Monday, 6 June 2011

Lunacy | Poetry | Cane Hill

When Elizabeth Bishop wrote of ‘the tragic man that lies in the house of Bedlam’, she imbued such subtle tragedy in her refrain from the compassionate pronoun ‘who’.

I think that my fascination with mental asylums began with the David Bowie song, The Bewlay Brothers. Insanity’s map is in constant flux, as is our treatment of those we deem as ‘insane’.

The context of an act is often the only thing that gives it the requisite weirdness to be seen as the act of a lunatic. The most seemingly innocuous of gestures, statements and thoughts can be seen as clear evidence for lunacy when our perception of the subject is coloured by a preconceived madness.

A sane man may sit on a park bench, mesmerised by a cloud that bares a resemblance to a family member. When a madman does this, it becomes an altogether more sinister piece of behaviour in our perception. Even that most unequivocally sinful act, murder, can flit from being an evil deed to a symptom of a sickness depending on our perception of the agent, and indeed our understanding and sympathy towards psychopathy.

As medicine’s influence has shifted clumsily from the shaman to the scientist, so too have our ideas about mental illness. No longer are the madman’s ravings a hallmark of demonic possession to be subdued through torture – we have moved from Bedlam to the WLMHT, via Craiglockhart. Our exorcisms are now humanely replaced with sedative drugs.

But have we ever known how to show compassion to those whose thoughts stray from the social norm? Can we conflate medication with treatment? In sedating the insane, are we not replacing a concrete cell with a cell that bares the appearance of a human body?

Cane Hill

When I was eighteen, I broke into an abandoned mental asylum in Coulsdon called Cane Hill. When I was younger, this was seen as an adolescent pilgrimage akin to setting foot in a haunted mansion. I do not recommend this dangerous and illegal act to anyone, and see myself as lucky to have not died as a result of the hazardous excursion.

It was however, formative in my education of how the insane have been treated by society. Getting lost in the lamp-lit labyrinth of wards and cells and the mortuary and chapel and discarded detritus was a kinaesthetic experience that no wiki could ever provide.

I wrote a poem about it when I was around twenty. This is it.

Cane Hill

Averos Compono Animos

The ominous sag of the floor at our feet
as though walking on a gloved hand
over a patchwork of spread newspapers stained sepia by the years
dustily detailing developments of what the Russians were up to.

Huddling in the projected safety of our torchlight
casting Venn diagrams in which to step.

Embarrassed to be eighteen and afraid, they coax me
into trying on a jacket left hanging solo in a balsa closet.
Smell of dust and piss as it grips
my shoulders like an angry parent.

Clatter of the rusty can litter when kicked
across derelict corridors once sanitary
and the unseen scuttle of others and bugs
or screams held in stone tape.

We lasted an hour in all
before returning to our torn corner of fence.

A silent ride home, rifling through our loot:
three syringes, a nurse’s coat baring a Latin motto,
a duty rota dated ’82 and a small pile
of clumsy polaroids:

the cold chamber, the smashed window, the pew barnacled with moss
and me in a too-small jacket.

Phil Brown

Poetry Editor

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