A review of Asylum Garden: after Van Gogh by Alan Catlin

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

Asylum Garden: after Van Gogh
by Alan Catlin
Dos Madres Press
$18.00, 114 pages, Jan 2020, ISBN: 978-1948017671

Alan Catlin’s poems are always rich with wide-ranging cultural references. When he marshals these references in support of a theme, he’s truly impressive, as in the present collection. As Catlin himself notes, Asylum Garden “is a book about seeing: what we see and how we see it.” Like his previous volumes, Wild Beauty and American Odyssey, Catlin’s poems here are inspired by artists and photographers. Blue Velvet and Hollyweird, two other recent collections, similarly find inspiration in grade B movies.

Asylum Gardens opens with a suite of poems focusing on Vincent Van Gogh in his final years, more or less from the time of his fateful friendship with Paul Gauguin that resulted in his severing part of his own left ear, in the late 1880’s, to his death in 1890. “Vincent #2: The House” from “8 Aspects of Vincent” reads:

that Vincent and Gauguin shared
a museum now

When the artists were in residence,
neighbors petitioned to have Vincent interred;

the fate of madmen and visionaries
at all times

“Late Self-Portrait as Hunchback of Notre Dame” paints a bleak picture of the artist as he sinks into alcohol and depression; he adds “missing details only / he can see,” ugly physical scars and blemishes, mirroring the state of his mind. “His lone good eye // follows you wherever you go.” Nobody sees the horrors Vincent sees.

Catlin’s own imagination is vividly at work, taking off from Van Gogh’s late themes, the landscapes and self-portraits, in poems like “Angels Over a Wheatfield,” which begins:

punk angels in joseph coats
of many colors are levitated
over Vincent’s backdrops,
on not exactly a starry night in
progress, but a muddy road
leading nowhere, a confusion
of colors unmistakable as madness….

Poems in the first section focus on other painters as well, Frida Kahlo, Diego, Riviera, Hieronymus Bosch, Pablo Picasso and others, their vision, their way of seeing, but sad Van Gogh is the dominant spirit.

The other two sections of Asylum Garden concentrate on photographers, as the inspiration for Catlin’s meditations on seeing. A series of poems entitled “A Poem Based on a Non-Existent Photograph” underscores the role imagination plays in this vision. These are followed by a similar series entitled, “Non-Existent Photograph in the Manner of…” with the names of noted photographers from Diane Arbus to Man Ray and Mary Ellen Mark in the title. Arbus, of course, used to take photographs of “freaks” – dwarves, nudists, carnival performers, etc. – to normalize these marginalized groups, to “see” them as no more freakish than anybody else. “Non-Existent Photograph in the Manner of Diane Arbus” begins:

features three lunatics in white camisoles
strapped to the backs of metal chairs,
heads twisted as far as they can be,
neck muscles tensed, animal eyes wild,
rolled most of the way inside swollen
hooded lids, black from lack of sleep…

These are subjects you can “see” the way Arbus shows them to us. Shelby Lee Adams, who took photographs of Appalachian family life, Austrian-born Lisette Model, famous for her photographic portraits of New York street life, and Alvarez Bravo, the Mexican artistic photographer, also serve as inspiration for Catlin’s poems. “Non-Existent Photograph in the Manner of Brassai” begins:

In the gas-lit village, all the faces
are painted white, smeared greasepaint
for unspeakable people, unnatural acts.
The half-dead and the naked, along with
the might-as-well-be-dead, are stumbling
down slick wet cobblestones, arm in arm…

You can practically see the scene in black and white, the light reflecting off the wet stones, the long shadows leading the stumblers to their ignominious fates.

“Ray with Sister and New Bride,” after Shelby Lee Adams, begins:

“Marry them young, before they
get all wore out.” Must be the backwoods
philosophy that Ray subscribed to.
His blonde child-wife is almost skeletal,
barely post-pubescent, has a protruding
forehead and prominent facial bones,
containing eyes already dull and losing
their vitality. Ray’s sister is the hefty one,
the one he really wants, crouching near
the love-birds, displaying a wicked overbite
instead of a smile for the camera.

Again, you can see these people posed in black and white on the ramshackle front porch of their falling-down home in the West Virginia hills. You can see their lives, their destinies.

Catlin has always forced us to look at bleak, desperate characters, in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable, whether it’s falling-down drunks in bars or strung-out prostitutes in hopeless, depressing urban tenements, without a sense of redemption around the corner. He has a way of driving the point home, just when you think you’ve already seen it all. This collection is no different. The penultimate poem in this book, with the sinister ominous title, “The Future,” spells it out for us. It comes with an epigraph from the Swedish detective writer, Ake Edwardson: “So our hope lies in a world without hope, governed by Satan.” It’s a poem about a little girl killed in a drive-by shooting.

Police canvassed the neighborhood
looking for leads but no one saw
anything, though everyone seemed
to have heard the shots. Were on
the street seconds later, and were glad
to appear on local TV offering
opinions about all the things they
didn’t see.

And there you have Asylum Gardens in a nutshell, the stuff you don’t see without being forced to look at it, but about which you speak confidently anyway. Welcome to Alan Catlin’s world. This book is, well, eye-opening: what we see, how we see it.

About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is).  Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.