victims. In this case, for me personally, the poem is about a bullying partner in a domestic space. It’s part of a sequence of sixteen poems about my life at that time, and how it felt to leave.

I think it’s incredibly difficult to describe precisely what it feels like inside those spaces, so the use of metaphor was crucial. It’s all about power dynamics, of course. And the poem could apply to any bully in a domestic space – who feels in control? Who feels vulnerable? Who feels powerful and who is silenced? In one sense, these are straightforward dynamics – the bully has silenced their victim(s) who feel under constant threat of attack, often based on bitter experience. But in other ways it isn’t so straightforward and that’s what I’ve also tried to capture.

You’re absolutely right that the elephant and the tiger are part of the speaker’s self and their natural instincts have been injured and suppressed in this space. The elephant (as in the elephant in the room) is not only being ignored, it can barely stand up on its own and is mute. The tiger is exhausted from prowling up and down and collapses on the carpet. We’ve seen tigers like this when they’re confined to small spaces like cages. Horrible.

The mouse represents the frightened self. This one is cowering, desperately trying to blend into the skirting board, to make itself as small as possible even though it’s already tiny. In hindsight, all these animals capture some of what I felt on bad days when I was living with a bullying partner – silenced, exhausted and frightened – just sitting in the front room with him.

What I wanted to capture in the poem as well, however, is the sense that bullies inevitably have to take risks when they dominate and coerce. Elephants are actually large and powerful creatures. Tigers have massive teeth and claws and they move fast when spurred into action. And what about that mouse? It’s potentially a highly powerful creature too. I wanted to suggest potency in even the most frightened of creatures. Bullies want to make their victims feel small and helpless but people are rarely completely powerless, particularly over a long period of time.

In the poem, the raven has to risk the mouse evading his threatened attack. What might happen then? Elephants are mythically afraid of mice and seeing it scurrying around the room could trigger the elephant into making that incredible loud elephant noise! Ravens, like many creatures, are frightened by loud noises. Also, the cat’s instincts may kick back in and it will chase the mouse no matter how exhausted it is, causing mayhem. So the mouse is incredibly vulnerable in this front room but it is also potentially a huge threat to the raven. Just as people breaking the silence is always a threat to the perpetrator.

CG: Ah, yes, I absolutely get this, Marilyn. The layering and the complexity. The paradox of powerlessness and great power. How the bully lives in (maybe unknowing but real) danger of the other finding their strength or voice. (This is why they keep on and on oppressing?) And how, in our own lives, as we finally do find our own resources, that bully may be blown away completely. (Though, of course, oppression leaves its deep and lasting impression.)

The scene you describe occurs, pretty much, doesn’t it, in a later poem in your sequence? I think your use of metaphor, and willingness to hold a bigger frame to your subject, and not ‘just’ focus on the pain of being cowed – while never shying from that – gives the work, for me, its magical power. Like you show us the cage, but also the key to its unlocking (while never diminishing or reducing your subject to any easy answers or fairytale ending)…

MR: Thanks, Charlotte. Using metaphor is very freeing and yes, I return to the front room later in the sequence. I wanted to write about the pain of living like this, and the dreadful feeling of being trapped. But I wanted to offer hope too. I remember those terrible times when there seemed no hope of leaving or of recovery. But, of course, there’s always hope. There’s always change.

The raven straightforwardly represents the bully in both poems but in using metaphor there are, of course, inherent ambiguities. Every metaphor will bring a whole range of associations, both negative and positive. Ravens are scavengers, often associated with dirt and death, but they can also be seen as playful, intelligent, even protective (they fed Elijah in the Bible). The portrayal of this particular raven in both poems is a negative one but I wanted to hint at a complex picture.

In the later poem the raven has taken to playing cards with the big cat. His beak is useful for flipping those cards. His love of playing games, his over-confidence in himself and the control he has over others has led him to take a huge risk in this activity. It doesn’t end well for him so maybe he’s not so intelligent after all. Bullying behaviour tends to contain the seeds of its own destruction.

