A review of Postcards from the Asylum by Karen Knight

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Postcards from the Asylum
By Karen Knight
Pardalote Press
ISBN 978-0-9803297-2-8, 96 pp, paperback, $AU 23.95, Aug 2008

Karen Knight is one of Australia’s most respected poets. She’s won a wide number of awards and grants, and has been a writer in residence both in Australia and overseas. Her previous poetry book, Under the One Granite Roof, took on the subject matter of Walt Whitman’s period on the battlefield during the U.S. Civil War. Her latest collection is closer to home. Postcards from the Asylum places itself in the heart of one of the least explored, most intense subject matters: incarceration in a mental hospital. In the microcosm of the universe this book inhabits, nothing is too black or bleak to laugh at. Laughter and wry objectivity form a talisman against a loss of self; pain and sorrow.

The poems chart Knight’s own experiences at an inmate at the Royal Derwent Psychiatric Hospital in the late sixties. Although the reader feels the raw pain in the poet’s voice, the pieces never sink into self-pity or sorrow. Most of the poems are brief, and the ironic lightness of Knight’s voice coupled with the darkness of their subject matter, makes for powerful reading. Always there is hope and even joy at the fringes of the pain. There is romance in the hospital. There is black humour in such things as the girl who escaped from the hospital and painted everything she could green (including “don’t jump” over the River Derwent). There is bribery and blackmail; basket weaving courses; odes, sonnets, and Paradelles; funky food queues; and both real and metaphorical flowers. It’s intense, sometimes terrifying, and sometimes exuberant, but never does the work become despairing.

The 77 poems that make up this collection take their cue from the life around the poet: the tedium and torture of the daily routine; the madness of nurses and doctors; and the sanity and sorrow of the other people in the Hospital. Knight manages to capture that mingled sense of deep observation coupled with fear, boredom, and bravado. There’s an inherent interest in Knight’s personal experiences within the asylum, and all of the poetry contains a deep introspection that opens a thin sliver of light into the line between sanity and insanity. It’s easy to wave away Knight’s incarceration by saying that she was put there for her rebelliousness, but at the periphery of the poetry are people screaming:

Valium Val holds the floor.
She confides in their voices 
That speak to the hills. (“Group Therapy”)

There are catatonic women holding dolls. There are men hanging themselves. There are women licking the wallpaper. There is a boy flapping at the wall (“like a nervous cockatiel”). And there are, everywhere, people who simply don’t ‘fit’. For, as Knight makes clear in this work, the asylum wasn’t only a place for those who were clinically insane. It was also a halfway house for the misfit. Given enough shock therapy, drugs (Largactil, Valium, Thorazine), and isolation, the world tightens into an almost psychotic point:

After weeks of bromide and psychiatric bungling
my mind is controlled by the number of bowls 
full of custard I can steal from the serving table; (“Looking After Number One”)

Irrespective of the fascinating subject matter, these poems are also objectively and individually good. Each one delivers its denouement with little words. In “Flower Delivery”, the relationship between art and life is explored as the poet crafts dozens of rosebuds from nothing: “their petals flushed/anticipating full bloom/miles from any florist”. The poetry works in sibilant rhythms, onomatopoetically drawing the reader into that black fog of depression that comes with extended winter: “Like a fog snake/it sheds its skin/trails a giant smudge through the city”. (“Winter Solstice”.) When the end finally comes, the poet finds herself free, but there’s no longer a clean break between inside and outside. It’s a wrought journey full of laughter, horror, hunger and self-discovery.

This is a terrifying world to find oneself in: walking a medicated line from sanity to insanity and back again. The divide is blurred in this book, partly because of the poet’s egalitarian eye: there is no “us” and “them”. Everyone is hurting, and everyone is both utterly sane, and absolutely mad. Postcards from the Asylum presents a powerful picture of life inside an asylum – tender, warm, loving and fierce all at once.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.