The Doll’s House by Patience Agbabi   

‘Poetry is the purest of the language arts. It’s the tightest cage, and if you can get it to sing in that cage it’s really wonderful.’ Rita Dove

‘…a blind doll with kaleidoscopic taste, / who boils, bakes, moulds, pipes, chisels, spins and blows / sugar, her art, the only tongue she knows.’ Patience Agbabi

Patience Agbabi was born in London in 1965 to Nigerian parents and spent her teenage years living in North Wales. Her work moves between cultures and page and stage. She has lectured in Creative Writing at Greenwich, Cardiff and Kent Universities and for 20 years has facilitated writing workshops in comprehensive and public schools. In 2004 she was selected as one of the UK’s Next Generation Poets, and is currently a creative writing fellow at Oxford Brookes. She is a self-proclaimed ‘poetical activist’. Her longer featured poem, ‘The Doll’s House’, was commissioned by the Ilkey Literature Festival and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2014. “The poem is haunted by the fact that Hardwood House in Yorkshire – a symbol of opulence, magnitude and splendor – was a demonstration of wealth amassed from the transatlantic slave trade, and seeks to carve out a fresh perspective to examine this distressing legacy. ‘The Doll’s House’ stands for both the set of deftly constructed stanzas – or rooms – made of rime royale, and the replica model of Harewood made by the house-chef’s daughter, Angelica, its detail described with all the meticulous ‘rich design’ of the saccharine ‘haute cuisine’. And as with Harewood’s legacy, the more we listen to Angelica recall how she would ‘gorge / on bubbling syrup, mouth its language; learned / the temperature at which burnt sugar burnt’, the more the taste turns bitter, it starts to ‘blacken your sweet tooth’.” (Retrieved from

The Doll’s House

The source of the wealth that built Harewood is historical fact. There is nothing anyone can do to change the past, however appalling or regrettable that past might be. What we can do, however, what we must do, is engage with that legacy and in so doing stand a chance of having a positive effect on the future. David Lascelles

Art is a lie that makes us realise truth. Pablo Picasso

Welcome to my house, this stately home
where, below stairs, my father rules as chef:
confecting, out of sugar-flesh and -bone,
décor so fine, your tongue will treble clef
singing its name. Near-sighted and tone-deaf,
I smell-taste-touch; create each replica
in my mind’s tongue. My name? Angelica.

This is my world, the world of haute cuisine:
high frosted ceilings, modelled on high art,
reflected in each carpet’s rich design;
each bed, each armchair listed à la carte.
Come, fellow connoisseur of taste, let’s start
below stairs, where you’ll blacken your sweet tooth,
sucking a beauty whittled from harsh truth…

Mind your step! The stairway’s worn and steep,
let your sixth senses merge in the half-light…
This muted corridor leads to the deep
recesses of the house. Here, to your right,
my father’s realm of uncurbed appetite –
private! The whiff of strangers breaks his spell.
Now left, to the dead end. Stop! Can you smell

cinnamon, brown heat in the afternoon
of someone else’s summer? This rust key
unlocks the passage to my tiny room,
stick-cabin, sound-proofed with a symphony
of cinnamon; shrine to olfactory
where I withdraw to paint in cordon bleu,
shape, recreate this house; in miniature.

All art is imitation: I’m a sculptor
of past-imperfect; hungry, I extract
molasses; de- and reconstruct high culture
from base material; blend art and fact
in every glazed and glistening artefact
housed in this doll’s house. Stately home of sugar.
Of Demerara cubes secured with nougat.

Look at its hall bedecked with royal icing –
the ceiling’s crossbones mirrored in the frieze,
the chimneypiece. The floor is sugar glazing
clear as a frozen lake. My centrepiece
statue of Eve, what a creative feast!
A crisp Pink Lady, sculpted with my teeth,
its toffee glaze filming the flesh beneath.

The music room’s my favourite. I make music
by echoing design: the violet-rose
piped ceiling is the carpet’s fine mosaic
of granulated violet and rose,
aimed to delight the eye, the tongue, the nose.
Even the tiny chairs are steeped in flavour
delicate as a demisemiquaver.

Taste, if you like, sweet as a mothertongue…
See how this bedroom echoes my refrain:
the chairs, the secretaire, commode, chaise longue,
four-poster bed, all carved from sugarcane;
even the curtains that adorn its frame,
chiselled from the bark, each lavish fold
drizzled with tiny threads of spun ‘white gold’.

