Jill Bialosky’s Asylum

Jill Bialosky’s sixth book of poems, Asylum: A personal, historical, natural inquiry in 103 lyric sections (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020) is deeply profound in its exploration of life, death, nature, war, suicide, and spirituality. Each section is a compressed meditation on Bialosky’s lived experience as a woman, mother, sister, and a witness to the supernatural forces of nature. She engages in a variety of subjects ranging from yoga positions to the Holocaust, to trees and butterflies and to literature, and what it means to be a woman in modern American society. What makes these poems so powerful is Bialosky’s honest and illuminating perspective paired with the solid, but gentle music of her poetic voice. The poems in this collection are beautiful in the way that they explore both the light and the dark; they are both blissful and tragic in the most captivating ways.

What makes Asylum so wonderful to read involves the speaker’s perspective as an observer rather than an agent of action within the poems. Bialosky is skilled at letting things unfold as each section builds on the one before it. This has to do with the fact that the poems are centered on spiritual notions about surrendering control to universal forces in a way that is truly liberative. This opens up space for Bialosky to present what she observes through the use of lyrical and prose poetry in fresh and inventive ways. Here is section X.:

We were told things were hidden from us,
there had to be more, powers & forces we were not aware of,
& could not understand but that we must surrender our trust,
the flap of a butterfly wing, for instance, could change the balance
of the universe.

The understanding of not having the whole story and not being able to control how the story unfolds is the main thread that runs through this collection, the main force that brings all the lyrical sections together. This surrendering, this acknowledgement of not being in control is the transformative experience Bialosky presents through her poetic vision. Here, lack of control really means utter freedom through the realization that “the flap of a butterfly wing, for instance, could change the balance / of the universe.” When one gives up control, one realizes that anything can happen—and this is the world these poems inhabit and celebrate: the miraculous world. Bialosky elaborates on this idea in section XII.:

Why I thought I needed to rent a third-floor attic,
why I thought one mattress on the floor, a desk, a vanity
with a mirror—why whether from grief, abundance,
freckled blue-black sky, soundless rain, humanity’s pain,
endless desire, the poem came—

Here, Bialosky questions her actions, trying to understand why she feels compelled to isolate and immerse herself in heavier emotions. There is an interesting push-pull between “Why I thought” and “I needed;” it expresses that tension between the logical self and the intuitive self as Bialosky lists the various states of being/nature images: “…grief, abundance, / freckled-blue black sky, soundless rain, humanity’s pain, / endless desire.” In the end, Bialosky knows why she chose to embark on this difficult journey: she wants to surrender to poetic experience. The last three words emphasize the end result of this intuitive need: “the poem came.”

Bialosky is incredibly skilled as a poetic observer. Many of the poems in this book describe scenes in ways that are utterly beautiful and tragic. Section XVI. is a perfect example:

From my window on the third floor
I could see every now & then
a car creep down Bowery Street,
a girl on the sidewalk jumping rope, a mother
holding the hands of her children, a woman
thrusting her nose into the burst
of a sunflower as if into the face
of God. Land flat & houses simple
& architecturally inelegant. I found little
beauty in the scatter of maples
that lined the blocks except that yes,
the braided trees held
the little that was.

This section contains wonderfully specific images, but what makes them even more interesting is how they’re both feminine and masculine. Readers see a “girl on a sidewalk jumping rope,” “a mother / holding the hands of children,” “a woman / thrusting her nose into the burst of a sunflower.” What surrounds them: “A car” that creeps, “the face / of God,” and “houses simple / & architecturally inelegant.” These images are more masculine in the sense that they function as environmental markers—they describe the world in which these females live in, including the speaker. As a result, the speaker proclaims, “I found little / beauty in the scatter of maples / that lined the blocks.” The speaker sees both the feminine and masculine elements of this urban environment and how they are ultimately at odds with the natural world. The woman who aggressively smells a sunflower and the maples that literally line the blocks are instances where humanity has tried to include nature in ways that feel more stifling than liberating. The last few lines: “the braided trees held / the little that was” describes this scene perfectly: nature is feeble here because humanity has stripped it of its supernatural elements through its desire to make civilization more palatable.

At the end of the book, Bialosky includes a powerful meditation on the idea of asylum. This is a very skillful move on the poet’s part because the reader has already digested different elements of her world—her fears, desires, experiences, traumas, and her relationship to nature—and is ready to face the contradictions between the modern conception of asylum and what it was actually meant to mean. Here is the first half of section C.:

in which women
are taken from the streets,
refugees sought,
in which children are forced in pens
like pigs & separated from their parents,
in which mothers & fathers grieved
& some went mad from desperation—
one we read took his life—asylum
in which the mind seeks
to keep itself from torture

This image of asylum is unnatural in every sense of the word. It is not only a reference to how American society treats refugees seeking relief from the very violence it perpetuates on an international level, it connects to the Holocaust (which Bialosky talks about at length in this collection) and the concept of asylum as a place where those with mental health issues are contained rather than nurtured and healed. This is what asylum has come to mean: a place where more violence is inflicted on those who have already experienced violence and are seeking refuge from it. Here is part of the second half of the poem:

asylum of thought
& afterthought, asylum
where birds mate & nourish,
asylum in which to seek sanctuary,
rest, asylum we aspire to when we devote
ourselves to a practice, asylum of quiet,
of solitude, of mourning, asylum of love

This part describes what asylum really is: a place to experience nature and heal, a place to recover and regenerate, a place to grow on a personal level, and a place to connect with ourselves and experience our emotions. It is important that this poem appears at the end because it describes the reading experience of the book as a whole. The poems themselves are meditations on what asylum looks like to the speaker and readers come to understand that asylum is a holistic experience rather than an escape from trauma. Here, asylum is defined in its truest sense; it is a journey of healing.

In section LX. the speaker asks “Once we name it, does it cease to matter?” In Asylum, many experiences are named—some personal, some collective, some wondrous and some traumatic. What readers will learn from reading these poems is that the act of naming an experience has tremendous value on a poetic level in the sense that it makes what was invisible visible. Experiences become tangible within the poem. Bialosky explores difficult topics in this book: her sister’s suicide and recounting the horrors of the Holocaust. But she also explores nature and what it means to be a poet, what it means to be woman-centered and engaged with spirituality. These experiences give a richer meaning to the concept of asylum. Asylum is enlightening; it inspires and uplifts as much as it holds space for the healing process and how surrendering can open up possibilities for true self-discovery.

May 17, 2021