Because the bully isn’t human in these poems, it’s possible for me to imagine a range of scenarios and outcomes. Whichever I choose, the reader isn’t left wondering what really happened: they’re fully aware this is an artistic device. It’s about emotional satisfaction rather than justice in the human world.

CG: Yes – I like that term ‘emotional satisfaction’. I find this poem and your sequence exactly that: emotionally satisfying. And I think it is about your framing. Although we are ‘stuck’ in that claustrophobic front room, we aren’t – because you, the poet, constructor of this work, have zoomed out enough to show us a bigger picture.

In fact I can see this terraced house, with its front room, and kitchen with its bone-handled old knife, and steel framed chairs – as it’s described in the poems – and the hall and the cupboard under the stairs. I can see this house bobbing along on an ocean of change. You have one poem, ‘The Bathroom’, where this power splashes out through the balusters and sweeps down the street. There’s a triumph and joyousness and release to this.

I like the fact the sequence is short too. Like that house is small, eventually. Once you see your way round the edges – confines – of its imprisoning walls.

Has it felt empowering to write these poems?

MR: Yes, it has – which was great – but it’s also meant returning to some painful memories and feelings, of course. I didn’t want to write something which suggests that, once the situation has passed and our lives change, we’re automatically ‘over’ what has happened. The speaker does release herself from the prison of that home – she leaves the way she came in, through the hallway – ‘The way in / is the way out’ – but it doesn’t end there.

Two themes are particularly important to me in the sequence. First of all, water (I do like your image of the little house bobbing along on an ocean of change – overtones of Ted Hughes’s ‘Wind’ there!). Water represents change, freedom and being fully alive in the poems. It crops up throughout and, as you say, the one set in the bathroom is when the pent-up fear and sadness finally flows out, down the stairs, out the door, down the road to the river and, eventually, back to the ocean. But the speaker of these poems does leave some part of herself there, encased in ice.

The other important theme is time. Our sense of time tends to be disrupted by traumatic events which makes those memories more difficult to process. One theory is that we need to time and date-stamp our memories in order to file them in the right place. In the story I’m telling about this relationship the passage of time is very important. In fact, it’s many years on from the experiences that the speaker starts to get flashbacks, which is when the past suddenly feels like the present and is very distressing. They spur her to take action, though, and in the poem ‘Revenant’ she goes back to the house to recover this missing part of herself frozen in time.

She does rescue that young part of herself – but I hope I’m making it clear that dealing with abuse or bullying of any kind takes time, and often a lot of effort, before people can feel safe again.

CG: That’s all so well put, Marilyn, and yes so important. So, in this sequence, water represents life force, in a way, tumbling on through time. And trauma sits outside time, and that ‘water’ is frozen in its block. (I love what you say about how we need to be able to date-stamp memories in order to file them away: and this is what can’t happen in trauma.)

At the right time for you (in your psyche’s life, perhaps?) the flashbacks signalled maybe it was time now (safe enough), and indeed necessary, for you to ‘go back’ and retrieve that part of your younger self you’d had to leave behind, encased in ice.

And no, these things are never resolved as such, or tidily repaired, god no: we carry the ravages with us. But it’s important, too, I guess, to attempt that journey back – when we’re ready and if we’re able to – to recover what we can of those parts we’ve left. (Some of this is definitely what I’ve been doing too, in my writing life. Returning to teenage and then child-selves I’d felt I had to ‘leave behind’ to survive.)

And now, as well, from this great, safe(r) distance, we can benefit from a broader or clearer perspective? Engage real compassion for our trapped, earlier selves doing the best they could in nigh-impossible circumstances…

And the writing of this – the finding of image and metaphor and language and expression – continues that freeing and giving-voice-to process? It also enables us to separate again, a little bit further, from the locked-in experience. Even just to get a paper-thin space between us and it, can prove reparative.

Thank you so much, Marilyn, for sharing some textures of this process.

  • Marilyn Ricci has published three collections of poetry. The most recent was Dancing at the Asylum, Quirky Press, 2021. She’s working on a new collection which will contain ‘The Front Room’.