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Welcome to the Wonderland of Dreams

Selima Hill’s portrayal of madness in Lou–Lou and Bunny

On the British Council website, Selima Hill is described as “one of Britain’s most considerable, prolific - and most unusual - poets”, whose “peculiarly imaginative poems are easy to read and wonder at, but difficult to define” (Smith 2004). Often focussing on the common themes of everyday existence “her poetry offers a disquieting take on the domestic and psychological experiences of the modern woman” (Sears 2004). Hill’s focus also extends into the taboo experiences of breakdown, madness, sexual violence, and the psychiatric system. In this essay I’ll be looking at Hill’s portrayal of madness in Bunny (2001) and her most recent book, Lou-Lou (2004).

This essay is not motivated by purely academic concerns. I’m a poet who has been certified as ‘mad’ and who has accordingly spent time in psychiatric institutions. Much of my present life is concerned with making sense of the kind of judgements that were made not only about my life, but also about the lives of all of us, whatever category of sanity or insanity we are assigned to.

Before I read Bunny, I loved Selima Hill’s work for its expansive metaphors; pushing language beyond its usual boundaries; acting out fresh possibilities in expressing the infinite multiplicities of the world. It was inspiring to me both as a writer, and as someone who wants her world to be as large as it can. At the time I had two passions – radical psychology; and poetry. Bunny – and later, Lou Lou – brought those two passions together. Not just in the sense that they describe the processes of madness and recovery - many writers have focussed on these areas, some of whom I’ll be referring to in this essay. What really excited me about these two books was the parallel between the writing and the madness it described - in particular, the re-creation of new worlds in both the madness and the poetry.

What is madness?

The question is a lot bigger than it sounds, extending way beyond today’s reliance on psychiatric classifications, back through the pre-scientific realms of religious possession and witchcraft, back through the whole history of deviance, back through all the changing and various cultural norms from which a human being could deviate; right back to the point when Greek thought, at the time of Hippocrates, conceived of madness “as a break with the social world and the community whose world view we share through language – or what the Greeks called Logos” (Thiher 2000:13). This, Thiher argues, is the basic cornerstone upon which all future conceptions of the self and its madness, to date, would rest – whether they belong to the three ‘organic’, ‘psychological’ and ‘magical’ models that Feder identifies (1980); to the eight ‘medical’, ‘moral’, ‘impaired’, ‘psychoanalytic’, ‘social’, ‘psychedelic’ and ‘family interactionism’ categories of madness claimed by Siegler and Osmond (1974); or to any number of the many categories of madness which are still being created, with all-too-often negative consequences for those to whom these models are applied.

‘Madness’ in the sense of a break with the general worldview is a distinctly social phenomena. Indeed, has been described by whole movements – such as the feminist (Chesler, 1987; Showalter,1987 etc) or anti-psychiatry movements (eg Breggin, 1993; Lang, 1967) as a concept which is socially constructed for the purpose of social control. Throughout this essay, I will apply the word ‘madness’ to the experiences described in Bunny and Lou Lou not in the sense of claiming the presence of ‘mental illness’; but in the sense that these books describe someone whose interpretations of the world, place her outside of the general worldview, and who, as a result of this, is seen as mad.

In the next section, I will examine some of the background of the representation of madness in literature and poetry, focussing on some of its main roles and themes, and applying these to Lou-Lou and Bunny.

Madness in Literature

Whatever the hugely varied purposes of literature are, at the core is the representation of internal and external worlds, mediated through the writer’s experiences and interpretations, and through the medium of language. Language is itself socially constructed, carrying the historical and current concepts which shape our thought and expression – “to the point of saying that the very nature of ourselves as people, our thoughts, feelings and experiences, are all the result of language”(Burr 1995:33). As such, the representation of madness in literature inevitably reflects contemporary concepts of the self and its madness, whilst often challenging those concepts from within (Thiher 2000).

Consequently, the mad self has been present in literature since it was first present in thought. In both medicine and literature, this history of representation has tended to be a history of separation – the representation of the mad as ‘Other’; the clearly demarcated locus of those conditions which would otherwise threaten the sense of order in society. This analysis “illuminates the functions of such representations as models of social control” (Gilman 1988:10).

Yet, whilst it can act as a medium of control, literature is also site of considerable rebellion (eg Feder 1980; Showalter 1987, Thiher 2000). As a place where writers and readers can achieve acts of transformation and creation through imagination, literature challenges the rational ideal that forms the basis of our modern assumptions about sanity. Literature has allowed a space for the revelations of the otherwise-silenced voices of the certified; it has allowed the ‘sane’ to imagine themselves into madness; and in its acts of “imaginative transformation”(Feder, 1980:7), it attacks the delineation of real/unreal, reason/unreason, and sanity/insanity.

