March 5, 2021KR Reviews

On Asylum by Jill Bialosky

Asylum: A Personal, Historical, Natural Inquiry in 103 Lyric Sections. New York, NY: Knopf/Random House, 2020. 144 pages. $27.00.

How are we to discuss a thing containing multitudes without reducing it to what it is not? Jill Bialosky’s most recent collection, Asylum, asks this question, deploying the personal, the historical, and the natural world to unearth seemingly paradoxical truths at the cores of our being.

Meditating on subjects ranging from the beauty and cruelty of nature, to the grief and ever-unfolding complications of a sister’s suicide, to her beginnings as a writer, to yoga, to the horrors of World War II, Bialosky uncovers how fear is eternally bound with hope, life with death, destruction with creation, pain with joy. Asylum is a searching and epic work of lyric, a prismatic meditation that alternately reflects, rejoices, grieves, rages, hopes, and wonders as it sings.

The book is at once classical and deeply innovative—a Virgilian journey leading us on a nonlinear path everywhere from the plagues of ancient Egypt to the modern-day college campus, sometimes in the space of a single poem. Asylum’s breadth is far from limited to timeline, historical period, or subject matter; Bialosky also delivers stunning variety in form, structure, scope, and modes of inquiry. Grasping at metaphor to describe the book’s structure and movement (A Swiss army knife, bristling with different tools? A rhizome, or underground root system? A chest? A series of tidepools?), I was unable to settle on just one. Perhaps the closest comparison I can muster is that each poem in Asylum constructs a sort of clearing or room.

Sometimes Bialosky offers up a small narrative scene in verse—other times questions (“LXII.”: “What if it is those who survive who never rest?”), erasures, litanies (“XXXVII.”: “Marriage of trees, / Marriage of birdcalls, / Marriage of thought & action. . . ”), or shards of thought in poetry or lyrical prose (“XC.”: “I don’t know if they were weeds or flowers. Or if they were beautiful… They were going to wind the fence until the sun burned them. Their endurance . . . with one purpose in mind, to last until they died”; “XCIII.”: “(thoughts, you torment me)”; “XCV.”: “raining, raining, raining, raining, / reigning, reigning, reigning & raining / reigning & raining, raining & raining & raining”). No poem or fragment exceeds one page—they are often much shorter. This use of white space and the book’s nonlinear path through time invite lingering and meditation. I found myself reading and re-reading each of my favorite pieces, wanting to map the cosmos constructed by its language.

“Prelude,” the first poem in the collection, provides a luminous threshold into the five sections of untitled poems and lyrical fragments that follow:

It was like the music of an afflicted bird,
a screech owl from the underworld, querulous,
seductive, a fugue of death. Or so you thought—
taunting its refrain, one sound imitating the other,
as if it had entered your spirit & was your own voice.
It took years, maybe decades, before you realized
you had gotten it wrong: it was the fugue of life.

The importance of music and sound not only resonates here but also the inextricably entangled nature of death and life. As in Bialosky’s other work, the poem’s unassuming clarity belies a deep attention to language: “like” signals the speaker’s reaching towards definition but also the impossibility of attaining complete understanding. The poem, like an adder, darts and shapeshifts as it unfurls for us a process of discovery and self-correction. What the speaker first hears as a stricken song of the underworld changes before our eyes and ears from death  knell to insidious inner voice and finally, the very song of life. “Fugue” rings not only as a kind of musical composition but as a sort of flight.

Likewise, the poem illustrates many of Asylum’s epic tendencies. We are plunged without throat-clearing or hesitation into a world, a mind. Though we are surrounded by music that feels immediate—the screech owl and its imitators, transformations—the speaker tells us that the poem’s revelation “took years, maybe decades” to achieve. This journey will take some time. Point of view shifts between first, second, and third person, even in the poems that work through a personal mode, and characters go unnamed—the figures of the mother, the sister, “she,” “he,” and “we” begin to take on the aspect of myth, amplifying the collection’s stakes.

But that isn’t to say the book doesn’t also offer searing, visceral specificity. Bialosky delivers through potent images and sensory details but perhaps most powerfully through rhythm and syntax, such as in “LXXXII”:

Because we did not know,
or failed to know,
were afraid to know,
because we are all fragile,
sisters of survival, daughters
of those who dwell in grief’s
bitter smell, descendants who live in fear
of obliteration & unrest, contingent, connected,
roots dug in, twisted, clinging, providing
sustenance & sugar, because in a family,
in our ignorance, pity & pride,
we believed one could not exist
without the other. Because we,

This poem, like many others in the collection, at once grieves and rages, searching, using “because” as a foundation for accretion—building power and momentum as each subsequent modification and connection is added. One cannot read the entirety of this poem aloud without running out of breath, despite it being only two sentences long. The fervor and persistence of the speaker’s searching are impossible for the reader to disregard because of the poem’s relentless, twisting syntax. What could be more personal, more affecting, than what controls the breath? Anaphora, litany, and repetition join with that syntax to render the poem’s ending—that cut breath, explanation hanging in the air, unfinished—even more devastating. In this piece, and in the rest of Asylum, Bialosky expertly deploys these devices, the music and force of language, to uncover “what words are when they meet the action / of what they attempt to modify” (“L”).

“LXXXII” also highlights some of the collection’s most vital motifs: our inheritance and deep interconnectedness, in and out of the family unit; the knife’s edge between fear that kills us and fear that keeps us alive; our deep desire, however futile, for knowledge and answers. And of course, everywhere exist roots—trees and roots are of utmost importance to this collection. Dante’s Inferno (particularly “Canto XIII,” evoking the woods where the souls of those who attempted or completed suicide are transformed into gnarled trees) is also particularly important to Asylum. Allusions to Dante are braided throughout; lines from Robert Pinsky’s translation of the text serve as subheadings for each of the book’s five parts. However, like the concept of asylum itself, Bialosky’s trees refuse simplification, accumulate resonances as the collection unfurls.

Asylum’s trees sometimes offer shelter, other times forebode. They breathe, hold, hide things. They proliferate, inspire fear, and signify. They haunt and are haunted, suffer pain and scarring. They are uprooted, broken, survive or die. They are pulped into paper and poems—become the language that might save us, the very air we breathe. Is that creation or destruction? It is both, the poet seems to say. Asylum that guards and comforts, holds, preserves us—asylum in which we are terribly, miraculously, detained.