Review of The New Asylum by Frank Prem

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This is Australian poet Frank’s third collection of poems, and in a way this is a return to the narrative arc of his first collection; Small Town Kid, after the heartbreak of his second collection, Devil in the Wind, which dealt with the horrors of the bush fires in Australia on what became known as Black Saturday in February 2009

Not only is this a personal, time-ordered narrative like Small Town Kid, but it takes up Frank’s life where that collection left off, with his taking a job at the institution in his home town housing people with mental health problems. At that time (around forty years ago), these institutions were generally known as ‘mental asylums’ although that name, as well as a lot of the attitudes that coloured people’s ideas of them, have supposedly been consigned to history.

These poems take us on Frank’s journey from his visits to the institution where both his parents worked, then as naive and wide-eyed Trainee Psychiatric Nurse through to today, introducing us to a wonderful collection of colourful, sad, genial, well-meaning and, yes sometimes, mad characters, both staff and residents of the institution and, latterly, the hostel that acts as a ‘half-way house’ between incarceration and release.

All these characters are realistically and sympathetically drawn, and I suspect that not a few readers will be surprised at the humour (occasionally black) and warmth that comes through from the average day in their lives. Frank does not shy away from showing the attitudes prevalent in those earlier days, when patients were severely regimented and often treated less than sympathetically, although I suspect there is much he does not reveal. But where he is at his best, I feel, is in depicting the almost unutterable sadness of many of the inmates. In ‘Huntington’s Marionette’ it is for the young victim of this, one of the cruellest of all diseases, In ‘Lost: One Cockerel’ it is for another youngster, this time a young man with his mind destroyed by illicit drugs. Then there are the families of these victims, often victims themselves in so many ways – dealing with loss or aggression, blame, or just the horror of watching a loved one disintegrate before their eyes.

And the institution is frequently under-staffed and the staff are over-worked, a situation all too familiar to anyone working in public health today as well as then. The final poem  ‘Still its Creature’ is the book’s epilogue, and it is worth quoting the first few lines..

in aftermath

it seems so clear

there are few mental-health

happy endings

and there are no

simple cures

I give this five stars out of five.

68 thoughts on “Review of The New Asylum by Frank Prem

  1. What an interesting subject to write poetry about. It sounds like it could be very touching and a little uncomfortable to read at times but that’s probably exactly what he was after. Not nice places thankfully consigned to history.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Jonno. Thank you.

      I felt it was important to not shy away from the big issues in psychiatry – to the extent that i have encountered them, at least. So it’s not always comfortable, but I hope readers come away feeling they have had a positive exposure to these things.

      Cheers,

      Frank

      Liked by 1 person

    1. My oldest son suffers from OCD and PTSD, Danny. He is always seeking assurance that he is loved despite his difference from other people. He is a very clever boy and I think this is part of the reason he struggles with these illnesses. The problem is, because he is so clever, people don’t acknowledge the illness and don’t understand it.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Daniel Kemp

        I was diagnosed with PTSD about 12 years ago, in fact, that’s what ultimately led to me writing a book. It was a terrible time in my life and for those close to me. I pushed people who wanted to care away and lost friendships very quickly because they too could not understand the invisible pain I was going through. ‘You’ll get over it’ or ‘pull yourself together’ were the normal responses to my situation and to be honest, I still don’t know why I couldn’t. I think we are all such complicated individuals that sometimes something just gives way leaving those who suffer hanging out there by the merest of threads and often only the love of another person is going to mend it. But the proviso is that love must be accepted, and that’s the hard bit. I wish him, you and the other nearest him well.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Hi Frank, yes, OCD and PTSD never go away and the sufferer has lapses or bad periods that come about when they are very anxious. Some of my poems about Greg are in my poetry book and I have included sufferers of this condition in some of my short stories too. I plays a big role in my life.

          Liked by 2 people

          1. I understand that completely,Robbie. Mental illnesses cause disabilities that ripple through families and all acquaintances.

            The impact is too often understated in the way it affects whole families and social groups.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Mick, a superb review of Frank’s book. I imagine this is not an easy one to read set in such a location. Perhaps it’s been cathartic for him to write about his work here … it must be hard for the nurses as well as the patients.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It can be Annika. I’m an old hand now and don’t get too fazed, too often.

      My time with patients has generally been very good, even if difficult sometimes.

      My worst times were spent in Policy development and high levels of management.

      I didn’t and don’t write about those.

      Like

  3. it’s a nicely written review. and it sounds like the sad parts of the book would be hard to read. There was a mental hospital for many years, not far from my hometown, and when it was closed down, they created an exhibit from the luggage and belongings that people had brought with them to the hospital many years ago. It seemed somehow from looking at these possessions, you got the idea that so many of the people expected to return home at some point, but very very few did, and it seemed very sad indeed.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Robert. The sad parts are, well, sad, it’s true, although they repay the effort of reading them. That exhibit you mention seems a little strange, although I suppose its purpose would be to highlight the human aspect of the institution since many people probably thought only of the occupants there – if they thought of them at all – abstractly as ‘mad’.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. When I first heard of the exhibit, it seemed like a final posthumous invasion of privacy. But I think your point is exactly right – you see these mementos, suits & neckties, etc. and old suitcases, as if they were keeping them ready to go home, and it’s impossible to not feel more sympathy and compassion for these folks, who almost always were in the hospital for keeps.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you, Frank. A couple of years ago, I read about a Nat’l Park Service exhibit, that prompted a similar discussion of the often-unknown stories behind random objects. This was a selection of items left at “The Wall” (the Vietnam War monument in Washington). Purple Hearts, photos, letters, stuffed animals, etc. – apparently 100,000’s of objects have been left there, and the NPS gathers them up and catalogs them.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Not sure, TBH, andrea.

          For the first time I’m thinking of taking a sabbatical from posting to the blog and social media. Probably won’t happen, but the fact that I’m contemplating it or a major change tells me that I’m a bit worn down.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. You’ve done a lot since you published Small Town Boy. You’re allowed to take a break, but maybe not immediately after publishing The New Asylum! 😉
            Hang in there a bit longer. After that, choose the social media that you actually enjoy. It’s the only way to not burn out.

            Liked by 2 people

            1. Good advice, Andrea. I’ll plug along, partly because I’m addicted, partly because I have so many projects I want to pursue – all at once, of course.

              I’m hoping to formalise some Workshop activity – in person stuff. I find I enjoy that very much.

              Liked by 1 person

  4. Very brave of Frank Prem to pen the poems in this book. (Have just had a look at in on Amazon where there’s a sample of more content). I, for one, would find them too-uncomfortable reading as I’ve had first-hand experience of ‘receiving’ mental health care. Thankfully not in an institution such as those with padded cells, but certainly in the psychiatric wing of a general hospital, and at a day centre earlier, that was quite enough. Also, I’m a doctor’s daughter, so… up to a point, ‘been there’. Anything to get rid of the stigma, though, has to be good.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Getting rid of the stigma is a good way of putting it, Val. I’ve only had very limited experience of working in that area, but spent many years working with people with learning disabilities who were certainly feared / mocked and stigmatised terribly for a long time, having an especially bad time of it in institutions. Thankfully, that is largely behind us, now, but in many people’s minds I think that stigma lives on, and it’s certainly true in mental health.

      Like

      1. I’m not sure if the stigma has really gone (for mental health and for people with learning difficulties), unfortunately. I know people are working toward it and that’s very commendable but I suspect full acceptance is unlikely to come during our generation…

        Liked by 1 person

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