Indeed, literature – specifically poetry – has often celebrated irrationality or madness as a state of revelation. The Romantics believed that “Madness offered poets a royal way to truths beyond rational empiricism” (Thiher, 2000:169). This was echoed by poetic modernists - Nerval, for example, defended his madness as a revelation of knowledge; believing that the poetic use of analogy and metaphor to find meaning in, and relationships between, all things, meant that a poetic knowledge of the universe was superior to that offered by scientists. Other poets – from Baudelaire to Ginsberg – actively sought the experience of madness through the use of drugs, so that they could discern “correlations unfettered by empirical limits” (Thiher, 2000:211). In this experience, the doctor/psychiatrist, representing the forces of rationality, is often portrayed as the enemy.

However, poetry has also tried to communicate the misery of madness, and within this, the doctor can play the role of ‘saviour’. Hill’s work simultaneously represents both approaches: describing both the painful aspects of the loss of reason; and its liberating, creative potential. Consequently, the Sister in Lou-Lou plays - amongst other things - the roles of siren, seductress, mother, goddess, angel, protector, redeemer, unfaithful lover, butcher, murderer, thief and jailer. As the representative of the forces of rationality and order, she is at once hated and adored. More straightforwardly, she represents the paradoxical situation in which the person who is responsible for your well-being, is also responsible for your total loss of civil rights.

This ambiguity applies to the whole experience of madness described by Hill. In its representation of the isolation, sexual abuse, breakdown and hospitalisation of a young woman, Bunny can hardly be accused of glamorising madness – it is hard to think of any poems more evocatively painful than ‘Songbirds’ and ‘Rain’, for example. Neither does Lou-Lou glamorise, with its uncompromisingly brutal portrayal of woman patients as

“…… enormous
blood-stained women
grunting on tin beds”

(Ward Six, Lou-Lou p.7)

Yet whilst Hill doesn’t flinch from the grim banalities, agonies and brutalities of madness and life on the wards; and whilst she represents the gagging effect that the experience has upon is subject (silence is a major theme in Lou-Lou), she does so by using language in a way which is constantly surprising and often beautiful:

“The way I never speak
is like a mountainside
on whose white slopes
everyone is falling”

(Office, Lou-Lou p.51)

re-creating the sometimes transformative, revelatory and liberatory aspects of the experience of madness as well as its miseries.

It follows then that, contrary to the history of the portrayal of the psychiatric patient as identifiably ‘Other’, Hill’s subjects are identifiably ‘Us’. Just as the terror behind the picket-fenced American horror movies exposed audiences to their greatest fear - that deviance lurks within the most conformist contexts – so the ‘haunted house’ described in Bunny represents the dark forces at work within the everyday. The terrifying and liberating implication is that madness exists as actuality and potential in all minds and all contexts. “This moment, when we say “they are just like us”, is most upsetting. Then we no longer know where lies the line that divides our normal, reliable world, a world that minimises our fears, from that world in which lurks the fearful, the terrifying, the aggressive” (Gilman 1980:13).

Having looked at how madness has been portrayed within poetry, in the next section I will examine the relationship between the worldviews and forms of expression encapsulated in poetry and madness.

The madness in poetry

Theories about the close relationship between madness and poetry are not uncommon. Yet these are often grounded in simplistic correlations between the experience of ‘mental illness’ and the ability to write poetry, leading to the assumption that one is somehow causally related to the other. For confirmation, they rely on lists of certified mad poets – Plath, Sexton, Lowell, Blake, Clare. In the worst cases, they look back and pathologise writers, inferring from their work and biographical details the presence of ‘schizophrenia’ or ‘bi-polar disorder’ etc. All that this serves to do is to re-inscribe the social judgements inherent in the act of psychiatric diagnosis: ie. the unconventional way that a writer sees, communicates with or lives within the world is proof of their madness.

I have drawn instead from analyses that focus on the relationship between worldviews which, in their expression, are described as madness, poetry, or both. As Thiher (2000) argues, “Madness and literature spring from the same imaginative capacity to entertain present worlds that do not (really) exist” (162), a capacity which is so evident in Selima Hill’s work.

