Jack’s guest is, again, Lola Haskins. This is the Author’s Note to her new collection, Asylum: Improvisations on John Clare:
“The quotes in this book are taken from the diary the poet John Clare kept in 1841, describing his escape from Dr. Matthew [Allen’s] private insane asylum in Epping Forest and his subsequent struggle to reach his home in Northborough, where he hoped to reunite with Mary, who’d been his childhood sweetheart. He made the eighty-mile journey in four days, sleeping rough and staving off starvation by eating grass, which he said tasted like fresh bread. Six months after this odyssey, Clare was again declared mad and sent to Northampton General Lunatic Asylum where he died twenty-three years later.
“I chose this frame for my collection for three reasons: first, because having been solo my entire writing life, I too have often felt like the only soldier in my own army; second, because I thought it relevant that Clare’s journal addresses how hard it is to be free; and third, because the fact that “asylum” implies both lunacy and refuge resonates for me. I consider these poems improvisations because I see Clare’s changing mental states as matches and my poems as the resulting fires, fire that I hope may, from time to time, burn out of control.”
This is John Clare’s most famous poem, “I Am!”:
I am–yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes–
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live–like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.
And this is by Lola Haskins:
In Tide Pools
lavender-spined urchins reside. And anemones with wavy mouths.
And periwinkle snails, full of themselves because they have been
given such a beautiful name. And over these low-dwellers, fine-
haired grasses drift as if underwater there were always a wind.
And since these communities, not touching, are like language
groups that have grown apart, it is not surprising that each has its
legends. In one, it is said that the Maker, taking pity on the rocks’
empty cups, filled them. In this way, the rocks, once beggars,
became kings. In another, that certain stars, unhappy to be among
multitudes, found solace in these smaller skies. Elsewhere, it is
said that long ago the dwellers in these valleys lived deep. But
slowly and slowly, wave-rush drew them upward. And now they
are visited every day by her who, breaking over them, leaves parts
of herself, which they drink and want for nothing. It is not only
humans who have religion. On the edge of the ocean, the finger
limpets see the Almighty, and cling.
Part Two of Two