I Read, Therefore I Am

Hetty Cliss

This poetry collection explores the relationship between language, gender and creativity, interrogating these ideas via its deconstructive process.


Does it breathe?

I hear her ask, as I read over yet another line,

Yet another string of syllables:

Does it breathe?

I add another infernal metaphor, perhaps another internal rhyme,

Try to make the lines flow with the path of my mind,

Discover this no easy task, so read something of hers,

Something that breathes:

I read of crumbling lips, of letters addressed to a world

That cares not for reading;

I read more of her two-thousand scripts, my faith in my

Work ever receding;

I read of convulsion that is real and true, of sane madness,

Mad sanity, I read of her and want to be Nobody too and - 

It breathes.

I read of desire for pleasure, then desire for death,

Each of these echo within me, I take another breath;

I read of Eden, of flies, of heaven, of grief,

Of ghosts, of death, of painting, of soul,

Of home, of summer, of fools, of belief,

And think there must be some hidden hole

In my work where life leaks out.

I sit at my desk, bite my pen,

And – breathe.



He wanted me:

I was lost when he found me,

Unsure and faltering, reassured by a seductive growl,

The winding path, split –

(Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t stray from the path!)

This way right, this way left

One way wrong, one way right.

With a howl he bounded left –

(Don’t, really don’t!)

Pausing, poised,

Looking at distant grey paws, I considered my options;

A child awaiting further instruction


In a flash of red, a dumped basket and flung flowers,

I followed.



The wardrobe waited

In its corner,

A giant and watchful bird of prey,

Its mighty wings unfurled -

Its iron talons tightly curled.           


Darkly Confined

A claustrophobic void,

I entered the watched room,

Shut the doors in childish terror,

Make the wardrobe inanimate once more.


Yet, whenever darkness seeps

Into my mind:

A bad day, a bad week, a bad hour;

Wings enclose, talons grip and

I see myself there:

No window of escape,

No ladder of long hair.


28th March, 1941

Wind wails as she treads along its path,

a fading light ripples through dark eyes, the water beguiles,

                                                                                                        This is it.

His shadow seeks her, urges her to turn back – home makes her feet drag.

                                                                        Two-thirds of a century later, a girl sits in a bath.

Disease murmurs in her mind, letters on a page become long lines, wiggling

without meaning. She wrote him a note, but her fingers betray her:

They conspire, steal, kill her power; the words falter – wriggle and sentences remain un-

                                                                                                         This is it.

                                                                  A razor clings to small fingers, she is not frightened.

Time wails, it does not wait. It slips and rips and tips her over the


The water bites her toes, tantalising.

She litters her pockets with pebbles, souvenirs for a new world,

                                                                  Can blood really be so red, so thick and, dangerous?




The water laps, licks her body.  Breath becomes bubbles, murky spheres of memory.

All I am certain of is your goodness.

The water stabs, smothers.

He will read of this, will he know?

                                                         I love you, don’t you-

                                                                                                        The girl puts the razor down.

                                                                                                         This is not it.



A Room Shared

I boil the kettle, arrange the mugs

Their preferences tinkle like a song

(Greater conscientiousness of)

I deal them out, they smile up at me –

A motherly waitress

(Love of children of)

I join them, thanks beautiful,

I take an embarrassed sip

(Attractiveness of)

Biscuits, laughter these are what make a morning,

My wit sometimes buried deep

(Small size of brain of)

We laugh at how long I took to get ready

Many minutes in mirrored company

(Vanity of)

We laugh at my tripping, spilling,

Bruising – the idiocy of clumsiness

(Weaker muscles of)

My laugh broken, not reaching the eyes;

Always the butt of the joke

(Mental, moral, and physical inferiority of)

My elbow violently brushes my tea,

It trickles from the table onto the floor.


 Maternal Instinct

Cut off your toes,

Let the blood seep

Through elegant shoes;


Or else:

Cut off your heels,

The bloody pain nothing

To all you shall gain;


Or else:

Have your eyes plucked out,

Have piety’s condemning

Finger dub you Spinster;


And so:

Cut out your heart,

That way your feelings

Can’t control you.



your well of self-worth: merely a reflection in a puddle,

your brain once an innocent muddle, malformed by manipulative,

ringless-fingers into an echo of power,

you are no wallflower but an English rose, red

a mirror of the anger in your head –

the anger is not yours Estella,

your cavernous heart holds a mysterious centre,

as cold as a candle,

the waxy base of the wick held by a woman

sitting like a foetus,

seeking love, not adoration;

respect, not fictitious flirtation;

value not for the shape of her face nor her body,

but for the intelligence behind her eyes.


Wanderers die in the cave, like flies

lining a spider’s intestine.


On the Moors

Their love is masked by hate, and hate by greed.

Her heart its passenger and proud it sits

in command of her every helpless need

parting from him again, as he commits

to anger. Upon the moors her flag is

raised to society, as she is hauled

willingly indoors. Her heart is not his,

remaining on the moors, cagily walled

behind hate. The cup is never wholly

full; status and love can  never combine.

He’s watching, in the shadows, the lately

made bride, whose soul remains with his entwined.

 Up on the moors, he cries through pain she stirred

as regret of two hearts remains unheard.


Woman’s Extinction

It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being, not that I even lived, nor took my first breath, a creature of the night, of living death. Silently torn, by him from life, from limb, into nothing.

And why? Because the weeping wretch was scared, he shied away from a woman, nay, a girl. An immobile, speechless girl. Nothing scarier than a woman who talks, but what of a woman who’s silent? Reliant solely on her looks, but me so grotesque, so ugly.

I can see it now, the fatherly-mother looking down on me fingers trembling with hate unable to create a woman who could match, then master his strength ten-times over. Cowardly, he wrenches my head from my body, tears off my arms, heaves off my legs, leaves my soul in infinite darkness.


What I Know

I don’t know what I know, but I know what I think I know and what I think I know is this:


                                                                                                                     People are cruel.


A Universally Acknowledged Truth

Am I nothing but a

universally acknowledged truth? The desire

to be combined, entwined, resigned to a

lifetime of companionship and unwashed

dishes? Forever surrounded by piles on piles of

clothes, stinking socks lingering between my

fingers as I pick them up for the third time this

week? Am I nothing but a socially

accepted ideal of beauty, vanity and maternity

forever expected to meet expectation,

never faltering from the norm? An

incandescent whirlwind of protection of

him, of me, of them? Am I nothing but

a trodden pebble on the path of destiny, a

path leading only to domestic bliss? I am not

a Goddess, by any means. Am I nothing

but who I should be?

Am I not me?


The Three Bears

The first, my first –

I think but don’t say

You get your way and

Again we march to nothing-

By no means an honest bear.


The second, my love –

Reciprocation of heart but

Not of mind and I find familiarity

Breeding contempt -

By no means a perfect bear.


The third, my doubt

If only you knew,

If only we knew

It gnaws at my heart, claws at my head -

A creature so big, bearing only dread.


Letter to You (Really to Me)

Dear You,

                 This letter will never reach you, for I intend to seal it in my heart and clench it in my fist. I couldn’t resist putting pen to paper, the words somehow seem more real; like Robbie writing to Cecilia about a body part he wanted to kiss...

  I said I’d speak but letters are better. That little delete button is your friend (I press it no end of times). What did I want to say? That sometimes lies to yourself are better than lies to others? The burden of pain piles on your head, and as it’s your own it is familiar: bearable. Though I meant what I said, to you, that last time- I can’t let myself reminisce.

  We’ve known each other too long now. You know me better than I know myself: somehow all the clichés seem true as absence makes the heart grow fond- no, colder. I will push you aside, ignore the fact that you wounded my pride until it became a cowering animal, feeling only fear. Now I turn to healing myself as I failed to heal you; though I must admit I do miss...

  I do miss you.

  My fingers tremble now. Not that it matters, as I said this letter will not find itself in your hands, only to be torn to tatters. The words will not echo within your head the way they do in mine. I’ve said these words thousands of times, though never to you. You’d probably laugh, in that way that you do, scoff at the way I think things like this.

   What would I say to you? (If I wasn’t really going to say it to you, just think that I might do at some point?) I’d tell you the truth. That your face still mirrors mine. That I don’t regret what happened, rather what didn’t - sometimes it seems impossible to dismiss.

   I’m embarrassed to imagine you scanning these few lines, I’d better destroy them and well, (hope they don’t end up in the wrong hands), I’ll just let time tell me what to do.

  So letters are better, you have time to reassess your thought process:

  Lying to yourself is not better than lying to others,

  It hurts more.


                                    Me (Or maybe, You)


The Eve of Eve’s Descent

She peers at the tree

Fruit hangs; Adam calls for her

Tomorrow, she thinks.


Twenty to Nine

The bus stops, again I jolt forward

then ease back, the motion the same

of that in the chair, in his summer house,

 in our village.

 I sit there rocking and waiting, still

waiting three years on –

She smiles as she leans over me,

whispers we are in this together.


The planes wear and wear away into the

hollow floor, my arms merge with wrinkled

 wooden limbs, cold, inanimate, still,

rocking. I let the movement slow but

not cease – it will never cease, not when 

I still think of you.

The rock a restless system tied to the rattle of my heart,

the still tic of the clock.

She looks at me,

an aged reflection:

I shan’t have her implore you to love me, love me, love me!

I brush her hand from my shoulder,

the rock slows, her face burns, turning sour

as the clock mutters its tic, tic, ticking towards the ninth hour.


I get off the bus, my hood falls from my head

 as the misty outdoors threatens my thoughts;           

I get up from the chair, leave you, leave her, rocking –


A Politicised Reading of Popular Culture

So are you, are you, coming to the tree?

Where the ache of your stomach will subside

where clenched fists open and set you free?


So are you, are you, coming to the tree?

Boycott, shout and strike – do not dare abide

the Game’s rules, when blood flows thicker than sea.


So are you, are you, coming to the tree?

As they line their piles of gold side by side           

you open your palm to find it empty.


So are you, are you coming to the tree?

Votes counted, the train of the cutting ride

makes gaps grow between. If only they’d see-


So are you, are you coming to the tree?

It won’t be enough to say you have tried

choked throats find a voice, blind eyes start to see.


So are you, are you coming to the tree?

Pawns counter kings in regimented tribes

so I have heard, now listen to me:

clenched fists shall open and you shall be free.






















 I Read, Therefore I Am:Commentary

   Poetry is all about resonance, it is about making every word count – two elements I think are valuable in any form of writing. As the great Charles Baudelaire once said ‘Always be a poet, even in prose.’[1] After all, if a writer can tell a story with power in a few lines, or portray a conflicting image within several words, think what they could do with an entire novel. The theme of my anthology, I Read, Therefore I Am, is undoubtedly a result of my study of English Literature. Over three years of analysing and deconstructing texts from all angles of time and content, I have developed a broad perspective of literature. I am a great believer in every text being interlinked; as Graham Allen states in Intertextuality ‘Works of literature, after all, are built from systems, codes and traditions established by previous works of literature.’[2] Every time we put pen to paper, the shadows of all we have read rests on our shoulders, even if only in our unconscious. I wanted to take this idea and instil it very much in my conscious mind. Though this is no new notion, (anthologies like Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, as well as many poems within Modern Women Poets such as Liz Lochhead’s ‘Rapunzstiltskin’ inspired my initial thought process) I wanted to mould it into something personal and fresh. The theme of intertextuality then gained a new level; that is the idea that not only the stories we read being connected, but also somehow our lives being connected with both the lives of others as well as with fictional texts. My writing process then becomes like a prism; the light of everything I read is absorbed, considered and altered through my perspective before being projected out in my writing.

   For me the process of writing then, does indeed begin with reading. Inspiration is tricky. It cannot be forced, but we cannot sit around twiddling our thumbs expecting it to come to us. This is where reading seemed a logical place to start. For many of my poems; those inspired by fairy-tales, or novels or characters within novels, writing began with asking questions - a practice any literature student would be familiar with. For example, within the fairy-tale poems I would ask myself what I would do if the character’s main conflict was my own. This helped to trigger a new reflection upon texts that are continually being re-written and re-read, as seen within my poem ‘Confines’, where I asked myself where do I feel trapped? Initially I thought of the physicality of being trapped but after redrafting and rethinking I turned the entrapment on its head to become something within the mind. Other poems within the anthology had a much closer connection to the texts that they were inspired by. Two examples of this are ‘A Room Shared’ and ‘Does it Breathe?’

   ‘Does it Breathe?’ was a poem written at a testing midway point of the module. It was written after my first poems had received positive feedback and were ready to be put to bed. The task then was to work out how to get going again. The poem is inspired by a simple idea, as well as perhaps my favourite poet Emily Dickinson. Dickinson famously wrote to her close friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson and asked him whether her poems ‘breathed.’[3] This is a question which seemed to me something every poet should ask themselves; a poem needs to have life to give it power and also to make it last, to make readers want to read it again and again. This is something which Emily Dickinson’s poems manage to do in a very small amount of words. Therefore, I turned to her work to help me overcome my block. It started as a very simple image, of me sitting at my desk struggling to write, instead picking up an anthology of her works. It was a good starting point, as I picked out famous lines and certain words or phrases to become the backbone of my poem. The rest came easily; I wanted to portray the frustration, the need to please those whose work we, as writers, admire. The poem then seemed an apt way to open the anthology. It represents the ghosts of other writers, the pressure to please them, to come up with something as good as their work, as well it remaining a work of your own.

  ‘A Room Shared’ similarly was based on another author’s words. For a different module on the course I had to read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Whilst doing so I stumbled across a section that seemed poetic in itself: ‘Less hair on the body of,/Mental, moral and physical inferiority of,/Love of children of,’[4] and I knew that this could provide an interesting perspective for another poem. Having studied Woolf in the second year, I knew she was much concerned with the importance of things which are seemingly trivial. The idea became a contrast of Woolf’s questioning of the writing men have done about women with the simple setting of a morning. In combining the challenges to gender structures with simply preparing cups of tea I wanted to, like Woolf, question who decides what is important.[5] Just because something is domestic and small-scale does not mean it is inconsequential. The biggest struggle with this poem was the fine-tuning, and in particular the ending. The feedback process was helpful here, in both identifying the lines which needed more work and through listening to the work of others. Poetry is certainly a form of social interaction and so when I was unsure, the opinions of those reading my work provided a new source of confidence after altering aspects of previous drafts.

   As poetry was a new medium for me to explore, listening to the other poets on the module was a big help. It was great to see many different styles and the varied ways people approached their writing. Again, intertextuality was the key for me personally. How would I know how to even begin writing poetry without reading existing poems? I wanted to get a broad perspective on poetry, so I read many different styles from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Villanelles to haikus. I also tried my hand at erasing words from a newspaper article and using the remaining words to form poems, an idea explored by Austin Kleon in Newspaper Blackout.[6]  I was keen to include this modern type of poetry in the anthology, as it represents a different kind of intertextuality, one concerned with other mediums of writing. In particular, a medium of writing which comes at us daily and reflects on both people and society. It was rewarding to twist words read in one context (my poem is formed using an advert from a local paper advertising a shoe shop), and turn it into something personal. It gives another level to both the process of writing and the process of reading, illustrating what I aimed to do with the other poems in my anthology.

  For me, ideas were not the problem given the theme of my anthology; it was the development of ideas that proved more testing. I had to experiment with form. If I liked an idea I had for a poem, but it didn’t seem to be working in the medium I was writing, I would rewrite it in a different way. One example of this is ‘On the Moors’, which started out in free verse but then became a sonnet. I simply wanted to see whether I would be capable of writing in such a rigid form, and the content of that poem based on the doomed love of Emily Brontë’s Cathy and Heathcliff seemed an appropriate choice. The sonnet form proved rather tricky. For me it was not the rhyme (the need to make it sound effortless and not overpower the meaning) that I struggled with, but the rhythm. Writing a sonnet is like adhering to a strict scientific formula; you have to follow the style or you will not end up with the correct results. To have to consider words to fit the structure as well as the meaning was a difficult and time-consuming procedure, yet it was not so different to writing with a less consistent rhyme and rhythmic scheme. After all, in all poetry the structure is part of the meaning, and is equally important in making an idea work; as Stephen Fry says in The Ode Less Travelled, ‘extraordinary emotions are not enough to make music.’[7] In other words, the emotion or idea is only a small part of the meaning; in poetry, the sound is equally important – and the sound of my poems was something I spent a lot of time trying to get right.

    The fine-tuning of my poems was a long, difficult task. To begin with I found it difficult to take on board the constructive feedback from my peers and use it to improve my work. It was frustrating to have people pick on the lines you believed worked best, and to have to reconsider them. I think the reason I struggled with this was because of the nature of my idea. I was working on something which was both personal and universal. Getting the balance right was something only I could do. As time went on, I did find the confidence to over-ride suggestions, if I had good reason to. As seen with ‘Maternal Instinct’, a poem which received conflicting criticism during the feedback process. Some wanted me to keep the instructive ‘Or else’ at the start of the stanzas and others thought it should go. In the end I decided to remove the instruction from the first stanza, as it was powerful enough on its own, but chose to keep the others to portray more depth in the characterisation of Grimm’s stepsisters in ‘Ashputtel.’ It seemed a way of examining their motives and desires. I wanted to explore the mother’s role in their need to win the prince, as well as highlighting their jealousy of Ashputtel, who becomes ‘Piety’s condemning finger’, giving the poem the anger I felt was the driving force behind it.

  A problem with redrafting also rested within me.  As I found myself developing into a poet, I struggled to leave my poems alone. Every one became an unfinished draft that could be improved. In this way, listening to others became more helpful as the module went on; reading redrafts and getting more positive feedback gave me the confidence to consider particular poems as good enough to be finished – overcoming the tempting but detrimental danger of too much alteration. Sometimes a poem can start out as something fresh and powerful and become something muted when considered for too long or changed too many times. Giving others feedback also helped me through this, it enabled me to reflect upon my own work, in a way that was constructive but also encouraging.

   This module has made me question myself as a writer. I have found gathering inspiration from novels, short stories and poems alike very rewarding – it gives you the opportunity to question all that you read and give a new stance on it through your writing. What is evident from my anthology is the way I have explored poetry; there are many different styles of poems within it. This is what I have most enjoyed in carrying out my project; that I have explored all avenues of what I intended to write – as a beginner I think that is a good place to start. To use the methods of other poets to guide you, before you come up with a style you can call your own. Outside the project, I have continued writing segments of prose too and unquestionably the process of writing poetry has improved my style, voice and word selection within it. When you have an idea for a piece of writing, undoubtedly the practice of poetry can improve the style of any form of the written word. The module has increased my confidence in my work considerably, I even plucked up the courage to read at an Open Mic Night and this has given another level to my poems; I now ask myself: How can this poem be performed? How does the poem differ when read from a page to being read aloud? I hope to continue to develop my writing and my writing process; I am applying to do a Creative Writing Masters next year. In doing so, I am taking the next step with my writing, seeing it not only as a luxury or enjoyment but a necessity and a possible career path. I am now brave enough to call myself a writer and intend to continue exploring the poetic form.


2,140 Words


Allen, Graham, Intertextuality (London: Routledge, 2002)

Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice (London: Penguin Group, 1995)

Brontë, Emily, Wuthering Heights (London: Guild Publishing, 1978)

Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Dickinson, Emily, Helen McNeil ed. (London: Everyman Paperbacks, 1997)

Dickinson, Emily, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: 3 Volumes in 1 (USA: Harvard University Press, 1998)

Duffy, Carol Ann, Rapture (London: Picador, 2005)

Duffy, Carol Ann, The World’s Wife (London: Picador, 1999)

Fry, Stephen, The Ode Less Travelled (London: Hutchinson, 2005)

Grimm, Brothers, The Complete Fairytales (London: Vintage, 2007)

Kleon, Austin Newspaper Blackout (London: Harper Collins, 2009)

McEwan, Ian, Atonement (London: Vintage, 2007)

Milton, John, Paradise Lost (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005)

Pullman, Philip, Grimm Tales for Young and Old (London: Penguin Group, 2012)

Morley, David, The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Rees-Jones, Deryn ed., Modern Women Poets (Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books Ltd., 2005)

Shakespeare, William, The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (USA: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012)

Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own (London: Penguin Books, 2004)

[1]David Morley, The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) p.211.

[2]Graham Allen, Intertextuality (London: Routledge, 2002) p.1.

[3]Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: 3 Volumes in 1 (USA: Harvard University Press, 1998) p.xxv.

[4]Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Penguin Books, 2004) p.33.

[5] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Penguin Books, 2004) p.86.

[6] Austin Kleon, Newspaper Blackout (London: Harper Collins, 2009)

[7] Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Travelled (London: Hutchinson, 2005) p.6.



Hetty Cliss


brightONLINE student literary journal

14 Aug 2013