Asylum: Improvisations on John Clare by Lola Haskins (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019).
The word asylum, the title of Lola Haskins’ capacious, questing new book of poems, pivots on a curious and seemingly contradictory double meaning. Merriam-Webster defines an asylum as “a place of retreat and security; a shelter” and also “an institution providing care and protection to needy individuals… especially the mentally ill.” A space of sanctuary and refuge, with all its implications of safety and peace, versus a space of perceived “wrongness” coupled with a type of imprisonment: Haskins’ shimmering poems explore both, pressing into the ways we feel ourselves trapped in our human lives and the wreckage we continue to make of the natural world, and asking how it might be possible to find some form of freedom.
In the author’s note that prefaces Asylum, Haskins explains her decision to use John Clare’s diary as a framing device for this, her twelfth collection of poems. Clare kept the diary in 1841; in it, he detailed his escape from an insane asylum in Epping Forest and his eighty-mile journey to return to his home, a journey he made in four days. Haskins writes, “I see Clare’s changing mental states as matches and my poems as the resulting fires.”
Clare’s journal stands behind Asylum as a sort of ghost-text, with Clare as the poet longing for freedom and the journal as its central animating spirit. Quotations from the journal introduce each of the book’s four sections, and while the poems never touch on Clare directly, they are infused with the sort of independence of mind, spiritual yearning, and intimacy with the natural world that feel nourished by his spirit.
Anchored by Clare’s text, the poems in Asylum range widely— geographically, emotionally, and technically—and this large-hearted flexibility and suppleness is one of the book’s many gifts. The first Lola Haskins poem I fell in love with (the aptly titled “Love,” found in Desire Lines: New and Selected Poems) is only four lines long. (Please, if you are reading this review, go find that poem and read it.) Haskins is a master of such brief lyrics, poems that zero in on the inner and outer worlds with concentrated, haiku-like clarity, and Asylum includes several, such as “In the Stark Lands”:
In the Stark Lands
there are no trees to slow the wind.
Creatures underground come out only
with the stars. There are no other lights.
The distance to the horizon is a fierce
happiness. This is a portrait of my heart.
Within its tiny, perfectly balanced box of five sentences and five lines, the poem deftly manages both pattern and variation. “In the Stark Lands” is grounded in the core repetition of “there are,” “there are,” “this is,” and hinges on the most basic of verbs, to be. Writers are often taught to avoid using passive voice, yet Haskins’ ability to transcend traditional rules is one of my favorite qualities of her work. After all, she ends the poem with “heart”: another taboo, and, in this poem, a bold and radical surprise.
Just as it flouts these expectations, “In the Stark Lands” resists predictability in other ways, moving between end-stopped and enjambed lines, and asserting in turn both what is (the wind, the stars, the horizon) and what is not (no trees, no other lights). In her essay collection Nine Gates, Jane Hirshfield refers to this use of negation in poems as the “negative way,” musing in “Facing the Lion”: “Explicit negative constructions appear in poetry with surprising frequency, often just at that turning point when a poem moves into its subject with new and deeper force. Grammar itself moves the poem into the realm of shadow, syntax seeking what unexpected wisdom that place of not-knowing may bring.”1 “In the Stark Lands” rests in the space Hirshfield terms the “realm of shadow,” both the literal tree-less, lightless landscape and the dark-but-illuminated poet’s heart, asylum of both the wilderness and the deep interior self.