Film Diary #3: The Broken Thing That Sings

Something is alive inside me. It’s why I write.

For months, I’ve been writing in a way that I haven’t written in years. The closest comparison is the months after my father’s death. I was a teenager. I had recently discovered the music of Tori Amos. I’d put on her albums and write in my diary as I wept for him and for all that I’d lost. I remember writing a lot at night when I was alone. I needed to find language for the unspeakable trauma I was experiencing. I still have those diaries, but I can’t bear to read them now, almost 20 years later.

Something is alive inside me. It’s why I’m still here.

I write and write. The floodgates are open, and the words pour out. I live for it. I want the flood. I want to write everything inside me. It’s my proof–that I was here, I was alive, I felt, I loved, I grieved, I created.

When I was first getting into Sylvia Plath as a teenager (around the time my dad died and I found Tori), I was fascinated by what it must have been like for her to write the poems of Ariel. She lived in a flat in London during the winter in the last months of her life and wrote many of the poems during that time. She’d rise early and write before her two children woke up. I like to imagine her in the dark blue dawn, crafting the poems that would make her name, poems I would find and cling to for my entire life. I wonder if she felt powerful? I wonder if the act of writing made her feel more alive? Did she have any inkling of what these poems would mean to so many people? What was it like to be the creator of them? To be her own little god making a world out of words? A world of bees and poultices and sheep and myths.

It matters what we hold on to. It can make the difference between life and death.

I think a lot about how we go on living after a devastating loss. In many ways, I feel like I stopped living when I was sixteen and my dad died. The trauma froze me in place. I’ve always been haunted by the bodies at Pompeii, the way we can see people captured in their final moments before death. I also find bog bodies to be fascinating for the same reason (Seamus Heaney’s poems about them are haunting). I can’t help but wonder if traumatic loss does something similar, freezing us as we are right after the death of a loved one, trapping us in a mold from which we cannot break free. Just as the bodies are unable to leave Pompeii or the bogs of Europe, so too have I been unable to escape the past or the irreversible moment of loss. I could not move forward. I could not see past the hell of my trauma. I could not save myself.

But something has been happening inside me for the last few years. The woman who could only obsess over the past has started to think about the future. It’s a frightening thing for me to have hope. I used to say I could not heal or find wholeness. I used to focus on nothingness and the void. I did not know how to create something in the place of the absence. I did not know how to close the wound. I refused to believe it could be done at all. When you’ve only known trauma and loss and abandonment and pain in your life, hope feels foolish and reckless and absurd. It feels like a risk, or at least it did, but these past two years have taken me to the darkest depths I’ve known since my father died. In that darkness, I had to find hope or else I could not keep living. Hope is non-negotiable for me now. It is a requirement for my survival. I must try to heal. I must search for wholeness. It doesn’t matter if I never touch it or taste it or feel it. I must seek it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow. I watched it a few nights ago. It’s the kind of film that lingers. I don’t want to give away too much about the film in case you haven’t seen it. It’s enough to say that it’s about a young woman named Fausta coping with loss, trauma, and the ghosts of the past. Fausta is a woman who believes she inherited her mother’s trauma through her breast milk. The film is about her journey to find healing and to release the past. It’s about how, in her desperation to protect herself from the world, she has only isolated herself even more.

Sometimes, a wound is so massive that it becomes our entire life. The wound lives inside us, and we live inside the wound. Fausta’s wound is this trauma she inherited from her mother, and it is her grief after her mother dies. I think the wound is also her loneliness and disconnection from the people around her. Throughout the film, Fausta sings to herself a way to find comfort. I was moved by one scene in particular where she talks about singing to hide her wound.

Our emotional wounds are invisible. This makes them even more painful. But I’ve been thinking about how maybe art can make our wounds legible to others. Maybe through reading a book or watching a film or listening to a song we can come close to touching another person’s wounds and feeling what they feel. That’s how empathy can be born.

Recently, I became obsessed with Björk’s Vulnicura, an album she made after the end of her marriage. Björk took her emotional wound and made it tangible not just through the music but on the album art, too. Below, is something I wrote while I was obsessed with the album and the whole idea of wounds that Björk was exploring.

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I can’t stop thinking about wounds, specifically the wound in Björk’s chest on the cover of her album, Vulnicura. It’s an album of raw heartbreak. She exteriorizes the emotional wound of divorce by putting a wound in her chest, it’s a slit right down the middle of her chest. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Desire can be a wound. It’s a new wound in me.

A wound can be an opening, an aperture, a door, an abyss, a cavern, a universe. The wound is a portal into ourselves. A wound lets the outside in and the inside out; it exposes what is within us. The inner leaks out, is made visible. You can see into Björk’s chest. The wound opens you up to the world.

I need to care for this wound in order to heal it. I need to feel it, touch it, dig my fingers into it, probe it, investigate it. It is part of me.

In the video for “Lionsong,” Björk literally bares her heart. You can see it in the video, directed by Inez and Vinoodh who say this:

She is seen as if under a microscope, baring her heart while luring us inside the bloody galaxy of her own wound.

A wound as a galaxy, as something alive, not dead. The wound is a living thing with an entire world inside it. 

What if a wound is sacred? What if it’s a space for knowledge, wisdom, an intense inner knowing? What if it were a space for grief? What if, in the blood of the wound, we were reborn?

I believe some wounds can heal and others can’t. I don’t think the wound of my father’s death will ever be healed. The wound of my desire can be healed. It will be healed. I will make sure of it.

Maybe my wound is my altar to the dead. It’s the space of remembrance. I tend to this wound. I try to keep it from becoming infected, but it never completely closes. It will always be a tender and soft part of me, this thing I reach into, a kind of garden. My garden of wounds.

Vulnicura literally means “cure for wounds.” What is the cure? Writing. It’s the only cure I’ve ever known, the essential salvation. I lost myself for a long time. My connection to writing was severed for various reasons, but now I know that writing is the path to healing. Creation is how I heal the wound, how I stitch the skin back together. 

In “Notget,” Björk begs for her pain to not be taken away because it’s her only chance to heal. In the depths of her pain, she knows this is where she will find spiritual growth and creative renewal. She knows that feeling deeply what is happening to her–the heartbreak, the destruction–will bring transformation. No one wishes for pain. No one enjoys it, but when you have no power over it, you either perish from it or you find a way to live through it and with it. 

Her pain is asking something enormous from her and she chooses to rise to the occasion, to go as deeply as she can, to bare her soul and create art so that she can perhaps heal others or connect to them or make them feel less alone in their heartbreak. She has reached me through Vulnicura. She has given me the language to talk about my own agony. Describing my woundedness, putting my pain into words, is my own way of coping, of healing, of transcending it, making meaning out of it and bearing it.

The wound is an opening–it opens us to the world and to each other. Maybe we can share the burden of the pain. Maybe we can remind each other there are reasons to live, that one love might die but another can be born, that, as Björk sings, “love will keep us safe from death.” Exploring the galaxy of the wound is not a way of justifying it or the suffering but it is a way of holding on to life and creating the conditions in which we can live again and perhaps even flourish and feel joy.

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There is a scene in Milk of Sorrow that I can’t get over. Fausta is working as a maid at the house of a very rich and privileged woman who decides to just throw a piano out of a window. It crashes to the ground, and is destroyed. One of the men who is doing work at the house says that “It’s broken, but it still sings. Can’t you hear it?”

I am the broken thing that still sings.

Fausta is also singing through her brokenness. She is finding her way back to life. The flowers in the film are powerful symbols of her emotional renewal and rebirth. She will blossom. She will live. She will heal. In one scene, she holds a flower in her mouth, the same part of her that also sings.

I can’t quite explain why this film moved me as deeply as it did. All I can say is that I needed to see it. I needed to remember that the same place inside me that houses all this pain also houses life and joy and beauty. I needed to remember that, though I am broken, my voice is strong and powerful and important. I needed to remember that the past is the past. I can acknowledge it and honor it and try to understand it, but I do not have to live in it. I needed to remember that my trauma has profoundly and irrevocably shaped me, but it is not all of me. My pain will never be all that I am.

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In, “Three Women,” Sylvia Plath writes:

I had an old wound once, but it is healing.

And she also writes:

I wait and ache. I think I have been healing.

And she ends the poem with these words:

The city waits and aches. The little grasses
Crack through stone, and they are green with life.

***

Something is alive inside me. And it sings and sings and sings.

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