Poetry review – AT RISK: Rennie Halstead admires the way that Diana Cant has made poetry from her insights gained as a child psychotherapist
At Risk is Diana Cant’s second pamphlet, following on from the success of Student Bodies 1968 (Clayhanger Press 2020). Diana Cant is a consultant child psychotherapist with many years’ experience working with very distressed children and adolescents, often in residential care settings. Many of these poems were written as part of her M.A. in Poetry Writing with The Poetry School and Newcastle University.
In this pamphlet, Cant turns her experiences into moving poems that tell the stories of some of the clients she has worked with over her career. The stories are memorable, not just because of the shocking events that have happened to the children, but also because of the objective way Cant tells their stories. The poems are sparely written, making skilled use of extended image and metaphor. Cant’s simple language captures the tone of the participants. The very simplicity of the writing brings home the dreadful circumstances some children have survived, and often relive in their therapy sessions. This is not a comfortable read. The circumstances the children have faced are disturbing, and Cant’s achievement is giving the unheard casualties of society a voice, allowing them to be heard in their own right.
“Archeology of Loss”, the first poem in the pamphlet, sets out the role of the psychotherapist as an emotional archeologist:
We are excavating bones sunken in the hot, dry ground where bodies are not often disinterred but left to disappear.
The opening up of the past has to be done with great sensitivity:
We must go gently for every sinew sings of pain and every tendon tenses to the pulse of blood long stilled.
Having set out the parameters of psychotherapy, and the sensitivity required to unpick the experiences of her clients, the poems that follow examine different aspects of the emotional problems some of our most disadvantaged children face. In different poems, Cant discusses, amongst other topics, anorexia, self harm, gender identity, suicide and sexual abuse. In “Mouth organ” Cant shows her client trying to come to terms with unspeakable events:
Her talk is made of fragments of fear. […] She is blind-walking towards a truth made more bearable by the absence of nailing words of knowing.
“Forensic” offers a detailed examination of the rationale of self harm. For the girl in this poem, self harm is a logical choice:
Despair, she decides can take two forms. The crying kind sustains the pain, sears a pathway through the body on an endless loop,
The girl rejects the endless pain of crying and prefers the logical release of cutting:
The cutting kind conveys a numbness, a freedom as crimson blood flows through smooth skin,
To the girl, this is entirely sensible. Cutting brings release, a temporary relief, from an otherwise endless cycle of grief. It gives her a measure of control over her emotions and ‘Seen like that, she reasons, / she will choose cutting every time.’
In “Deluged” Cant examines suicide through the experiences of a boy ‘drowning in pain’ and ‘sinking slowly / before my eyes’, with a mother who appears to fail to comprehend the depths of despair of his suffering. The therapist has to tell the mother what to do. ‘take him to hospital / I tell his mother / don’t let go. Here Cant is picking up a theme that runs through the pamphlet – the hopeless lack of awareness of many of her clients’ parents of the damage they are doing.
Cant picks this theme up in “Show and Tell”, examining incest and sexual abuse through the vehicle of playing with dolls. The client in this poem ‘grabs the dolls’ house / chooses the toys she wants to live inside,/ turns her back on me.’
The children-dolls are locked in the garage, whilst the mother-doll watches her giant tv on her king sized bed, proclaiming ‘I can have what I want’ and ignores what might be going on in the rest of the house where:
the father doll unlocks the garage door, seizes the smallest girl doll, the one with yellow plaits, forces her legs apart.
Reliving the story through play, the girl’s comment at the end of the game picks up an attitude learnt from her mother:
Oh well easy come, easy go that’s what my mum always says.
After seeing so many children in distress, the collection ends on an optimistic note, encouraging us to believe there is a way forward for children at risk, with the help of caring professionals. In the last poem, “When she was four”, Cant explores the pitfalls of parenthood through the metaphor of learning to ride a bike. The girl ‘was off, freewheeling down / the careless lanes of childhood, no backward glance’, not knowing that her protective parents had kept the stabilisers on ‘just in case of accidents’. As a consequence, the girl ‘never learnt to balance, although she thought she could’. The launch into a more independent life has its problems:
her small wheels fell away and she was balancing unaided but she looked back […] and she wavered. […] lying in the gutter, she thought of giving up
But the girl had greater resilience: ‘she longed for perfect balance, and she practised […] until her knees were sore’. Her determination pays off, and she becomes an adult:
Now at twenty four, she is mistress of her balance and rides a unicycle, waving to the astonished crowds as she cruises into life.
Anyone who has worked with children will readily identify some of the dangers children face today. Parents worried about anorexia or self-harm will recognise the reactions of the children. Cant’s achievement is to give her clients a voice, to bring their stories out into the open. She asks all of us to consider the various ways in which children can come to harm, whether through ignorance, neglect or deliberate abuse. The pamphlet’s sub-text asks us to examine the way our society looks after its most needy children. It is a disturbing but memorable pamphlet, giving abused and disturbed children their own voice, all told in crystal clear poems. Thoroughly recommended.