It’s the annual Christmas dinner at my old place of work. I’ve eaten a slimy, peppery shellfish stew, plus a gluey portion of Christmas pudding, and I’ve a bad case of acid reflux. The ‘Secret Santa’ ritual has commenced and there are 30 members of staff to get through before we’re free of its sluggish rhythm. I rummage in my jacket pocket for a Gaviscon. This combination of eating in public, of anticipating being suddenly conspicuous, often triggers it. Or the feeling of being captive, but not in sync, not sharing the spirit. The muscles in my chest tighten like overloaded suspension cables. My heartbeat starts to accelerate, and an impossible sensation is shooting down my left arm into my fist. I know this isn’t a heart attack. I’ve been through all that before. It’s panic attack syndrome. Other people’s words, faces and body language are becoming increasingly grotesque. They are all eyes, teeth and sharp elbows. The noise in the room rises and I feel like my head has been sealed inside an amped up woofer playing drum and bass. Without saying a word, I leave my seat, and my colleagues, and walk out into Nottingham. I take random turns, hoping to end up in some quiet nook, or deserted alley. There aren’t any left in the Yuletide crush. I keep walking through the crowds until the first wave has passed. I’m already starting to worry about the 40 minute train journey home. I’ll be boxed in all the way.
Several of the poems in the ‘Fugue’ section of West North East were ‘inspired’ by my experience of panic attacks. I’m uncomfortable about that word ‘inspired’, but have chosen to use it anyway. Having lived through 7 years of attacks, I very much wanted to retrieve something to compensate for the damage they did to my personal and professional life. All the things that happen to sufferers happened to me. I quit my job. My relationships broke down. I went into retreat – allowed my life to shrink as the fear of fear became my bird cage. I can’t count the number of sudden exits I made from social occasions: from pubs, cinemas, readings and dinners. I see myself walking, hard-pressed through the city, my right hand clutched over my heart, and streetlamps burning into my retina. I went through several GPs before I found one that didn’t just offer me pills.
Les Murray refers to the ‘A-bomb’ of adrenaline in his poem ‘Corniche’. I retrieved a strange consolation from reading that. It’s amazing to think that the human body can malfunction and cook up a drug of its own that can leave you in a state as heightened and extreme as any bad skunk or speed trip. It’s not an experience of the mind, but of the whole body. While it’s happening, you wonder that your heart can endure it. It was an experience that I fed into poems like ‘The Death Shift’ and ‘The Python’. Aside from Les Murray, the closest equivalent I’ve encountered in literature is Rimbaud’s ‘rational disordering of the senses’, except that panic attacks burn the rational mind like napalm dropped on forest canopy. I’ve never experienced anything that left me so unable to communicate or to explain my sudden flights.
I read one of these poems at a reading in Sheffield. A few days later I received a postcard at work from someone who heard it. She was a fellow sufferer who’d connected with the sharp pulse of the words. The postcard had an image of a lemur leaping from a high branch. A shiver went through me to have made this connection, and I mounted the card on my work station. It encouraged me to keep trying to channel these traumatic experiences into poems, and it gave me more courage to speak about them openly. This would lead to future connections with a surprisingly large number of fellow sufferers or recovered sufferers. I wrote down many of the stories and anecdotes I heard. It proved easier for me to transform this material into poetry than anything directly from my own life. The care worker in ‘The Death Shift’ and the mother in ‘The Python’ are composites of myself and of people I’ve talked with. The combination method proved the most productive and creative way into voice and character for me. It’s this method that allows the writer to reach into his own psyche in order to make connections with people and predicaments beyond his own birdcage: a way in and out of self at the same time.
All this helped me break free. In a sense, the poetry of panic, of adrenaline, is a poetry of being overly awake. It isn’t emotion recollected in tranquillity, but trauma translated into respite. A sublime experience is said to be that of being in the presence of something that could annihilate you – followed by the relief on finding that you are not dead. The poetry of panic recognises that you carry that potential annihilation in your own body. Each time I’ve managed to channel it through voice, rhythm and image, I’ve felt like I’ve crawled out from under an avalanche and taken my first gulp of air. Now that I’m all but cured of the syndrome, I feel like I’ve actually lost an interesting signal.
After I’d finished writing ‘The Power-line’ (in West North East), it occurred to me that this was a poem where I’d staged a version of my own death. The man who flies his kite into the power cable is that part of me I’ve lost through recovery and healing. The poem is unconsciously drawn to images of conductivity: nerves, dreams, a kite string, fishing lines, and the terrible power cable that conducts its overload across the landscape. I’ve had my moment of sparking that cable – and certain blue-lit, high-definition poems fed back. Now, I feel like I’m living, and working, in the aftermath of that. It’s as if my voice and sensibility has shifted from the stricken kite-flier, to the woman who surveys the scene and has to watch the ‘gulls and ravens parting ways’. I don’t know what I think about that. It feels like I have to start all over again with something missing. That’s an unnerving way to think about health.
Matthew Clegg’s West North East is available now from Longbarrow Press. Click here for more information about the book (and to order copies). Listen to Angelina Ayers and Matthew Clegg reading the poems ‘The Python’ and ‘The Death Shift’ below: