'Ithaca Within Me': 'Glue' By Louise Wallwein
Steve Whitaker, Literary Correspondent
The auguries of a childhood which beggar belief: cycles of convent, foster and adoptive care abuses both systematic and brutal; few means of escape beyond retreat ; the repeated failure of social services to fulfil its own duty of care - damage, damage, damage.
'Glue' is Louise Wallwein's pugnacious self-defence mechanism made therapeutically manifest in words we cannot fail to understand.
The cross-section of poems, play excerpts, prose vignettes, and extant social services documents relating, forensically, to the details of a life, eviscerate that life in order to reveal the flesh, blood and beating heart beneath.
A transcription of a BBC Radio 4 broadcast of September, 2017 with some additional materials, 'Glue' is a lacerating narrative whose protagonist is a cypher to the taxonomy of the state, and the hysterical proscriptions of the catholic church of the nineteen seventies and eighties.
The brutality, violence and denial of love which embody Wallwein's crushing experiences of 'care' render her 'placeless' unsurprisingly, a kind of fellow traveller without identity except that which is vouchsafed by self-determination.
She is, in her own word, an Émigré; sometimes the state's 'disputed territory', sometimes a nameless 'other' who finds consolation only as an escapee, or in psychological retreat. Viewing herself as an Odysseus figure, her search - not yet fully achieved - is for an Ithaca of the imagination, where the disparate threads of her identity may be unified.
The poet supplies her own autobiography , and it is easy to infer the declamatory instinct, and diction of a performance poet from the written page.
Scene 2 of her stage psycho-drama includes the recitation of the thirteen moves she made between care, foster and adoptive agencies from her birth in 1969 until her 'discharge', as though from prison, in January 1987.
The three hundred pages of social services documentation, with a combined weight of an eighteen month old baby, and composed by upwards of thirty people, are Wallwein's ironic legacy. The file she slams shut on stage closes a book on an incarnation, and a life.
That early life is drawn furiously and directly. The poem 'Bernie Badass Yoda' articulates the semi-detached loneliness of children in care through the ever-transient nature of friendship. Her temporary friend here is 'Always one step ahead of me', though more by social services design than personal choice.
Elsewhere, an over-arching yearning to belong is made heroically, and very movingly, concrete in 'To Boldly Go', where Wallwein's simple desire for the warmth of physical contact is refused by the mother of a friend: 'The look on her face was enough // As she pushed me away / I was stranded in outer space.'
The impulse to hide becomes an imperative. Finding comfort in unlikely repositories - 'A slice of thin white toast and jam', and 'Mrs Foster's, Garibaldi biscuits' - Wallwein's early incarnation yields a metonymy of commonplace kindness where the proffering of a gesture is at least as important as the food, and provides a 'Hiding Place' of the profoundest sort.
The honest ambiguity of Wallwein's approach underlines her sincerity: 'I Always Knew' takes a scalpel to received impressions of adoptive relationships by declaring love in an otherwise abusive environment.
'The longing still lingers', she says, having just recounted the blows dodged, and elsewhere, owning an unlikely suggestion of Stockholm Syndrome, she bravely admits, 'like a hostage I missed my captor'.
The 'witness', as she is, reminds us of the complex interplay which directs emotional traffic in abusive scenarios - the guilt to be unlearned, the anger to be constructively channelled.
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The poet and writer emerges from the harrowing of sustained privation in golden metaphors of growth, fire and cosmic aspiration.
The stinging nettles of a too-close past in '58 Parrswood Road', and the colourful dandelion seeds (otherwise children in care) cast to the wind in '390 Parrswood Road', are preludes to 'Didsbury Library' where Wallwein likens her childhood self's revelatory new reading habit to the growth of a tree.
In this latter, strangely humbling, poem the poet finds consolation in being 'parented' by writers whom she cannot know, helping her locate a voice: 'Her own book would be found here / And her oak would build a ship'.
'Making contact' is an exploding measure of self-assertion which celebrates a sense of undirected anticipation in metaphors of discovery. In a sudden recognition of what 'stout Cortez' in Keats might have called 'discubrimiento', new planets of possibility swim into Wallwein's ken like firework-bedecked ocean liners. 'Dreamriding' climaxes 'Making Contact' with an ecstatic, freewheeling mantra performed in a long, airborne celebratory rap of people and place, and a huge, affirmative 'YES!' in conclusion: 'Catch air / Catch air / And fly.'
In another sense, 'Making Contact' foreshadows the culmination of the long search for the poet's birth mother which drives the narrative direction of 'Glue'.
All roads lead to the ultimate finding of the mother figure, and the ambivalence, mistrust and confusion which both precede and define the awkward first meeting. The younger Wallwein's pathetic plea - 'Just to see', 'Just to understand', is rewarded with a movingly-drawn scene of intuitive mutual recognition; before the brief catching of happiness is subsumed into reversion and guilt.
The mother figure's solipsistic self-justifications steal the daughter's renewed identity: 'And I realise for the very first time that this / would never be about me / it would always be about her.'
When, on stage, Wallwein hymns the unexpected love conferred on her by her goddaughter it appears almost as an alchemical manifestation, a cataract of emotion and reciprocation; something miraculous achieved out of the dust and wreckage of psychological damage. And an affirmation that renewal is always possible: 'My goddaughter / She is not connected to me by blood / She is connected to me by love'.
The trained boxer, wing-walking poet and successful performer and writer has hoisted an identity in the face of overwhelming odds. Not bad for a catholic girl, who, according to one residential social worker and nun, had 'ideas above her station.'
'Glue' is published by smith/doorstop books
You can buy a copy here: http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/shop/954/583/glue
'Ithaca Within Me': 'Glue' By Louise Wallwein, 25th January 2018, 9:28 AM