Poetry is an art form I admire, mostly because it is the one form of writing that I have most struggled with in order to ‘find a voice.’ I am a huge fan of Plath’s work, obsessively so, and so it was with much delight that I came across Pathways to Illumination, Christy Birmingham’s debut book of poetry. A brief bio taken from Ms. Birmingham’s publisher’s site (@RedmundPro) helps give a sense of what the overall work is about:
Christy Birmingham is a freelance writer who resides in British Columbia, Canada. She writes poetry to help heal from her past and reach out to women who are struggling. This sense of purpose began after the end of a toxic relationship, when she met the heavy hand of depression and attempted to take her own life.
(click the image to go to the publisher’s site)
Birmingham seeks to help women understand they are not alone when they are depressed, anxious or abused. She has struggled with all three situations and is proud to live independently and healthy today. She is also a cancer survivor. Her poetry carries a unique perspective given the trauma she experienced before age 35.
The purpose with which Ms. Birmingham writes is evident from turning the first page, where one is met with a barrage of disturbing imagery constrained in a form that is disciplined, thereby creating the kind of tension that lends great power to the poems that chart the tumultuous nature of this ‘toxic relationship.’ There is also the imagery that repeats throughout, which lends a sense of the torment and difficulties that the subject of the poems exhibits. An example of this occurs most strikingly in the opening section of poems: The Toxic Us. In ‘Sink to the Gravel Bottom,’ where the image of the spine, the backbone of the human form, is evoked, we find the subject subsumed by the tide of emotion that batters her ceaselessly. Throughout much of the collection, the subject struggles with a spine that is bent, bowed, and twisted into painful contortions by the mind and body of another: ‘When your posture is firm / I know that my own back bends.’ Consider further the image of the ‘posture of importance’ held by the subject’s tormentor, as he stands with his ‘face of fury.’ The imagery of the spine is deployed across the collection as a kind of violated refrain, which draws the reader back to a consideration of the human form in crisis – a very clever piece of manipulation by the poet in question.
The opening and closing chapters, in their form, are very much akin to what is described above, whereas the middle sections, charting the loss of identity, the fragmentation, the dissolution of a person struggling with her own existence, break their constrained form somewhat, giving the reader the sense of the subject’s attempts to struggle through loss, despair, and towards eventual recovery. Pathways to Illumination is an important contemporary work in terms of situating a discussion of domestic violence, and should not be limited to those women who are struggling with circumstances similar to that of the subject of the poems, but should be widely read by those men and women who have a predisposition to exert both mental and physical torture on ‘loved’ ones. The term, domestic violence, does not sit easy with its inherent contradiction – that of violence in the setting of a ‘family home’ – but its message must be heard.
 And perhaps I should find some solace here, because Plath herself struggled to find a voice for a good while, sitting with her thesaurus and dictionary, teasing out the words with care but with pain.