A knowledge of History and English Lit
shone as bright as a torch or candle
in those mazy, murky corridors.
The front wards housed the acute admissions:
Jane Austen coupled with Thomas Arnold;
those but lately troubled and those giddily
hurtled in and out of revolving doors.
Pride and Prejudice wed Muscular Christianity;
guidance and drama therapy for the mind
out of time; the first heavy downward
drifting steps for the young man convinced
of his pregnancy, who pushed out gasps
in the patients’ canteen each time the foetus kicked.
Until the day he slipped into case conference
to announce that there’d been a miscalculation
and his period had just begun.
We imagined that in due course he’d find
the back wards where catatonics stood undecided;
where obsessives orbited perfect globes
and schizophrenics oracled monologues
at the castle walls. The ward names receded
to obscurity: the bit-players of history, the nearly
men and women and sundry adjuncts:
Lady Jane Grey, Elizabeth Woodville
and Anne Hathaway; as if a cruel joke
were being perpetrated, and the Admin blocks
resounded with unquenchable sniggers.
Here were the unheralded, deluded figures;
those abducted by spaceship on witnessing
Kennedy’s assassination; those conversing
on an intimate basis with the Eighteenth Angel
in line of succession, otherwise known as Sue.
Thanks to modern medicine, his star
would plummet further as his drug-weary frame
outlived the decay of mental faculties.
Domiciled in crowded dormitories
christened after only minor royalty,
the Lords and Earls of Beauchamp and Leicester,
where history paused and hesitated before
the dark ages; where wanderers became walkers,
then sitters and babies, shrunk to a vegetative stasis,
the stink of stale urine and compacted faeces,
the packing of bed sores and shaving blank faces;
receptacles for food, drink and waste
evacuation; the dwindling visits
of forgotten relations. Only the case notes
hinted that these faint apparitions
haunting the wards were once human.
At our comfortable chairs in The School of Nursing
we read Erving Goffman on Institutions,
and cribbed and crabbed the asylum-museum.
In theory, of course, we were all for closure -
but off in the distance, beyond the horizon,
as remote as a workers’ revolution.
We clung to the sense of an emanation,
a progress of sorts, a pregnant narration.
Unknowing how soon ripples dissolved
at the edges; thought the thickness of walls
to be solid defences, entrenched as the poles,
as political systems. Those years were both twilight
and glasnost, an evening so swift that it passed
unnoticed; old certainties and communities vanished.
The new estate offers affordable housing;
the bell-tower survives in silent homage.
If you have any comments on this poem, Raymond Miller
would be pleased to hear from you.