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.

Aggie

Aggie sits smile-chuckling at nothing much on TV today.

She’s made her shopping list,

And tidied her room.

She cried a little when Patrick called her stupid,

But she seems to forget him when children’s TV comes on.

 

It’s on the television screen that life makes sense to her.

 

Aggie, did you put that food in the waste?

No! Aggie is a good girl! Large-eyed-scared.

I smile easily. Soothingly. Of course you are, Aggie.

The same ritual every evening. But I wonder

Just what happened in that huge, rambling institution

She called home.

 

It’s then I think, for the hundredth time,

Of the pages in her file, the report from the hospital,

By the doctors and the clinicians,

With their tests and scans and

‘I can find no evidence…’

 

By all accounts a normal child,

Who, just after the war

 

Got into trouble.

She was sent away for her own good!

 

A cousin, sharp-spiteful,

But who refuses to say any more.

None of my business, or of yours!

 

‘There is evidence of a number of fractures,

The upper left radius, several ribs,

The right fibula, particularly poorly healed…’

 

Have you seen my baby? Asks Aggie, suddenly.

What baby’s that, Aggie?

Distracted-distant.

I have to do the medication, right now.

I’ll talk to you later.

 

‘There appears to be no reason for her disability,

No birth trauma, no accident,

No diagnosis…’

 

It’s Aggie’s seventieth birthday, tomorrow.

What would you like to do, Aggie?

Do you want to go somewhere?

 

Aggie nods.

There is something she’d like to do,

But the words won’t come and the more she tries,

The harder it seems to get, and so

She gets distressed, and cries and runs off

Slipper-slapping to her room.

The door slams.

 

‘Aggie spends a lot of time crying…’