Poetry in Recovery: A New Dimension

Poetry has transformed my experience of recovery. And, has transformed me.

Being a young, Indo-Pakistani-American woman in rape recovery, I had many culturally-imposed dualisms to get over, Western and Eastern alike. Dualisms caused me to ask linguistically limiting and logically flawed questions like the following: Am I pure or adulterated? Am I at fault or am I “innocent” in relation to the rape? Am I good or bad in relation to the rest of the world around me? To say the least, my thought process was limited by the kind of dualistic language I was using. Years of explanations to therapist after therapist of how I felt seemed complete in some moments, but somehow abridged in other moments. I found the process of “talking it out” was often unfruitful for me, and that I needed a more complete way of processing my feelings. Eventually, I found that in writing poetry, I would be allowed to transcend the limitations of the kind of language we use when we’re “talking about it.”

Although defining the problem was empowering at first, and allowed me to overcome depression, anxiety and even suicidal thoughts, it was contradictory to my broader sense self. It thus put me in a frustrating, endless loop of defining my self, disagreeing with my self, and trying to rebuild from a place of bitterness. It took nearly 10 years for me to fully realize that it was the dualistic approach to trauma therapy that limited my language and perpetuated my frustration. I was forced into the mold of black versus white, good versus bad, fault versus no-fault. Perhaps worse was the privileging of “talking it out” over appreciating and using silence to breed new and higher thought.

During that time, I was journaling and writing self-expressive poetry. As the work came together, I found that it sounded contrived. I tried not to punish myself since the work was intended to be self-expressive. Process over product. But, I couldn’t help but notice that my pieces were laboring to reach some ultimate conclusion that matched my then-current definitions of “reality” and “truth.” I did not realize that those definitions of reality and truth were self-aggrandizing instead of authentic. (See Dr. Dennis Slattery’s discussion of the difference between self-aggrandizing writing versus authentic writing in his book, Riting Myth Mythic Writing). As much as I resisted dualities, I lingered back toward them when it was convenient. I wanted to define myself as good and innocent.Truly, good and innocent. Forever, good and innocent. Ultimately, good and innocent.

One day, I realized that I had to stop. I had crossed a threshold where I could fearlessly acknowledge, without feeling ashamed, that both my poems and my recovery were facing this glaring flaw.

The draft of realization had barely slipped through the window when I found myself immediately fatigued of inauthenticity. Immediately exhausted of trying to fit myself into any of those boxes of good and innocent. Boxes constructed by all of the cultures that I belonged to. Boxes that people loved to put me in (and decorate so that they wouldn’t seem as ugly as imprisonment). Boxes that had been reinforced by ME for nearly three decades.

I was lucky to escape. Lucky to find that there is no ultimate conclusion in poetry and that there is no ultimate conclusion in recovery. Once I had the courage to take the argument further, I found that there is also no ultimate definition of “self.” Not yet anyway. Truths and selves are constantly evolving, ebbing, flowing, cracking, shattering and reassembling into new and often unrecognizable forms.

Then and there, I began to evolve. Not through a heaving melodrama, but through an awakening.

The eye of my internal Poet opened wide, taking in a prismatic scheme of colors and ideas. Some of the new stimulus entering the eye had been unwelcome in my previous, contrived life. I would have judged those varied lines, shapes, colors, thoughts and tastes as misaligned with my “truth.” But after the awakening, I was making connections between the past, present and future, and finding camaraderies between the things I had judged as “bad” or “good.”

It was effortlessly clear right then and there: my work, in order that it might be truthful and authentic, had to shed all egoistic skins. Had to shed favorable conclusions and happy endings unless there was an authentic purpose for them. My poems had to become a mirror of my real experience rather than a hindsight reflection that would inevitably adulterate the very reality of that experience.

My definitions related to recovery, and all of the boxes that housed them, shattered within a single exhale. My definition of poetry cracked - just like my very soul had cracked and spilt into the souls of everything and everyone around me. Soon after, when the definitions slowly started to calcify and box me again... I broke them down again with a passionate and almost violent rebellion.

There were more and more moments of clarity.  Moments where I was no longer “good” or “bad.” No longer “cured” or “afflicted.” No longer “sick” or “normal.” I floated between those words and swam around them freely.  My dreams became so uninhibited that I began to wonder if I could levitate above those words someday. Soon enough, I began to trust that the possibilities of poetry, the possibilities of recovery and the possibilities of self are truly multi-dimensional... many of the dimensions still being indescribable to us in the 21st century. 

The cycle of shattering and rebuilding continued... until it was no longer quite as violent, shameful or painful.

Now, I know I made the case for the limiting nature of language, and then immediately went onto say that poetry (which is language-based) helped me to push limits and shatter definitions. How is that possible? And, what makes poetry special?

I would propose that it is the musicality of poetry.