One way of viewing this relationship is the Freudian analysis offered by Feder (1980) and Thiher (2000), which emphasises the role of the unconscious. This approach might be summarised as: in madness, the unconscious – which contains feelings and memories we have to repress in order to live within a given social structure – is no longer being successfully repressed. In poetry, many poetic techniques depend on accessing the unconscious. The unconscious may be accessed in order to re-create reality – either in poetry, or in madness, when, for compelling reasons, reality becomes intolerable.

Whether or not we accept this way of formulating the processes of the mind in madness and poetry, it is evident that the three major characteristics of Freudian psychoanalysis – “free association, the reporting and interpreting of dreams, and transference” (Feder 1980: 32) are present within Hill’s work, eg.


In her dream she’s in a greasy flood
and sees a sheep half-way up a tree

and when she waves
the lovely sheep shouts down

Get me a boat and a suitcase
and so she does.

(Bunny p:40)

Hill also describes how she writes, in terms that suggest she aims to access her unconscious, or alternatively, to evade the chains of culture, convention. “I write fast to feel free and keep ahead of the censor, who, he or she, is always hammering at my heels” (Hill, in Vianu 2004). The poetry this produces has often been described as Surreal. In the next section, I will examine what the Surrealist agenda has to offer an understanding of Hill’s portrayal of madness.


The highly influential twentieth-century Surrealist movement aimed to unify conscious and unconscious states, in order to produce an unmediated representation of life. Surrealist poetry is characterised by “the creation of images that unite diverse and even contradictory levels of experience …. images are connected not by conventional emotional and intellectual associations, but by the process of generation itself”. Thus, surrealist poets were engaged in “continually rediscovering and recreating the world” by “opening themselves to the revelations of the unconscious, in merging with the non-human natural world, and even in rejecting so-called rationality, which they regarded as mere rigidity” (Feder 1980:256).

In many ways, this describes Bunny and Lou-Lou, which constantly disregard the demands of rationality in the pursuit of re-creating the thought processes of the mad subject; which merge dream, imagination, and reportage; juxtapose snakes and mattresses, eggs and sheep; and use analogy to find relationships between the most (seemingly) unrelated subjects and objects:

“They offer her a bowl of warm Bemax
and wrap her in a blanket like a clock”

(‘Budgie’ Bunny p.64)

Yet, no matter how irrational these associations may seem, they make a kind of (surreal) sense: maybe the blanket feels as uncomfortably formal as a clock; maybe it alludes to the temporariness of the blanket; or a sense of waiting and threat. The point is that we are able to interpret Surreal associations because they do not surface direct from the unconscious; but rather, are mediated through cultural concepts and symbols. Hill’s representations are not the product of unmediated access to her unconscious - like any form of communication they rely on shared symbols and meanings. For example, food is used to symbolise sexuality (and sexual threat):


The passion fruit resembles
coloured bruises

into a ball you can suck.

(Bunny p.15)

whilst throughout Bunny, the colour blue, with its associations with water, air, space, light and sky, symbolises beauty, liberation, and ultimate redemption; contrasting with the use of white in Lou-Lou, to evoke absence, dissolution, and the clinical wasteland of the ward.

The power of Hill’s representation of madness also relies on Hill’s huge ability to consciously order words for maximum effect. In the next section I’ll focus on some of the main themes of technique and structure.


Both Bunny and Lou-Lou are written as a sequence of mainly short lyrics, which in Bunny form the narrative of a young women’s abuse, breakdown and hospitalisation, described at the distance of third person. The subject of Lou-Lou, is who described in the first person, is hospitalised, attempts suicide and is eventually discharged. She appears to be a different woman from subject of Bunny, from the very few details given about her life outside of hospital.

This lack of clarity about identity is a feature of Lou-Lou, and to a lesser extent, Bunny. Pronouns shift between “I” and “we” as the subject’s persona crumbles, and she merges with the collectivity: “We smell not of ourselves but of each other” (‘Night-room’ Lou-Lou p.15). Oher characters in the books are also expressed in collectivities – the aunts of Bunny, and the doctors, nurses and visitors of Lou-Lou. The only clear individuals are those of the lodger and the Sister, though they are rarely portrayed beyond their roles and their significance to the psychological drama of the main subject.

Throughout Bunny and Lou-Lou, humans assume the characteristics or identities of animals as horses, pigs, poodles, whippets and other dogs, swans, parrots and other birds, insects, goats, fish, cattle, moles, lobsters, elephants, frogs, mussels, bats, snakes, rats, rabbits, sheep and bromeliads, are “both themselves and metaphors” (Smith 2004) who provide and describe the environment, symbolise love, threat, fragmentation, submission, incarceration, tranquillity, and are interchangeable with objects and humans alike. Thiher (2000) describes how the fragmentation and fluidity of the human subject stands in opposition to the rigid individuality – the unified “I” – of rationality and sanity. In Hill’s case, it works to replicate the psychic dissolution that she describes.

