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.

Five o’clock

I’ve been away from the computer for most of the last week, but now I’m back with a slightly longer poem than I usually write.

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At five o’clock the fire is lit.

Around the table we all sit,

With buttered bread and eggs and ham,

With cups of tea and cake and jam.

The idle talk is of the day,

The work now done, the latest play,

And ‘Anything to watch tonight?’

Or in the warmth and soft lamplight,

Perhaps we’ll read and play a hand,

Of whist, or bridge, you understand.

And ‘Don’t forget, at half past nine,

The radio – it’s music time.’

Then bank the fire, put out the lights,

The household settles for the night.

 

The heat blasts out in every room,

And lights and games and TVs soon

Take over so completely that

It’s pointless even trying to chat.

The sounds of gunfire, screaming cars,

Exploding buildings, and on Mars

The aliens armed with laser beams,

Are killed on several different screens

In different rooms by different boys,

With highly deadly killing toys.

The evening mealtime’s such a treat,

With pizza, chocolate, crisps and sweets.

Although it seems they all are eating

Different things at different sittings.

 

‘A cup of cocoa? I don’t think

That that will do, an energy drink

Is what I need, the evening’s young,

And there’s still much that’s to be done.

And if I cannot concentrate,

Upon this game, it’ll be too late,

The zombies will have won and then

I’ll go back down to level ten.’

It’s one o’clock, they still can’t sleep.

There’s not much point in counting sheep,

‘cause they’re all battery-powered toys,

Just so much electronic noise

And moving parts all running round,

And round and round and round and round.

 

I’m standing now beneath night skies,

Pale silver light from fresh moonrise.

I’ve walked for almost half a day,

It takes that long to get away

now, searching for a quiet place

Where I can pause and have some space.

I’m thinking how it used to be,

At five o’clock, the time for tea.

It seems to me that what we’ve gained,

Is not worth any of the pain.

And even more what we have lost,

We should have saved at any cost.

But anyway, now it’s just me

I have my flask, I’ll pour my tea.