The Musical Dimension of Poetry

Poetry transcends because it is musical in nature. The melodic sound of the way poetry escapes the lips, the velocity at which certain consonants burst into the air, the rhythm that rhymes help to create all add new dimensions and meaning to the words themselves.

In my experience, when I freely added new meaning to my own words, I essentially added new meaning to the way I interpreted my life experiences. And, after that, I wanted to share those experiences with the world. I eventually wrote and published a book called A Simple Rebirth.

The first poem from the book reads as follows:

Villanelle for a Rapist

The Clock tick-tocked so slowly in the night,

Its wall companions watched the treachery;

A crucifix is still affixed in sight.

My sister wondered if I did not fight

Against the slaying of my chastity, 

The clock tick-tocked so slowly in the night.

My father feared I’d never find the light

And that shame would not grant me amnesty,

A crucifix is still affixed in sight.


My savior lead me toward redemption’s height

But I fell alone when the beast bled me,

The clock tick-tocked so slowly in the night.

My brother turned from me and toward the light,

But upon my need, he always carries me,

A crucifix is still affixed in sight.

Red flowers adorn the clock’s soiled gravesite,

For it did die, but ticks perpetually,

The clock tick-tocks so slowly in the night,

A crucifix is still affixed in sight.


I want to take you through a brief analysis of my work and show you how language transcends in this particular piece.

The “Villanelle” is a poetic form that was initially intended to be about a pastoral subject.  In my title, “Villanelle for a Rapist,” I did away with any idyllic scene and instead threw in the image of a rapist.  The explosive sounds of the word “rapist,” with the hard “p” and “t,” were intended to disrupt the flow of the soft consonants that came before them. Whether or not a reader or poet knows exactly how to define the feeling they get from the contradiction or from the sounds, they may find it jarring because the new whole that emerges from the separate parts carries with it a jarring feeling.  

Also the use of “for” may make you uncomfortable. Why would anyone write “for” a rapist and not “to” a rapist? And, why would a victim give something as sweet, pastoral and song-like as a “Villanelle” to a rapist?  Perhaps it’s a gift of awareness being given to him. A humble gift of a rueful truth that presents itself without rancor and without judgment. These are the questions and answers that we may not fully be able to understand (or even want to understand) through rational language. But poetically and musically, we get a sense of what’s happening. If we just give ourselves a chance to feel it on those dimensions, we are less likely to demand the rationale of it and accept what is simply TRUE about both the experience and the creative piece.

The Villanelle proceeds in a ballad format, fixed into an established rhyme scheme that almost glosses over the horrendous subject matter of rape. The reader is locked into a rhythm by the end of the Villanelle, which mirrors the rhythmic catatonia that a victim might fall into if she is reflecting on the incomprehensible, traumatic event.

Talking about catatonia is not enough for really understanding a victim’s experience. My experience. Rather, feeling something that is like catatonia through an actual poetic rhythm is a much more intimate way for the reader to empathize with the victim’s reality. 

When I perform this Villanelle to an audience, I see them locked in... I sense that they get me at some suprarational level. My audience therefore becomes a part of my new dimension, and some aspect of my experience becomes their own to claim. Perhaps if we - people who have not had the same life experiences - managed to meet at this level more often, we could connect to each other in ways that we never thought possible.

Another poem in my book that allowed me to enter a new dimension is Tabula Rasa.

Tabula Rasa

Enter the water.

Breath quickens,

A single moment

Free of life

Erases all that’s written.


The chase for winter is over.

No questions or wishes for

Apocalyptic storms


A tabula rasa

Emerges from the muddy water.

Dirty, sticky, scarred and still beautiful.

More beautiful than ever.

Through writing this short piece, I gave myself the ability to redefine the word and concept of Tabula Rasa, or “blank slate.” We all crave the opportunity to be new and fresh and completely clear of the scars of the past. But, this piece defines the Tabula Rasa as something that can transform what we view as past “negative” experiences.

The rhythm and speed at which the narrator “enters the water” and breathes reflects the moment when she, as a victim, is finally ready for transformation. Transformation into a “survivor,” perhaps?  Readers have given me varying analyses of that line. Some feel like the narrator is essentially drowning away a past life whereas others feel that she is fully inhaling a deep, unconscious dimension of life through breath. At the end, with the help of punctuation, the poem slows in tempo and makes a declaration of beauty. At this stage, readers feel the slow, meditative mesmerization that happens when something beautiful is encountered.

Whether you view yourself as creatively inclined or not, poetry reading and writing are surprisingly accessible activities. Don’t be daunted by the analysis above. When I was writing, I was not analyzing in this way. I just wrote from my heart. Analysis came much later when I was interested in studying my own inner workings, and when I was awakened enough to pick apart my own poetry.

I encourage all of you to engage with poetry - write it, read it, recite it aloud with a group, and see what new undiscovered dimension of the world and yourself you can enter.

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