“How had she achieved the task of spinning this raw, wordless pain into neat dimensions, and stunning prose? How had she found me?”

BY AYSE “BLUE” HUSEYIN

The year was 2013. The summer Orange Is The New Black would drag thousands of women out of the closet by the ankle, the photograph of Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft had been hidden in the back of my wardrobe for about five years, and I still resolutely told myself I was straight. 

During our A-level preparations that year, my English class had the opportunity to hear revered Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy host a live reading of some of her work. This was fortunate as her Rapture anthology would be the basis for our comparative poetry exam. 

Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy

At 18 years old, I was in the depths of a very toxic depression. Attending such a competitive school had worn my intellectual confidence and self-belief down significantly; I was disenchanted with the education system and my own abilities to thrive within this impossibly high-achieving environment. 

This, paired with a malignant and frantic denial of my sexuality resulted in a distinct lack of enthusiasm to meet the woman who, almost poetically, represented the exact things bringing me most grief. I perceived myself to be some sort of pitiful, acne-ridden Sisyphus, labouring under the boulder of exams, and an identity I couldn’t conceive of addressing. And there was Carol Ann Duffy, sat atop the hill, piling more dirt onto the peak, taunting me. I could not muster even a mild interest in her work for most of the term. 

One afternoon, as the heavy lull of London’s summer heat pressed against the window and the class continued around me in indistinct tones I flicked distractedly through the book to some of the poems we had not covered. They were crisp and unmarked, not yet picked clean by our annotations like crows on bones. 

I discovered the poem Forest that afternoon and its impact was transcendent. Its arresting yet humble tone sank through my chest and took root in my heart instantly. Duffy recounts a fear of rejection from her lover, sensuously describes their bodies, a loss of self, and the piece ends, all too soon, with a desperate, lingering plea to the reader and her lover to “Find me”.

These were feelings that a woman voiced without a shred of shame. They were hers, and they were for another woman. Somehow, this stranger, this sterile name that I had only seen on the cover of a book, had effortlessly plucked my deepest feelings out of my heart and exposed them for the world to see. How had she achieved the task of spinning this raw, wordless pain into neat dimensions, and stunning prose? How had she found me? It was at once a massive violation and an emotion unnervingly close to relief.

I carried the words of that poem on my tongue like a cube of sugar in the days leading up to the reading. As we filed into the dimly lit room, I pressed a hand to my own hammering heart. I do not even particularly remember the reading itself. I probably spent most of it trying not to explode out of my chair in excitement. I do know for certain that she did not read Forest and I was glad. It retained a private significance that only we two shared. I had never heard it spoken out loud just as I had never spoken my secret out loud. I was able to protect and nurture them both away from anyone else. 

After Duffy had finished, we approached her table to sign our books. I had purchased a new copy of The World’s Wife especially. I was a few spaces away from her when I had said, “HA! I wonder if I can get her to sign my book on the dedications page like she wrote my copy for me?!” It was an odd and revealing joke to have made in a quivering voice that had not sounded like my own. It betrayed the tentative steps I had made towards a self I would not accept for another four years. 

When I approached the table I was met with the infinitely dignified and level gaze of Carol Ann Duffy.

“MsDuffyIhadtotellyouIjuslovethepoemForest”, I mumbled breathlessly.

With a single word, she disarmed me with an understanding so complete and so concise that it makes my head spin to this day. She glanced up looking a little surprised. “Forest?” Then she smiled.

Looking back, I cannot help but feel as though it was the smile of someone recognising one of their own, in the same way that you feel a flood of elation and surprise to hear your language in a foreign country. I do not know what thoughts she entertained as this trembling teenager approached her with darting, glittering eyes. I do not remember her signing my book, only shuffling away.

Blue’s signed copy of The World’s Wife

Later that night, I finally took a moment to check the inscription. I felt compelled to wait until my entire family had gone to bed before retrieving the precious book from my bag. There, in a scrawling cursive, under her own printed name on the title page she had written “+” and then my name.

It was a simple addition that altered the meaning completely. She had not written my copy for me. Now it seemed as though it had been a collaborative effort, a story that we both shared and laboured over together. And at the time, I dismissed it, adamant that through sheer force of will I would deny my attraction to women, ignoring the poignant and generous gift Duffy had given me: the opportunity to be honest. 

I forgot about this incident for several years, as the stress of A-levels and my degree took precedence over everything else. But in my graduating year of university, after finally working up the courage to attend an LGBTQI+ Society meeting, I found myself recounting the story to a group, and I finally understood. I had found a group of friends, acceptance, and above all else, myself. 

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