My First Real Post-Trauma Poem
By Michele Rosenthal
1999 was a bad year. I mean, a very, very bad year for my posttraumatic stress. My body was shutting down in various mysterious stress-caused illnesses and my mind was shutting down with it.
At the time I was writing a lot for theater. Ironically, I was writing a lot of comedy and my plays were being produced. But what I really wanted was to write a drama exploring the issues of a woman who had survived a trauma.
OK, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see my motivation for that topic. And it probably won’t surprise you to hear that I couldn’t write that drama to save my life. The topic was too big, too unwieldy and the emotions surrounding it too tough to bear.
I decided to strip down the idea and medium and make it all more manageable. I decided to leave the theater and write poetry.
The first poem I wrote was a very simple one. It tackled the thing I thought about most often and with a great degree of angst: I always wondered who I might have been had fate not intervened.
As a child trauma survivor I always felt like I never had the chance to become the right adult. Or, the adult I might have chosen or wanted to be if trauma hadn’t derailed me.Who could I have been? was a constant refrain in my mind. It drove me crazy. There wasn’t any answer.
So I wrote about this idea, the desire to go back and start over, to find myself without the stain of experience. It was a short poem, my initial effort at putting words to thoughts and emotions in a controlled setting. I titled the poem, ‘Before the World Intruded.’ It represented my most innocent post-trauma wish and my beginning to find language to express the inexpressable. It also became the title of my trauma and PTSD recovery memoir.
I went on to get an MFA in Poetry and to write an entire thesis of poems about living and coping with PTSD. Of all the poems I’ve published, however, ‘Before the World Intruded’ is the one that gets the most attention. The former U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, chose the poem for Poetry 180, a program that brings poetry into secondary school rooms across the country. Students and teachers write to me year after year interpreting the poem and asking for its background. The poem has been incorporated into the work of visual artists and read aloud at various events.
Now, I’ve just been contacted by the Poetry Society of America: the poem has been selected for the Poetry in Motion program, which brings poetry to the people. Already in several U.S. cities, the latest expansion of the program will be Dallas, Texas, where my little I’m-trying-to-heal-my-PTSD poem will be plastered on all the buses and trains of the mass transit system.
So, what’s wandering through my mind today is how we can take the smallest stab at healing, how we can make the seemingly most innocuous gesture at untangling what’s going on in our minds, and by mistake end up doing something that not only helps ourselves but helps and touches other people.
We are never as isolated as we feel. All we have to do is speak our truth to find millions of others who know it and live it and breathe it just the way we do.