Poetry Contest Honorable Mention Shevaun Brannigan on Writing from Trauma

“Don’t know……….How she stuck glass up in her

………………………….Rinsed her hands in red red water

Don’t picture……..Him taking off his belt

…………………………..Hanging up his pants real nice

………….-from Shevaun Brannigan’s “Don’t”

“Don’t” is a poem that I probably should not have written. I struggle with this. For a long period of time, I attended a largely female PTSD recovery group. It saved my life, my sanity, and my long-term relationship with my fiancé. I heard horror stories, though. I carry these stories, these women, with me everywhere I go. “Don’t” is somewhat based on an account I heard in one of these groups, from a woman who has since passed away. It is a story I can’t get out of my head, and finally, I had to write it down. I changed enough information that I hope, and think, it respects confidentiality.

I think part of the difficulty of recovering from trauma is the secrecy, though. Discussion of severe trauma is not socially acceptable. It alienates those who have not experienced it, and triggers those who have. One of my most important realizations I had from these groups was that I am not alone as a trauma survivor. That there is a whole world of people who’ve had horrible things happen to them, but aren’t talking about it. All of that being said, it (the original version) is not my story to tell—it’s not mine to decide it is a story that needs to be told. But I think that’s a struggle for writers, for any documenting artist—a struggle between exploitation vs. illuminating a subject, or even just that creative impulse when someone else’s story speaks to you.

**

“One.

Here is how my father is a chicken. Picture the Indian Aseel. A fascinating fact: as soon as they’re born, they begin to fight, and never stop. My father was born a small bird, grew to be a big bird. Pearl eyes. Fish eyes. He meets another man and he massacres him.”

………….-from Shevaun Brannigan’s “Birds As Hands”

“Birds as Hands” is largely my story. I work with an animal welfare organization, and am constantly overwhelmed by the abuses of animals and their parallels to the abuses endured by people. I wanted to explore this relationship, and “Birds as Hands” is the result. The closing line, “I am no victim,” is both a genuine attitude I carry, as well an illustration of a common trait among abuse survivors—comparative thinking. For me, the abuse I have endured is nothing, nothing compared to the suffering experienced by most animals. Or to the woman of “Don’t,” for example.

The poem is ultimately about people, though, the characters who continually populate my poems—my family members. My upbringing was formulaic for generating a feminist. The rageaholic father (with whom I’ve since reconnected—hi Dad!), the passive mother, the sister as survivor of abuse. I grew up wanting a different life for myself–one of action, of female solidarity, of positive relationships. In conjunction with feminism, my environment was bound to generate a writer. I come from a proudly Irish family of storytellers, and my father, after some horrible thing or another happened, would tell us, “Pain into Gold. Write about it.” So I have been, much to his simultaneous pride and consternation.

Ultimately, a poem is completed by being read by someone other than the author. I thank So to Speak for making this happen, and for creating such a haven on the web and in print. Further thanks to Claudia Rankine (2012 poetry contest judge), and to the many, many feminist writers who have made my writing possible and acceptable.

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