The Ghost Hospital, Pauline Rowe
Maytree Press, 2019 £7.00
Invisible in plain sight
Pauline Rowe’s latest collection draws on her research into mental healthcare, covering both historical treatment and present day experiences. It’s written with a spareness that presents challenging material without manipulating the reader by being didactic, or gratuitously detailed. This measured tone makes the collection all the more powerful.
I was struck by how effectively Rowe creates a complete world in remarkably few words. In the opening poem, we are instantly transported inside the doors of ‘The Ghost Hospital’, where its patients are undergoing soul-destroying treatments:
Regulation beds. Stamped sheets.
People who know the code. Different tunics.
Pink, grey, green, teal.
Rowe shines a light on many who’ve been abandoned in asylums over the years, ‘invisible in plain sight’ (‘The Ghost Hospital’). We witness patients subjected to so-called ‘cures,’ such as in ‘A Madhouse Air’, which starts by quoting from Charles Dickens’ visit to Blackwell’s Island Asylum where he ‘couldn’t stand / the terrible crowd — in 1842.’ The poem goes on to record various historical accounts, made all the more harrowing by the dispassionate tone:
Topeka State hospital, Kansas
54 men castrated like cattle,
walked in circles searching for their names:
catalogues of stolen souls in bricks —
their minds extracted — stored in slated roofs
There’s another quote from Dickens towards the end of the poem: ‘this sad refuge of degraded humanity’. The sense of desolation is acute.
The poet gives an even deeper sense of dehumanising treatment by sometimes writing in the first person, as in ‘Tell-tale’:
A doctor slices tissue from my tongue
releases rising rifts of shaken sound
defies the broken skin to leave me bound
up, silent, touched; he keeps the cords of song
These poems are tender and upsetting; they humanise the stigmatised. We are encouraged to see people as individuals, instead of distancing ourselves from them through our fear of ‘illness’. One poem, ‘Residents’, lists all the derogatory terms used to describe the mentally ill.
There is much more to be said.