26 November 2014
Multimedia live literature production Zones of Avoidance was written and performed by poet Maggie Sawkins and directed by Mark C Hewitt with film sequences from Abigail Norris. Colin Hambrook reviews a performance at the All Saints Centre, Lewes on 29 October
Winner of the 2014 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, Zones of Avoidance is haunting, creating a resonance with my own life struggles. The words within Zones of Avoidance speak to the largely buried, impossible plight of thousands of families from all walks of life, up and down the country.
The performance tells a Mother's story of her daughter's struggles with drug addiction and contextualises her story with recorded interviews with other illegal substance-users, conveying a sense of what it is that drives an individual to the depths of self-destruction.
In response to the performance I dug out an old copy of R.D. Laing’s The Divided Self, originally published in 1960 when the psychiatrist was only 28 years old. In his introduction Laing states: “In the context of our present pervasive madness that we call normality, sanity, freedom, all our frames of reference are ambiguous and equivocal.”
The young idealistic Laing, was keen to transform psychiatry into a model that understood madness and addiction, rather than criminalised those who fall within its grasp. And so in keeping with Laing’s ideals, Sawkins describes the polarised position you are forced into by the legal and medical frameworks we operate within, when your life becomes affected by someone in the grip of addiction.
The natural response is to try to rescue. When that doesn’t work and you end up being yourself a victim of your loved ones addiction, the next stage is to transform yourself into a wall. Searching for a metaphor to describe that feeling Sawkins hit the Coma Wall, situated 200 million light years away and stretching beyond the Zone of Avoidance, the area of the night sky that is obscured by our own galaxy, the Milky Way. That is how much of a taboo we’ve created and how far away our willingness to comprehend our society has been flung.
At turns harrowing and intensely moving the poetic language lays down a challenge to understand addiction as a medical issue rather than a criminal issue. Sawkins sums up a parent’s dichotomy: “I vow each time not to feed your addiction. I should lock you out, but you’re too far in.”
When you spend your life with the recurring feeling that you are doing battle with clouds, you learn to live in a state of grief for a kind of death of humanity. Perhaps when Sawkins refers to God as "something small and solid", she is talking about those moments when life hits you in the face. Zones of Avoidance is no tale of hope or redemption, although in its brutal unwavering honesty it uncovers an incredible resourcefulness for using poetry to cope and deal with life at its most raw and painful.
Annotated by a country and western score, I felt strong parallels between Sawkins’ journey and my own. We both have a yearning to explore what it is that makes the psychotic experience so attractive? We both have children lost to us through an insistence on taking drugs that render them vulnerable to states of psychosis in which their behaviour is at best, difficult to accommodate.
But most importantly Zones of Avoidance talks about the schism within mental heath services between the ‘medical’ and the ‘criminal’. The one-woman show is about that point where mental health ceases to be a medical issue. As soon as the individual is regarded as having a drug addiction they are regarded as a criminal and the services that are available are limited and very different. Who decides? It’s an immensely important question, politically, as it puts survivors, families and carers of survivors as well as mental health workers in an incredibly compromised position.
But above all the poetic language in Zones of Avoidance is sublime, superbly crafted and immensely moving. At its most powerful it helps us reimagine our cultural landscape and question how things could be?