The books also replicate the dissolution of a unified reality through the use of analogy and juxtaposition. As I have explored throughout this essay, Hill uses these techniques to re-create new worlds, particularly the world of madness – much as Thiher (2000) describes Lautremont, and Feder (1980:248) describes Nerval: “a metamorphic style that recreates the processes of mental pathology”, extending way beyond the range of rationality to offer the reader startling new ways of perceiving reality. “I take what life throws at me, and spin, twist, skim, fly, flip, throw it back” (Hill in Vianu 2004)

Although Lou-Lou and Bunny have much common ground in terms of focus and structure, there are also significant differences, some of which I’ll examine now.

The setting for Bunny is primarily the father’s house, with a short time spent in hospital. Lou-Lou is located entirely in the hospital. Whilst a sense of claustrophobia characterises the world of Bunny, in many ways, its focus is more expansive. Different contexts and characters are introduced, either through metaphor or reportage. In Lou-Lou, there are few references to a world outside of the ward or the main character’s mind – indeed, she actively resents its occasional intrusion, protecting the closed world of the ward just as she protects her madness:

“We will not have stray people on our beds
asking how we are:
we are not better”

(‘Night-room’, Lou-Lou p.45)

Similarly, whilst metaphor and analogy are still strongly evident in Lou-Lou, they are quieter and less expansive. Indeed, many poems do not feature overt use of analogy, for example:


Now I’m up
I go from bed to bed
stealing people’s sweets
for the orderlies

(Lou-Lou, p.38)

Maybe this is because we are already located within an overtly mad world. There is no need to draw out the sinister forces running beneath the surface as in Bunny. In Lou-Lou, the madness on the ward and in the mind can be represented much more directly:

“Here she is again –
the tiny woman
who drags a little suitcase round my head”

(‘Night-room’, Lou-Lou, p.11)

There are also some significant differences of form. Bunny, with occasional exceptions, is structured around pentamic couplets. Where these are disrupted, it is for the effect of recreating hesitation, confusion, shock, disruption in the mind of the reader. They evoke the constraints of order within the household; the surface regularity underneath which disorder is seething. In the case of ‘Prawns de Jo’ (p.18-19), Galloping Alopecia (p.73), and ‘The Room’ (78-79), the effect incantatory, repetitions gathering tremendous emotional and rhythmic force, to equal agonising subjects they address. Lou-Lou does not feature such regularity, apart from the poem titles and the prevalence of three and four-line imagist poems. Again, this may be because Lou-Lou does not need to subvert any order: it represents the often humdrum reality of madness. In the use of repetitive titles, Hill represents the orderly structures within which this madness occurs. They imply the boredom and institutionalisation of an incarcerated life; the huge importance these dates and names can have within a day on a ward; and conversely, the irrelevance of date and location to the huge psychological dramas occurring within.

Finally, Bunny provides us with a social and political context to the subject’s madness which is largely absent from Lou-Lou. The young woman goes mad because she is unloved and isolated, and because she is sexually abused by the male lodger. In contrast, the madness within Lou-Lou appears to be enacted within the clinical detachment of the hospital ward, with no prior biographical detail. However, there is a political aspect that centres around the assumption that recovery consists of a return to ‘normality’ – a normality which is clearly gendered. Therapy takes the form of hairdressing and making dresses, no matter how irrelevant or unwanted, and recovery is symbolised by a bee-hive hairdo.

In the next section, I will explore this issue of gender more fully, with particular regard to the construction of language.

Women and language

In Mere la Mort, Jeanne Hyvrard (1976:67) declares, “They say that I am mad because I invent words.” Hyvrard draws from a myth of language beyond language, an aspiration that is developed by the French feminists such as Cixous and Irigaray. This approach goes beyond the feminist objection to women’s exclusion from a male-dominated literary and poetic canon (Ostriker 1987, Spender 1989 etc), to argue that women are in fact excluded from male-dominated language - ‘language does not merely name male superiority: it produces it” (Belsey and Moore 1989:4)

Gilbert and Gubar (1989) summarise feminist responses to this exclusion into two categories: the Anglo-American, which seeks to find a place for women within existing language; and the French feminist; which aims to break with male language/logos, and to re-invent a language of our own. This language would be “irrational, non-linear and incomprehensible” to men, whose language is “rational, linear, comprehensible” (Belsey and Moore 1989:14). This reflects the association of men with reason: women are “associated with madness and with silence, whereas men are identified with prerogatives of discourse and of reason. In fact, men appear not only as the posessors, but also as the dispensers of reason” (Felman 1989:145): a situation perhaps best exemplified in the psychiatric system, in which – primarily male - psychiatrists have historically denied the rationality of – primarily female – patients.

