Deirdre Cartmill’s new collection of poems, The Wind Stills to Listen, was published by Arlen House in June. She has published two previous collections, The Return of the Buffalo and Midnight Solo. She is an award-winning scriptwriter and has written for TV, theatre, and radio. She holds an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing from Queen’s University, and is a part-time Lecturer in Creative Writing for Ulster University.
I’m being wheeled down a hospital corridor on a squeaky trolley. I’m in the middle of my second heart attack in a week. I’m trembling in fear, wondering if I’m going to die. But it’s not the physical pain that’s making me cry. A deeper, guttural pain is flooding through me. I’m flashing back to howling on my knees after losing my baby. I’m doubled up with cramps after another invasive fertility test. I’m holding my dad’s hand as he takes his last breath. I’m so broken that I don’t know if I have the energy to take another breath. Do I really want to live if it means living in this pain?
And then I’m flooded with the most beautiful feeling of peace. This peace surrounds me and holds me. I know all is well. I know I’m not alone. Something beautiful and loving is giving me a choice. I can choose to go if I want to – because I know with every fibre of my being that if I choose to leave, my body will die, but ‘I’ will go on, in some other place, in some other form. And I know that whether I choose to stay or go, I am loved. I think about it for a moment. How beautiful it would be to slip away into peace. But I know whatever I’ve come here to do, I haven’t done it yet, so I choose to live.
That moment of epiphany was the genesis of my new poetry collection The Wind Stills to Listen – a moment that swung from unbearable pain, to bliss and peace. For years after, my life would swing between these extremes. It was chaotic, confused, unsettled, with moments of magic and wonder.
But there’s a moment between those extremes – a moment of stillness.
Stillness is a moment of both surrender and hope. It’s a fulcrum, that point of balance you move through as you change from one state to another. It’s where you hear that first whisper of creativity. It’s a crossroads where you can choose another path. That stillness became my anchor.
The Wind Stills to Listen was written over several years because I wasn’t focussing on creating poetry, I was focussing on creating a life that wasn’t full of pain. But inspiration won’t be stilled.
Writing was accidental. I scribbled snippets to stay sane, as I tried to deal with being confronted with death, diagnosed with anxiety, and work through the pain, grief and loss that had led to me being heartbroken.
As I swung up again, I scribbled about hope, the healing of wounds, reconnecting to love, and discovering what a deeper love truly is.
And then there were the moments of bliss – but how do you write about a profound inner spiritual experience in a concrete way? It came to me in a flash one morning in that crossover between sleeping and waking – use someone else’s voice. So I used the voice of Mary Magdalene and imagined her journey. That freed me to walk in the shoes of another and to pour my experiences into her story. I was able to speak my truth through another, untethered. This was the most freeing part of the whole writing process.
There were other projects that influenced this collection. I spent several years working on the collaborative project Bridging the Silence as part of the Corners European project. Bridging the Silence is an audio walk and installation shown on pedestrian bridges that tells the stories of survivors of abuse, political violence, and transgender issues. I created this installation alongside Hrvoslava Brkušić, a Croatian multimedia and sound artist, and Beatriz Churruca, a Basque visual artist and performer.
There were around fifty artists involved in the Corners project. Many were from countries that had experienced war. As we chatted, argued, shared our pain, the loss rose up. The Troubles were the background to my life, and there was something powerful and profound about viewing my life through the lens of another’s pain. Being at a distance from home also enabled me to see my experiences with fresh eyes. That swing from deep pain to deep insight continued. Bridges, borders, thresholds, crossing points invaded my imagination. More poems were birthed. I played with placing these European poems together as a sequence but as they were written over several years, I realised they sat better with other poems than as a whole. In the end I decided not to demarcate their country of origin. You discover their origins through an Italian phrase, the mention of a tram, a saint’s name.
I was selected as the Irish Writers Centre Roaming Writer-in-Residence, travelling across Ireland on trains and finding inspiration. Watching the world pass by through the window, seeing life at a distance again, I created a haiku audio journey which also appears in this collection.
Writing is never neat and tidy. It’s chaotic. It’s reactive. It’s unpredictable. Just like life. Then you take the mess and try to shape it and make sense of it. My snippets of writing grew into poems. The poems were scatterings. How could I make it into a cohesive whole?
I decided to use that journey from pain to bliss, from the low to the high. The Wind Stills to Listen is in three parts, each attempting to answer a question – what does it mean to live? What does it mean to love? What does it mean to have faith in something greater?
Then came the great cull. Poems, even those previously published, were cast aside as they didn’t sing with others. A handful of poems that were written before my heart attacks and touched on the pain that preceded them survived, and made it into the final book published by Arlen House.
The birth of a book is messy, painful, beautiful. I was also going through the birth of a new life. To create a life, I had to be still. To create poetry, I had to be still. And in that stillness I had to choose whether to listen to the noise of the world or to listen to the voice inside me.
It takes trust, vulnerability, and reckless courage, to follow that inner voice. But all worthwhile writing and all life of meaning springs from that moment when you choose to be still, to listen to something more profound, to take a leap of faith and follow where it leads, trusting you will somehow find the destination.
The Wind Stills to Listen is published by Arlen House and can be purchased from Blackwells Online here: https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/The-Wind-Stills-to-Listen-by-Deirdre-Cartmill/9781851323074.