Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Poem of the Week: ‘Advice to a Discarded Lover’ by Fleur Adcock

Everybody loves a scandal, don’t they? So when Strictly Come Dancing contestant Seann Walsh was photographed last week locking lips with his married dance partner Katya Jones, it quickly hit the headlines. The infamous ‘strictly curse’ had been cast and ‘The Seann Walsh Cheating Scandal’ was talked about everywhere, from coffee shops to the Jonathan Ross sofa.

However, as the love affair was rather publicly addressed and apologised for, it was Seann’s now ex-girlfriend Rebecca Humphries’ statement which stole the spotlight and the headlines. Not only did Humphries’ response earn her instant notoriety and a standing ovation from everyone who’d ever been cheated on, it also provides the inspiration for this week’s poem. Because after all, everybody loves a scandal. But seeing the ‘victims’ of the scandal emerge triumphant… well, we love that a whole lot more.

Fleur Adcock’s poem ‘Advice to a Discarded Lover’ captures the voice of someone retaining dignity and strength at the end of a relationship 

Fleur Adcock’s poem ‘Advice to a Discarded Lover’ captures the voice of someone retaining dignity and strength at the end of a relationship once its toxicity has surfaced. The voice is one which could belong to Rebecca Humphries, who began her statement with the powerful declaration “I am not a victim”, and whose assertion of power permeates her response.

Just as Rebecca forced her voice into the narrative of the scandal  and handed herself the power, Adcock crafts agency and force into the voice of her speaker to present them not only as a part in the narrative, but as the author of it. The initial opening of her poem injects authority into her command, immediately asserting the dominance and strength of the speaker’s voice.

However, this strength is belied by hints of bitterness and pain. Adcock uses many harsh, plosive sounds at the start of words and the effect of the plosive consonants at the end of monosyllabic words is one of anger amidst dignified strength. Similar betrayals of anger are by no means absent from Humphries’ statement (she deliberately draws attention to the fact “Sean(n)” changed the spelling of his name for ‘showbiz’) but the overriding tone is definitely one of power, as is the tone of Adcock’s poem. The constant direct address and final, demanding couplet establish this.

So what relevance does this have to us? While Adcock’s poem focuses on discarding toxic relationships – and Rebecca Humphries’ statement specifically discards of Seann Walsh – we can translate their example of dignified ejection of negativity onto the toxic elements of our own lives. We can consider the metaphor of the ended relationship as a decaying bird riddled with parasites as an allegorical representation of any destructive aspect of our surroundings, whether it’s the way we spend our time, who we spend our time with and the environment in which we do so.

Disposing of the parts of our lives which cause us harm is an important part of protecting our mental health

This is an important message to take from both Humphries’ response to scandal and from Adcock’s poem, because disposing of the parts of our lives which cause us harm is an important part of protecting our mental health. Just as we try to omit unhealthy foods from our diet, we should try and move on from damaging aspects of our lives. This acceptance will require time and healing that is so visually captured in the analogy in ‘Advice to a Discarded Lover’. It shows us that we can only acknowledge the destructiveness of things we once enjoyed, or even loved, when we leave them to decay and are left with only their clean bones: over time, we can see more clearly the root of what was toxic and see neither “pity” nor “revulsion”, neither grief nor hatred, but simply look with indifference and a healthy mind.  

There is no better week to choose a poem – and a scandal – that draws attention to the importance of this than in the week following World Mental Health Day. Rebecca Humphries tells us to “believe in ourselves” and “trust our instincts” while Fleur Adcock’s poem tells us to follow these instincts and walk away from the repulsive. So, keeping in mind the importance of our mental health, let’s follow their advice and protect our minds from the things that threaten them. Even when we can’t see the worms that wriggle their way in, we can – as both these women display – have dignity and strength while we allow them to decay and rot.

And let’s not forget, there’s always something good to come from the bad experiences, from the toxic waste we dispose of. After all, like Rebecca said, she’s not sorry she kept the cat.

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