Poem Of The Week: 'Night Garden Of The Asylum' By Elizabeth Jennings
Night Garden of the Asylum
An owl’s call scrapes the stillness.
Curtains are barriers and behind them
The beds settle into neat rows.
Soon they’ll be ruffled.
The garden knows nothing of illness.
Only it knows of the slow gleam
Of stars, the moon’s distilling; it knows
Why the beds and lawns are levelled.
Then all is broken from its fullness.
A human cry cuts across a dream.
A wild hand squeezes an open rose.
We are in witchcraft, bedevilled.
The measured lines, pauses, and languid delivery of Elizabeth Jennings’ intensely focused poem suggest an order that is entirely at variance with the scene which is about to unfold behind the closed windows of the institution.
Irony is sharpened on a counterpoint: the neatness of the garden beds, wherein a ministry of biological purpose proceeds in silence, co-exists in synchronic harmony with the asylum’s interior architecture, but only in the geometrical sense. The settling of the beds is a prelude to the ‘human cry’ which will cut across the second quatrain no less shockingly than an ‘owl’s call’ scraping the stillness. The garden’s hidden ‘knowledge’ of the seasons and of celestial movement is the true and only disclosure of natural peace, of a settlement.
Elizabeth Jennings' own experience of mental illness and hospitalisation clearly informs a somber gaze. If her articulation of gathering anxiety bears the mark of drama, it is a prelude to the macabre symbolisms of madness which still obtain offstage. The cry of anguish in the night is clarified in the terms of its own other-worldliness: ‘bedevilment’ connects the superstitious with the credulous, leaves us lost in a realm of dangerous metaphorical possibility.
‘Night Garden of the Asylum’ is taken from British Poetry Since 1945
and is published by Penguin Books