To celebrate the official launch of her new collection, What Rain Taught Us, at the Cinnamon Summer Picnic in Wirksworth on 2 July, Gail Ashton tells us something of the background of this remarkable new work:
What happens when there are "only nine words left"? When a talking cure for bipolar disorder reduces you to silence? Why, you think of it as a voyage of course.
What Rain Taught Us travels from the intimate, sometimes hostile, exchanges of psychotherapy to the wildernesses and homelands of a life imploding. Drowning in "lost iambic/ light", a distracted inner voice takes "a moon by the throat" to sail us through songs, dreams, laughter. Replete with people, animals, strange objects, these poems look to "some unspecified disorder of flowers" to see how sunlight "frets/ the shock of them, unfamiliar/ with their dialect." Heartbreaking, ebullient, Gail Ashton's new collection explores the loss of language and a restorative of illness.
A few years ago yet another round of therapy came to its prescribed end. This time my cure was a long overdue return to work, a temporary lectureship at a northern university. Its consequences were disastrous, and not entirely unexpected. I sank as rapidly as the year, and in relinquishing the post inexplicably lost the close friendship of the person who offered it. By the New Year I had fallen through the "astonished mouth/ of a fireplace" to soar into the rarefied air of a bipolar high.
These heightened, hyper-energetic states are, according to a fellow sufferer, "wonderful…and not normal." For me, it's like sitting at the epicentre of a violent electrical storm, and it has its own semiotics. It's a wild, glorious technicolour of sounds, images, synaesthetic sensations. I smell incense when there's none. Deer come with special signs, the dead too. A babel of voices shivers in my head.
The slow trickle of poetry that sprang during the dialogues with my therapist became torrential. Then the rain stopped.
Rule 1: what goes up must come down. And I did. By the following Christmas I was so ill I was sure I was dead. Too afraid to tell anyone in case they didn't know, I held this secret for months.
Rule 2: high or low, your self falls down a rabbit hole. Outside that hole the multiple selves of my disorder scrapped, howled, and ran around like feral dogs. I hunkered down waiting for something to call them off, waiting for the shock of rain passing, for the return of a voyager who might or might not be me.
The narrative of my illness is always incomplete. It's an interrupted or partial arc that moves from home to all at sea to a place that calls itself home yet is often an imposter. Language follows a similar trajectory, from voices speaking entire books — albeit sometimes in strange tongues — to the sudden falling away of words. The very thing designed to cure it — therapy — conspires with its loss.
We sit, almost as lovers do, attentive, serious, playful. You are lured into revelation, mind games, hostility. The therapist feigns abiding interest in you and your life. There is a clock ticking on it. It is, as Susie Orbach says ("Are You Sitting Comfortably?", The Guardian, 29 October, 2016), an "as-if" relationship. You rehearse narratives that are true but not necessarily authentic, edited, fictive accounts so that "the telling has become a cover story." At the same time there are loose ends, surprises, "like words put together for a poem."
I didn't write What Rain Taught Us as therapy. I didn't write it to hold up a mirror to bipolar disorder, or to define myself by an illness that is, nevertheless, inextricably linked to my creativity. Rather, it swept in, urgent, compulsive, taking me to a place I didn't think I could go. I was looking to be surprised, not consoled. If it's a restorative at all then it's a restorative of words, rather than a healing of the self, though I suppose that discovery might be a healing of the soul or spirit too.
I wrote it to survive it. To speak it even as I feared I never could.
What happens when the talking cure for bipolar disorder leaves you silent? You write a book of poetry in the rain.