Her Other Language

Her Other Language: Wendy French gets to grips with a bold and frank anthology addressing domestic violence

Her Other Language
Northern Irish Women Writers Address Domestic Violence and Abuse
Edited Ruth Carr and Natasha Cuddington
Arlen House (in association with Of Mouth)
ISBN: 978-1-85132-250-3
244 pages    Available from www.whiterow.net, £10 plus postage. 
Proceeds go to Belfast & Lisburn Women’s Aid.

This brave anthology reached me at the start of lock-down when the country was in turmoil and confusion because of the coronavirus. Never before had I lived through anything like this. I looked at the title page and the words on the back and wondered if I could manage to review this book, given the current state of things, especially when news reports of increased domestic violence and abuse to children were filling the nation with alarm. The state of people’s mental health has been deteriorating with enforced isolation, particularly for those who live alone and don’t have communication via email etc.

So I stepped back to think about this review – but then decided that Her Other Language is a much needed book for everyone. It has something to say to those of us fortunate enough never to have been in the situation of abuse; and it speaks for those who have lived through and survived abuse or have witnessed the abuse of someone else. This anthology frees the voices of otherwise trapped bodies.

I work with victims of domestic abuse and I will read some of these poems and stories with my group when we can meet again. These truthful and well thought-out words, conceived out of painful and on-going situations, will give my listeners the feeling of not being alone with their fears and I hope they will take some comfort from that knowledge. The truths of others can be life-affirming.

But the book should reach many more people beside those involved directly in abusive situations. The poems and stories stand in their own right as good, well-crafted poems and stories. They are compelling to read in the same way that we read poems about wars that we hope we will never be involved with directly. Art is not just about the beautiful, it is also about the terrifying and ugly. Art is a powerful force in helping us to be informed, well-connected human beings.

In this anthology the variety of work is important in sustaining the momentum of the message. Some poems/stories are direct and others more metaphorical and this highlights the excellent editing. Here is part of one of the more metaphorical pieces –  ‘Fish Out of Water’ by Ann Zell which is taken from the section entitled ‘Primary Source’:

Or the nursery shoal of lesser sand eels
playing among the invertebrates

Cradled and fed by the sea our mother

With no desire to crawl out of the water.

The book is divided into eight themed sections one of which is an introduction featuring the title poem by Nancy Mattson. One of the book’s editors heard this poem over twenty years ago at a Troubadour Coffee House poetry reading in London and remembered it well enough to seek it out again when this anthology was being compiled. This is testament to the fact that a good poem can live on for a long time. Voices should continue to be heard, never dampened. Here is part of ‘Her Other Language’ which is one of the anthology’s very direct and realistic poems

this is her language until
the swelling goes down
days at least…

Among the prose pieces, a story by Jan Carson entitled ‘This Is The Normal Now’ is very moving for all the understatement and helplessness in the words. It’s not what is said but the undercurrent of emotions in the new young wife that make it so heart-breaking to read.

He stands too close: pushing his belly into the small of your back, putting his hands
on your wrists as you turn the bacon. Now you are his wife he is allowed to stand
this close. It doesn’t mean you have to like it. 

I find the under-writing of this story poignant. The situation does not have to be spelt out in detail. The specific is there in the words that are not said. Like a good poem the white space around the words speak volumes.

Elsewhere in ‘Nomad’ by Bernie McGill we are reminded how a perpetrator of violence can dismiss/deny it’s his/her fault. As if the victim or witnesses to the assault brought it on themselves:

There’s no point in worrying. She’s a survivor. If she’s missing it’s because she wants
to be. She’ll come back in her own time, when the sun moves north again. We’ll see
her when she needs something from us. She’ll be with one of her list.

There so many stories and poems I could quote from but I still would not do the book justice. The best I can do is to recommend you read it all for yourself. This is a powerful collection of writings bearing witness to events that should not remain in the dark. Congratulations to the editors for bringing these poems and stories into the public domain. I am left in a different contemplative place from when I started to read this book.


Wendy French’s latest book, Bread Without Butter is due from Rockingham Press later this year.