Asylum: A personal, historical, natural inquiry in 103 lyric sections
by Jill Bialosky
Knopf, 2020

This stunning book-length poem, broken up into 103 sections, examines the grief and trauma associated with losing a young sister from suicide.  Threaded also through these lyrics is a conversation with Paul Celan’s Selected Poems and Dante’s Inferno. In his haunting poems, Celan documents the horrors of the holocaust that he witnessed before tragically committing suicide in 1970.  Dante writes about a pilgrim’s journey into the souls of hell. Robert Pinksy, whose translation of the Inferno that Bialosky quotes from in her book, saw the theme of Dante’s work as that of “depression…about the defects souls create in themselves.”  Indeed, Bialosky’s collection seems in conversation with this very idea. At what point does the human mind come through the pilgrimage through grief and trauma and how does one let go of those who never do?

It was the title of the collection that immediately drew me in.  I found myself asking, does she mean the asylum of political refugees or the institutions that offered (usually underfunded and overcrowded) shelter for those who were mentally ill?  But as I read through the collection the Greek roots of the word began to rise to the surface: asulos which means inviolable and a sullon which means without right of seizure. In the end the word asylum seems to take on the place in oneself one creates where one is inviolable, a place no one can seize or take away.  We all make asylums within ourselves, within our lives, but how do we escape them? 

The collection’s structure is introduced in its opening poems, “Prelude” and “I”.   In “Prelude” we are introduced to the “fugue of death” an allusion to Paul Celan’s haunting poem, “Death Fugue” about the terrors of the concentration camps in World War II.  In Bialosky’s poem the “fugue of death” sounds like “an afflicted bird/ a screech owl from the underworld, querulous—” (1-2) whose sound enters the speaker and lingers for years before she realizes that the fugue was not one of death after all, “it was the fugue of life”. Bialosky plays with the two meanings of fugue in this poem.  Her fugues are both musical compositions and periods in which the speaker has lost her identify.  She continues this theme of a suspension between states in the poem that follows, the first in the long lyric sequence.  “I” ends with the speaker looking out at a window reminiscent of Mrs. Mallard, the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s short story, “The Story of an Hour” who sat looking out a window contemplating the axis of contradiction between the grief of losing her husband’s in a sudden accident and the joy for the freedom that now awaits her now that she is freed from marriage.  But instead of looking out the window into a beautiful spring day like Mrs. Mallard, Bialosky’s speaker looks out her window at the effects of winter, the “slow-motion of curling leaves heralding a fallen season” (7). And what takes Mrs. Mallard only minutes, Bialosky extends over the entire book in a structure much more reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno.  In her journey to find asylum Bialosky will need to examine different realms: the places she’s lived, the traumatic event of her sister’s suicide,  how grief and trauma ripple out and affect others around her in the world, her own relationship with her grief and the natural world.

Midway through the book, Bialosky again uses the vehicle of Dante’s Inferno to visit the underworld and speak directly to her dead “who made their own house/be their gallows” The poems that follow bring her trauma – her sister’s suicide by monoxide poisoning – into the center of the poem.  Two documentary style poems, one recounting a past interview Bialosky gave about her sister’s death, and the second, a cautionary definition of carbon monoxide (the substance that killed her sister) proceed a haunting, lyrical poem that acts as requiem, a re-awakening of the memory of her sister.

Every April a requiem, a re-awakening of dawn, the same chorus/
& players.  The garage door sealed, gas turned on & the girl

Her sister becomes token, frozen in her death, closed by the frozen spring flowers that make up nature’s coda.  Several poems later, in “XLI” the sister’s closed death scene is disturbed and opened. 

The boy who arrived
to cut the grass
smelled carbon monoxide
& opened the garage door. (1-4)

The police are called and the news of her death travels outward to wreck those who loved her with grief. Then, two poems that provide a portrait: the portrait of her sister alive “her blue eyes bright/ with the burn of knowing & barely/ a fleck of gloom” (XLIII) and the portrait of her mother relieved of what became unbearable her home (which was her daughter’s deathbed) and her mind (which has become unmoored from memory loss).  But for the speaker, section II ends like an open wound. 

            Part III is apocalyptic.  It’s as if the grief that was once contained in the speaker is now everywhere in the world.  Poems recount acts of terrorism, antisemitism, police brutality, and the effects of climate change.  Grief extends to cover the globe.  Part IV offers readers a front row seat to view the processing of grief as the speaker meditates on questions:  What does this horrible event mean?  Why do we think our dead return to us in the form of animals?  Which reminded me of how I once believed my mother visited me after her death in the form of a barn owl.  Perhaps most importantly, Bialosky explores this question: what if the doctrines of religion got it wrong and it isn’t those who commit suicide whose souls are left wandering the earth; “What if it is those who survive who never rest?”  These questions lead to a litany: an anaphoric poem that hinges on the word “because” that asks why her sister committed suicide ending with:

Because she did not know
the wreckage her leaving cost
& the life she had before her. (20-22)

In one of the final poems LXXXV, we find echo of the late Eavan Boland, whose poem “Atlantis: A Lost Sonnet” contemplates where the story of Atlantis comes from


what really happened is

this: the old fable-makers searched hard for a word

to convey that what is gone is gone forever and

never found it. And so, in the best traditions of

where we come from, they gave their sorrow a name

and drowned it.

In the same tradition as Boland, Bialosky’s poem also explores stories that are “concocted to console the inconsolable—” (10).  Few can distill the complex texture of grief and loss as Bialosky has so thoughtfully done in this collection.  It is as if her collection is telling us that the only way through grief is found through forgiveness and by realizing we are not the first to walk this treacherous path and survive.

Iris Jamahl Dunkle