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Postcards from the Asylum
Our Life is a Box./ Prayers Without a God
Vertigo | a cantata |
The ink brushed distance

squash of spider belly

Poetry review - Louise Waller


Postcards From The Asylum

Karen Knight
Pardalote Press


This is the fifth collection of poetry from Karen Knight, (and prior to its publication) the winner of the Arts ACT 2007 Alec Bolton Award for an unpublished manuscript.  The poems in this collection arise from her experiences as an inmate at the Royal Derwent Psychiatric Hospital in 1969.  I met Karen Knight and the publisher of this collection, Lyn Reeves of Paradalote Press, during the Queensland Poetry festival in Brisbane in 2007.  During her performances at the festival, Knight presented poems from this collection and some from her collection Doctor Says (Picaro Press 2006). 

Karen Kinght is a great performer of her own work, both in solo delivery, or accompanied by her partner Jules Witek on various musical and acoustic instruments. She has the experienced poet’s awareness in performance, is always well rehearsed and sure in her deliveries.  Some of the work in this collection can’t have been easy to recall or easy to write and would be less than easy to perform publicly, but it has been so skillfully crafted and so carefully excised of surplus, that it is inviting and almost easy to read. 

I read the collection first in one sitting, then reread a few more times over a period of months, then I read the collection again in one stretch.  With each rereading the collection of poems shares something further, creating familiarity but extending query.  The crisp white (bone colored actually) spaces around the poems; the almost clinical precision of form, the subtle placement of some words and images. An echo of something far less crisp, far less safe, an intimate awareness of the caged or institutionalized persona is suggested.

Each poem in the collection is building loosely the non linear but structured narrative, whilst maintaining a distance from itself towards the next one and the one prior. I imagine that this process is similar to the way a person who is institutionalized fits within a larger community.  Each individual, within the structure of the whole, forming the group of the community, but maintaining a separate awareness and presence.

                    I spent my first day
                    on Ward Four with Saffron,
                    chanting twelve thousand
                    recitations of ohm
                    to remove my fear.
(Every Word She Uttered Was a Mantra) page 75 

One of the strengths in this collection is the representation of individuals within her community. Her people of interest are present throughout the collection;

                    David, the doctor’s son,
                    gets big yellow smile boxes
                    full of comfort foods
                    for a boy who is shut in:
(Care Packages) page 31

her connection to these fellow inmates is rendered as being close and they are well observed, even when the outcomes for some are less than happy and offer little comfort.

                    Mind you don’t go past the hem of your dreams, dear.

                    She always wanted to be seen in something flowing
(Sylvia Did It at the Lachlan River Picnic) page 86

                    When our group therapist
                    asked us to draw a family
                    Vivienne said she couldn’t
                    remember how.
(Severing the Umbilical) page 53

What surprised me about this collection was the slight but present humour sidling up alongside some disparate images, almost surreal but just holding back from unreality enough for a reader to know that something profound and honest is being shown, taking this reader right into the vortex of life ‘inside’ the asylum;

from (April Fool’s Day) page 38 in its entirety -  The doctor’s on his rounds/early.//There’s an outbreak/of epilepsy.//It’s all around/the wards.//The air/is contagious.//I stay in my room/until it clears.

And another short poem featuring Dr Bender (Doctor Says) page 26 in its entirety - ‘Say after me:/Largactil.’//I put madness/under my tongue/and swallow.

Karen Knight discussed her collection with me briefly during the period when we both attended the 2007 Queensland Poetry Festival, sharing accommodation and a lovely drop of Tasmanian wine with our fellow room mates.  In 1969 she was young and resistant to the idea of confinement and probably suffering from what is called SAD (seasonal affective disorder) a troubling and very real condition arising from lack of sunlight much more commonly discussed and very treatable these days.  She did not go willingly to her own confinement.  The fact that she also had to endure the invasive treatments of shock therapy can not have been an outcome she would have wanted for herself.  Nor I guess, could that be possible or allowed today, based on a similar set of circumstances.  What is impressive in this collection is the lack of self pity or blame in evidence anywhere in the collection. 

Karen Knight has had a long period of creative writing, (and successful writing at that), receiving the 2007 Alec Bolton for ‘Postcards’ having two residencies at Varuna, and a residency in Edinburgh, Scotland, as well as several grants from the Australia Council and Arts Tasmania. She was also the recipient of the 2005 Dorothy Hewett Flagship Fellowship Award. She is well equipped to deal with difficult material without overplaying her hand, which (forgive the pun) in lesser hands could make for a disastrous collection.  What is it about the Tasmanian women writers?  How can so many be so good? Maybe a bit of the SAD is inspirational to their output and understanding, even though I’m sure none would want to have experienced Knight’s particular journey at such a young age.

In some of her poems, those inviting a reader to confront notions of madness or insanity she uses non clinical imagery, as in (Sad Weather) page 46 she states ‘It’s Sunday/and the sky/looks tired.’ as she looks for the nurse who needs to work twelve-hour shifts ‘When there is cloud’. And from (For the SAD One) page 64 ‘If I could take the rays/of the sun and make them/five times brighter, I would:// and later ‘brighter than a lighthouse.’  So the sun is a way to be healthy and free of the confinement, because the sun will take madness away.  The sun is the talisman to keep her safe.

In a poem called (Insanity) page 24 Knight offers a troubling spin on what it is;

                    If it’s dumped at the hospital library
                    amongst the self-help books
                    it will lick the butter from its paws
                    and find its way back to you.

(and later in the final couplet)

                    It wants to lead me to the road
                    and throw my body at a car.

In the poem (You Don’t Know Best) page 62, Knight uses an epigraph from Ezra Pound, “I will not go mad to please you” and in this poem, perhaps the only one displaying any vitriol towards any ‘other’ she vents her rage slowly at first, ‘I chased the car/like an unchained dog,’ moves forward into ‘I was a wide open scream.’ and finishes, her devastation audible ‘When you said/the doctors know best/I should have/cut you up/and sold you.’ This is a terrific collection of lyric poetry from a mature and interesting poet, still in her stride and bound to produce quality work well into the future. The collection is also a striking reminder of how thin the tread of our own sanity can be, how easily we can be ‘misread’ or made vulnerable to the whims of others who (don’t) know best.


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