The library was hardest. How to forge
each candied volume wafer-thin, each word
burnt sugar. In the midnight hours, I’d gorge
on bubbling syrup, mouth its language; learned
the temperature at which burnt sugar burned,
turned sweet to bitter; inked a tiny passage
that overflowed into a secret passage,

the Middle Passage; made definitive
that muted walkway paved with sugar plate,
its sugar-paper walls hand-painted with
hieroglyphs invisible as sweat
but speaking volumes; leading to the sweet
peardrop of a stairwell down and down
to this same room of aromatic brown

in miniature. Here, connoisseur, I’ve set
the doll, rough hewn from sugarcane’s sweet wood:
her choker, hardboiled sweets as black as jet;
her dress, molasses-rich; her features, hard.
This handcarved doll, with sugar in her blood —
Europe, the Caribbean, Africa;
baptised in sugar, named Angelica,

has built a tiny house in Demerara
sugar grains secured with sugarpaste,
each sculpted room a microscopic mirror
of its old self; and below stairs, she’s placed
a blind doll with kaleidoscopic taste,
who boils, bakes, moulds, pipes, chisels, spins and blows
sugar, her art, the only tongue she knows.

Filters and open awareness   (edited)

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. / I come into the presence of still water. / And I feel above me the day-blind stars / waiting with their light. / For the time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free

In today’s post I’ll be writing a bit about my own experience with the Wheel of Awareness, the hub of awareness, in particular, while referring to Dan Siegel’s book AWARE and citing an article I read on how to gain freedom from your thoughts and the benefits of meditating and practising open awareness.

The Wheel of Awareness practice helps us focus and direct our attention to different aspects of our experience.  It is a metaphor of a wheel and along its rim are places where we can direct our attention and place our focus.  Moving anti-clockwise we can place our attention on our five senses, then we can scan our body and rest our attention on breathing, gut sensations, heart, muscles, bones, flow of blood, and any aches, sensations and tension that may arise. Then we focus on things like thoughts, emotions, memories, beliefs, hopes or images that might arise. We then move on to our experience of interconnectedness beginning from our family to other humans, to animals, plants, the planet, the Universe, and any other sense of connection that is relevant for us bringing compassion, kindness and love to the whole experience.

The benefits of practising mindfulness through the W of A and other practices are many. Joan Borysenko, PhD, writes: “Developing mindfulness of the connections between mind and body is a form of intelligence just as important as IQ, EQ (emotional intelligence), or social intelligence. As awareness deepens, bodily sensations provide feedback and guidance about every aspect of your life—from nurturing relationships to enhancing effectiveness at work. By acting on this information you can reduce stress, balance your life, and maximize your innate potential for health, creativity, and spiritual growth.” Summarily, other benefits can be reduced stress levels; increased emotional and mental well being and empathy; better access to intuition; resilience; clarity; reduced inflammation and a stronger immune system. It can contribute to better physical health and slow the process of aging.

In an article on how to gain freedom from your thoughts at:, Dr Dan Siegel focuses more on open awareness. He writes: “If you practice meditation, you probably spend a lot of time training your focus—on the breath, the body, or your wandering thoughts and feelings. Another valuable skill is called open awareness, where we simply rest in the awareness of awareness, feeling what it’s like to be conscious without paying attention to anything in particular.” He writes that according to journalist Daniel Goleman and neuroscientist Richard Davidson, the brains of longtime mindfulness practitioners look different when they are practicing open awareness meditation. Gamma waves—which, for most of us, occur briefly and in one spot of the brain—are elevated all across their brains, corresponding to the sense of vastness and spaciousness they feel. Neuropsychiatric researcher Judson Brewer and colleagues also found similar electrical patterns during a range of meditative practices that are called “effortless awareness”—a state of being aware of whatever arises as it arises.”

So, as I mentioned above in the W of A, we imagine awareness lying at the center of a hub and sending out spokes of attention to the various points on the rim. To practice open awareness we visualize bending the spoke of attention around so it points back into the hub or if we begin the practice with this part we simply rest in the hub. Dan Siegel writes that “while open awareness is one of the most advanced contemplative techniques, my research and clinical experience suggest that it has the potential to offer us more freedom, peace, and well-being in our lives. We can experience a sense of expansiveness. As I captured in a systematic survey, these descriptions share very similar themes of love, joy, and wide-open timelessness.”

When I first began practising I decided to create a W of A journal of what became salient in each segment of the practice, which  covered a two year period from 2014 till 2016. I found out that although the rim experiences changed from day to day or from one sitting to another the experience in the hub was more or less consistent at a thematic and felt sense level. The phrasing changed, but basically that which was arising remained consistent. Even if there was grief or fear and aches on the rim, in the hub of awareness or deep beneath the layers of experience was a place of expansiveness and equanimity.

