An autistic woman explains the terror of affection

artsACT

Poetry appearing on this page was produced with the generous support of artsACT

The following draft poem (comments welcome) is inspired by Donna Williams’ book Nobody Nowhere. In the book she describes how, as a young woman with autism, feeling affection and closeness with another person was a terrifying experience for her, and made her fear that she would be ‘swallowed up’. She did, however, sometimes feel closeness with inanimate objects, and objects associated with certain loved people would become very special to her. It is an extremely powerful book – highly recommended.

The draft poem below is also in the form of a glosa (a poem that responds to another poem and uses some of the original poem’s lines as stanza endings in the new poem). The original poem is ‘Circle and Square’ by Edwin Muir, and the bit I’ve decided to start a conversation with (and use the lines from) is the final stanza, quoted at the start. The full poem can be found here.

Give, but have something to give.
No man can want you all.
Live and learn to live.
When all the barriers fall
you are nothing at all.    
        – Edwin Muir, ‘Circle and Square’. 

An autistic woman explains the terror of affection

A rushing of the sea:
your smile is drowning me –
I have to fight to live.
Why can’t you let me be ?
I feel in negative:
Distress is all you give.

Lost as I have been
I dare not let you in
however loud you call.
I cower in my skin
I curl into a ball.
No man must have me all.

You want to show you care?
You will not reach me there,
that is not where I live.
Just barely touch my hair
– that, I may forgive.
Live, and let me live.

Or give me for my own
a button or a stone –
something smooth and small  –
and when I am alone
I’ll feel you through this wall.
But when the barriers fall

I cannot meet your eye;
you stab me when you try
to look at me at all.
To let you is to die.
I’ll go under, I’ll fall –
I’ll be nothing at all.

(c) Melinda Smith 2011

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Given

Christmas is in the air.
You are given into my hands
out of the quietest, loneliest lands.
My trembling is all my prayer.

“Five Days Old” – Francis Webb

Given

Poolside baby showers
herald the summer pregnancies.
Sweat caresses swollen knees;
mothers tally labour hours;
giftwrap is everywhere.
Christmas is in the air.

But by the time you come
first frost has been and gone.
A long walk brings you on.
I howl ten hours, a dumb
animal shocked at pain’s demands.
You are given into my hands:

all downy with the smell
of love, my warm wise frog.
Then: eight months of the black dog.
I crawl back from cold hell
that no one understands
out of the quietest, loneliest lands.

Now you seem newly-made
or is it me, new-born?
Chill fog melts in the dawn
and now I am afraid
of how much I can care.
My trembling is all my prayer.

‘Given’ won the 2006 David Campbell Prize for best unpublished poem by an ACT poet. It was also shortlisted for the Rosemary Dobson Prize for best unpublished poem by an Australian poet. It was later published in Swings and Roundabouts (anthology by Random House NZ, May 2008). Lines from ‘Five Days Old’ quoted by permission from HarperCollins.