The First Telling by Gill McEvoy

Reviewed by JPL

Speaking of abuse is fraught, but may help to heal; painting its colours can be therapeutic. Making poetry of this, as Gill McEvoy does in The First Telling, creates compelling reading.

Til blood runs
Scrub, scrub. More.

(In the bathroom, scrub skin)

can’t breathe
can’t breathe



(A creep of tree slides)

McEvoy confronts rape, and out of this trauma makes a poetry of recovery.

Each night I lock the door,
draw the curtains,
set out towels,
the razor.

It was my fault.

Long sleeves cover the scars

(People will say)

Gradually talking it through, opening up, is itself a difficulty after viciously excoriated experience. From ‘The First Telling’ to ‘The Seventh Telling’ and ‘The Last Time’, McEvoy details this unfolding and unburdening process –

One turn of the key
and it’ll stand before me
bald with demands.

Turn to the listener, the counsellor,

Her eyes are brown.

I stare.
She holds my gaze.

A sound rips from my heart.

(The Second Telling)

Through detail, redemption takes place:

a rose is opening
soft blur of white

It is all locked cells inside.

(Outside the window)

and there is a place for this unlocking

The walls are white now.

There are still shadows.

Everything has a shadow.
I have a shadow
and its mine.

(The Last Time)

After the Seven Tellings, this last encounter is revelatory, for the shadow is not

The burned flesh
the heat of his hand
across my mouth.

The sour smell of match is not
the stink of his breath.

I didn’t go to the police.

I wasn’t asking for it.

I was not asking for it.

(I touch the cigarette)

Through ‘domestic’ observation and unsentimental emotion, I’m moved, and find in the rich variety of birds referenced (rook, goldfinch, sparrow-hawk, owl, swallows) a poetic quality, as ‘I go home through the park’ demonstrates:

The bird singing.

Are you alright, love?
A woman pushing a buggy stops me.

I wipe my face on my sleeve
I’m OK.

Its only a thrush.
Its only a bird.

Engaging with painting and colour, as art therapists will testify, can be restorative, and this is referenced from the ‘soft white blur’ to ‘gnarled grey claws’ when the

Sparrow-hawk plunges
a wreath
of red/black/gold

feathers everywhere

(A goldfinch bathing)

From ‘Pain. The room goes dark’ (They lead me to a table), birds are fed before ‘Blood so much blood’ (Hands sticky). McEvoy moves from ‘black with a dagger of red’ (The Fourth Telling) to ‘earth-brown’ and ‘spirals of green’ (The Fifth Telling), and so to ‘silver and blue’, then to ‘smiling’, hearing the sparrows, ‘the chittering of their young’ (Up there, under the eaves) so loud it invokes laughter beyond the bright blue, and the words

I step into the new white room.
Clean. Fresh.

I pin her card to the mirror
Where I can see it. Just
in case.

(The Last Time)

This poetry gives voice to too many who have suffered thus, but also to resilience and courage. For this we owe a significant debt to Gill McEvoy and to HappenStance.