Some of the things I jotted down over time were:

“I expand beyond the pain across time; I am a particle of the universe. I am at peace; I am not fearful of its vastness; peace; clarity, knowing and connection to the one connecting truth; inherent knowing of the essence of self; all is protected; I recognize the essence of me when I stand still; true essence in flow; coherence and equanimity; connected to life; reclamation of my space; clarity beneath the sea of experience; there’s peace under the rubble; below the interference of experience there is knowing and peace; liberty lies within me….”

In the article cited here D. Siegel says that Social neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang has also found that these attentional states are associated with neural firing in primitive brain stem regions associated with the most basic life processes. This state of awe and gratitude, this joy for life, is an inner sense of vitality and a relational sense of connection to the larger world around us. We can propose that open awareness naturally gives rise to the subjective experience of joy, awe, and peace—of meaning, love, and connection.

He goes on to explain that without open awareness we see the world through filters that can constrain our experience and keep us stuck in painful patterns of emotion and behaviour and that neuroscientists call the brain an “anticipation machine” because in order to predict and prepare for what is going to happen next, it constructs a perceptual filter that selects and organizes what we actually become aware of, in other words. it influences the information our brains receive based on our past experiences. D. Siegel writes: “Filters shape what we focus on and help us survive: If we are driving a car, we need to be scanning the road ahead for obstacles and primed to step on the brakes rapidly, filtering our options to a select few so that we can react quickly when needed. Filters help us make sense of life and feel safe and secure in an often confusing, unpredictable world. As the military and other organizations like to say, we live in a time of “VUCA”—volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. In this challenging moment in human history, certain people may be hardening their filters unconsciously in an attempt to make the world seem more predictable and less threatening—one potential way of understanding today’s extreme worldviews and sharp political divisions.”

Unfortunately, filters can reinforce themselves and they give us the impression that what we perceive through them is accurate or complete, in some sense this could be viewed as the basis of confirmation bias, where we selectively pay attention to evidence that conforms to what we believe and anticipate. We also develop filters around our sense of self and value, which are the result of our upbringing and our trying to fit into our social environments. D. Siegel says “Our top-down filters tell us who we are and what our personality is, how we typically behave, and what kind of future is open to us. This may be why, as we move into adolescence and beyond, life can become dulled. We begin to filter too much through the knowledge and skills acquired through prior learning and lose touch with the novelty of “beginner’s mind”—a mind that is open and eager, without preconceptions”; however, being open to new learning and understanding is a source of well being and growth. When our filters are rigid our experiencing becomes limited and we are less present. The sad fact is that without presence and knowing we don’t even inquire as to their existence or validity.

Cultivating open awareness makes it easier for us to loosen filters concerning our sense of self, expectations about life and biases about people. Cultivating access to our hub of awareness beneath the filters of our rim facilitates this process. It is our way to more freedom and as D. Siegel concludes in this article: “You are not a captive prisoner, even though your mental filters will tend to move you into old patterns. Getting lost in familiar places is a natural vulnerability we all have; using your mind and your capacity to be aware is how you can find your way. Patience and persistence will be your friends along this path to greater freedom.”

Image and Download of W of A practice at:

The walls

“All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority, belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are ‘sides,’ and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the Headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot.” Virginia Woolf

Over this last decade I have re-appreciated the power and value of many ideas in Virginia Woolf’s book: A Room of One’s Own, which I read in my twenties. As I have picked up brushes again this month, the ideas have become more salient. In terms of women’s experience  across time Virginia Woolf writes: “Women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics…”  And elsewhere, “There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” What if we could all live from this place of inner freedom, where the walls that kept us locked out of ourselves had collapsed, while simultaneously having a physical room of our own to retreat to, to be and to do.

More quotations:

“Anything may happen when womanhood has ceased to be a protected occupation.”

“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross–roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity, as I think, it is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so—I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals—and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; if we escape a little from the common sitting–room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky. too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves; if we look past Milton’s bogey, for no human being should shut out the view; if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. As for her coming without that preparation, without that effort on our part, without that determination that when she is born again she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry, that we cannot expect, for that would he impossible. But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.”

And a recent podcast

I’d also like to share a podcast I listened to a few days ago with Dr Rick Hanson, his son Forrest Hanson, and their guest Frank Ostaseski, who is an advocate for mindful and compassionate end-of-life care-giving at:  The discussion covers topics and experiences like: Frank’s own recovery from multiple strokes; what death can teach us about living well and ourselves; our fear of our own death, and mostly, the death of those we love, especially, our children; bringing wisdom to anger and courage to the world; the coming together and the falling apart and accepting each other as is.