Containing the darkness – Poet Michèle Betty holds out a light    
Wed, 30 November 2022

 While many people relax with family and friends during the festive season, others cannot celebrate the end of the year with any joy. This is the season when society pressures us to happily be together. Yet loneliness, or complicated family dynamics, can lead to heightened depression and anxiety. Too often, such feelings are taboo and must remain unspoken.

As we enter the holiday season, the AVBOB Poetry Project recognises the unflinching work of Michèle Betty. In her second collection, Dark Horse, published to rave reviews earlier this year, she maps her family’s experiences of surviving the darkest aspects of mental illness.

Betty originally started writing these poems as a direct response to the paintings and letters of Vincent van Gogh. But then something extraordinary happened. “The act of writing these poems opened the channels, which I had not previously explored, of my father who took his own life.”

Dark Horse is brave and convincing. The narrator emerges from the unimaginable sorrow of losing a loved one to addiction and suicide and shares how the topics she covers in her poems still feel taboo. “In writing the poems in Dark Horse, I attempted to break down social stigmas by naming them. This allows others to find a way into the poems and to identify and acknowledge their own experiences.”

A significant way for artists to transcend immense pain is to use the structure of their medium as an organising principle. This serves as a container for the overwhelming bewilderment and, typically, shame. Speaking to Joan Hambidge, Betty says, “So many of the poems in Dark Horse utilise form in some way or another, whether it be unrhymed sonnets, villanelles, pantoums, couplets or a number of other technical devices, which I used in an attempt to ground the poems.”

Betty’s voice is unsparingly honest, deeply grounded, and always compassionate. One senses that certain events change one’s life forever, no matter what comfort or consolation we are offered. For those who have lived through traumatic loss, reading these elegant and powerful works will be profoundly reassuring.

A welcome surprise is how this exquisite collection ends on an affirming note. In its third and final section, Betty turns to the kind of transformative experience that can save a life and turn it around. She articulates the kind of intervention religious believers might call “a conversion”. Like the American poet John Berryman, whose work is referenced throughout the collection, Betty experiences the Divine as a power that sometimes intervenes in order to rescue or redirect a human life. 

In the poem ‘Anoint the Body’, she describes visiting her brother in a COVID ICU ward. He survived 41 days on a ventilator, despite being considered beyond hope. As priests did not anoint bodies in the prescribed way at the height of the pandemic, Betty anointed his body with holy oils herself. After describing these sacred rituals in intimate detail, she concludes:

Finally, I seal the oil and water,
blow out the candle.
Only a miracle can save you now.

The poems in Dark Horse show that despite an uncertain future, life can change profoundly; one can suddenly see with new eyes. In anyone’s book, that’s a win!
Reading and writing poetry offers much comfort and consolation, bringing one home to oneself. However, these activities are not a substitute for appropriate medical intervention for mental health issues. If you find depression getting the better of you these holidays, the South African Depression & Anxiety Group (SADAG) provides emergency resources on