Jane Burn’s “Be Feared” explores survival of abuse and healing along with autism. Her poems use references to fairy tales with a rebellious streak and the power that comes from claiming your own power and transforming from surviving to thriving. In “How Autistic Spectrum Condition Made Her Worth Her Weight in Birds”
“This bird was born a murmuration. From inside her mouth
comes a flight, a flurry for this is the way she cries. Catch them,
though they are not perceptible things and flit, flit, flit,
there are hollows in her chest. This bird is built on bruised
and brittle sticks. Look how she carries a craw of knives that cut
through all her songs. Though she will say I’m fine, I’m fine,
there is no cure for cracks. The tap drips its chorus through dawn.
This bird has a secret, caught behind her lips. Look how her tongue
toils like a trapped wing. It will spiel feathers and sing, sing, sing
a question of sky. Her kitchen is an aviary. She sees blue, its colour
served through cracks. Who made her mocking brain?
Sometimes it is an eyrie, scribbled with scraps and full of bones.”
It’s a busy but controlled poem with the structure, repetitions and bird motifs holding it into shape. The woman’s thoughts are crowding her but she struggles to process them; they flitter and won’t settle. She also struggles to identify and process her feelings, leaving an emptiness. She can’t find the words to describe how she feels so pretends she’s OK. She tries masking, hiding her feelings but it leaves her biting her tongue, unable to share and vulnerable to them revealing themselves despite her efforts to keep them secret. Random thoughts are collected as a bird might collect things to make a nest. Although the quoted part of the poem is set in the kitchen, it doesn’t feel like the heart of the house where family connections are nurtured, but perhaps a refuge where she can try to make sense of who she is.
Other poems suggest home wasn’t always a refuge. “So you made a thousand shit decisions” features domestic violence and starts,
“Forgive yourself, you poor wreck Remember when he used to say
I’ll find you….. I’ll follow you…. Everything you do or say,
I’ll know……….I have my ways…….of finding out.”
It details abuse and the cognitive dissonance used to cope with it. It also highlights two issues, that this was a first serious relationship so she didn’t know what love was supposed to look like and that there were difficulties in processing what was happening. He blamed her, assumed silent was consent and the threats of tracking her down and find her if she left, kept her compliant. Even when the relationship’s over, the fear continues. In “This is a Frankenstein Night” the narrator walks back to her car after work on a dark evening,
“the stiffened grit. Turn to unlock the car. Be feared that someone
might grab your back, pull out your lungs, crack your spine,
ground you like a broken doll. Sit at the wheel and scream
your breath. Press a thumbnail to the opposite hand and scrape
a beautiful traipse of pain. Mourn the lack of spectacle. Too much
night for birds. Snatch what you can from the headlight’s fan.”
The birds that offered comfort, a way of making sense of the world, are absent. The fear of violence will be recognised by any woman. She presses a thumbnail into her hand to ground herself and stop her thoughts paralysing her.
The poems’ narrator refuses to remain a victim. In “Grin Both Ways”
“I look at the pane of glass, severing me from the cold.
Breathe a patch of fog upon it, trace one unbroken circle –
two open eyes. Sweep on a grin. The simple face
looks in at me, out at the opposite world and grins both ways.
I have to start myself again from scratch, go back
through every strange intricacy of my life – unpick
the cockled seam of every hour of suffered school, touch
around the sore wound of everyone I ever knew.
I turn to where the kitchen is quiet. There’s no-one to hurt you
on plain days like this. I don’t have to sketch on a smile.
There is nobody here to recognise but me.”
The kitchen is a refuge again. A place she can be without having to mask, to pretend everything’s fine. She’s free of the expectation and manipulations of others.
The birds return in one of the final poems, “The Un-flight of Porcelain Birds”,
“Spillikins of feather,
your wings are kept by clay.
Roost in my palm, echo of wild things.
You have never trembled evening from your throat.
You have never known
the blue sail of sky.”
There’s a note of regret: these representations of birds will never be wild but can be kept and domesticated. They aren’t sentient beings so won’t know they’ve never known flight, but there seems to be a transference: the narrator is transferring her feelings of confinement and lack of freedom to the birds. The lack here is not having the same freedoms as neurotypical people, the restrictions of suffering domestic violence and the fear that keeps her checking her reactions and actions appear “normal” to others.
“Be Feared” are poems from a poet taking back control of how she expresses herself, how she centres herself, not to dominate others, but to assert her boundaries and encourage others to accommodate her. They acknowledge her suffering from abuse, from being neuro-diverse and how she moves from surviving to coping and thriving. She draws on folklore and myth to make sense of a world that is strange. Jane Burn has created a series of poems of resilience and remaining true to oneself in a world that demands compliance and capitulation.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.