This non-rational, women’s language - Cixous’ ‘ecriture feminine’/ Irigaray’s ‘womanspeak’ - would not just give women a voice; it would subvert the linguistic order – and consequently the social order.

Unfortunately, there are some significant criticisms of this approach, not least of which is that the non-linear, non-rational nature of womanspeak makes it incomprehensible to most women. Yet it does have some important parallels in Hill’s representation of madness: including Hill’s refusal to abide by the rules of rationality; her fractured narratives and fragmented subjectivities; the fluidity of her writing in its constant transformations; the absences and silences; and the creation of a landscape of emotion which is more solid than the external reality. The fact that it remains comprehensible suggests a welding of approaches: using existing language and poetic technique to push poetic expression beyond its normal boundaries through “the interplay of controlled syntax, often in the form of lists and litany, and measured flights of incongruity. This is ecriture feminine with the seat belts firmly on” (Stannard 2004).

The womanspeak analysis also helps to illuminates the “feelings of disorientation and irritation initially experienced by some male readers” (O’Brien 1997:259) - O’Brien suggests that a particular critic’s response to Hill’s use of simile is based upon his unwillingness to engage with the destabilisation of taken-for-granted concepts such as a stable self and a predictable reality. The implication is that poetry written by women such as Selima Hill or Jo Shapcott, which challenges mainstream expectations of how reality should be experienced and represented, is marginalized as the undisciplined, subjective outpourings of over-emotional women – or of the insane. “Men will not allow new language games, for, judging her with the categories of their truncated language, they declare her mad” (Thiher 2000:312).

Historically, there have been few more potent strategies for silencing someone than by declaring them mad. By refusing to be silenced, either as a woman or as a lunatic, and by steadfastly writing within her own frame of reference, Hill meets the subversive aspirations of both the French and Anglo-American strands of feminism which Gilbert and Gubar (1989) identify, and confirms their belief that “women need not experience any ontological alienation from the idea of language as we know it” (97) – that “women need only gaze into the common sustenance of our communal lives … to create defiant and self-defining linguistic fantasies” (99).


In this essay, I have described the construction of the category of madness as a rupture with accepted cultural norms of worldview and behaviour. I examined how madness has been represented in literature, and how literature can function as a medium through which the constraints of rationality can either be upheld or challenged. I looked at the close relationship between madness and poetry, speculating that both are characterised by alternative ways of looking at the world – the imaginative re-creations of reality which characterise Hill’s work. I also examined this relationship by referring to Freudian and Surrealist approaches which emphasise the role of the unconscious both in madness and poetry. I argued that whilst Hill’s work runs contrary to rationality and other cultural norms, it remains accessible and comprehensible as it draws from shared cultural understandings and symbols, rather than being an uncontrolled, unmediated outpouring. Consequently, I looked briefly at some of Hill’s poetic techniques in order to confirm that whatever levels of consciousness she accesses, her language is characterised by skilful use of form, structure, and technique. In particular, I focussed on her use of analogy to surpass the usual bonds of empirical rationality in order to represent a complex, multi-dimensional, shifting psychological, emotional and material reality. Finally, I referred to feminist theories of language arguing that both Anglo-American and French feminist approaches are relevant to an understanding of Hill, who pushes language beyond its usual boundaries in order to represent her experiences of madness, yet does not push beyond the boundary of comprehensibility.

In portraying a world where babies are burnt, sheep converse with humans, girls are served up like roasted chickens, blankets are like desperately-loved sheep, cows eat marshmallows, madwomen are crushed lilies and injured swans, language is the colour of boiled sweets, a week is a thousand years, beautiful necks feature beautiful scars, and thunder is a mother made of waterfalls, Hill not only allows the reader to access the nightmare of madness, she also extends a general welcome to the wonderland of dreams; and for those of us who have walked that path, confirms for us that there is some value in those experiences. Being mad is not easy, but like Hill’s work, it offers us a vision beyond the restrictions of materialist rationality, and encourages us to accept the validity of other visions. Just like poetry.

Welcome to the wonderland of dreams
of evening meals in the afternoon
of plenty of time for the tropical flowers to bloom
that bloom in the night in the heads of the tranquillised sick.

(‘Day-room’, Lou-Lou p.57)


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