A drop in the ocean: Once I came this way

6 October 2016

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum

This post is from David Gilbert, a poet we invited to write for the series after he posted his poems on Twitter in response to the exhibition.

Museums are about the past. Objects are behind glass. It is safe to walk about between objects of curiosity and then go for a cup of tea and scones, and talk to friends: “That was nice. Interesting. I liked the way they… put it together”.

However, I wasn’t sure about visiting the ‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ exhibition.

A few weeks beforehand, I’d had a terrible bout of work-related stress. This had knocked me backwards with terrible anxiety and crippling obsessive thoughts. This was the first time I’d been laid so low for thirty years – it was scary to be so reminded of my fragility. Did I need to put myself in front of an exhibition such as this? It felt unsafe, potentially triggering. I wasn’t sure if it would help pull me together or serve the demons of fragmentation.

On the other hand, poetry is healing for me; it allows for a different window on the world. Writing is like sculpture in that it ‘reveals’. Unlike my blogs, I do not set out with an ‘intention’ to get a message across, but to explore. And, hopefully, to find a flow that takes me somewhere else.


I cannot tell you
what it is like.

I am unsure
why we continue.

You are there.
I was here. So

please place your head
on this pillow

nylon for the most part
I guess

flat from hundreds
of heads

‘Property of
The Psychiatric Unit’

in faded blue
on white

on both sides. Now
close your eyes.

Another reason to go to the exhibition: over the last few weeks, I have written over 70 poems. Many have been about my mental health experiences. Much of my past poetry was primarily cathartic, slightly adolescent and self-indulgent. I have needed to move on. Wordsworth said: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”. It was time for me to look from a different angle.

The exhibition also offered a practical challenge: to write in response to particular objects. Since I would like one day to be a poet in residence somewhere, it also offered the chance to practice. So I decided to take the trip into London. I’m glad I did. Others can review the exhibition better than I can. All I can say is, go.

The main thing I am left with is a question: how does one connect through words? Between the past and present? Sufferers and non-sufferers? Patients (service users) and healthcare professionals? Communities and healthcare? Writer and reader? Objects behind glass and visitors?


The low slung bundle of thick, frayed, red, green
and grey wires that ran between the old stroke wards
curving up to the brown fuse box near the top
of the towering wooden pylons, then slouching
down and across the car park to disappear behind
the temporary canteen in the portakabin
has gone.

                 Once I came this way
with the matron from the psychiatric ward
to hunt for spare bedsheets. And on the way back
I stared up and thought to cradle myself
amongst their woven threads and pump of pure
energy that might wrest me from another night
on those crackling bedsheets.

                                 These days, there stands
the maternity unit where my sons were born.

Two things stand out for me from the exhibition. Firstly the audio recording (get yourself the free earphones or listen online) and some of the isolated objects (the hanging white mask in the first room and the embroidered pyjama top). These were the things that sent me to my own words to search for connections.

I prefer poems to stand on their own two feet. I don’t think you always need the poet to explain what they are about or what they mean. As well as working on that yourself, I hope you get some enjoyment from the sounds, rhythms and music (if I have succeeded, that is).

But one or two small explanations. Bedsheet was hard to write (can you tell?). Pillow was catalysed by an almost forgotten, but obviously powerful, memory.

Asylum Occupations is a semi-found poem (from a display in the Bedlam exhibition of “a table showing employment of lunatics at Crichton Royal Institution”). That was more fun to write, if that is not to dismiss the terrible truths it tries to tell. I remember entering the Herrison Hospital near Dorchester years back. It was my first experience of a real Victorian asylum. I thought I would die there. It was vast and terrifying, and though we did not ‘house and raise potatoes’, we did the modern equivalent: various forms of gardening. It wasn’t much fun. The poem to me sounds like a macabre version of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Asylum Occupations

In some Victorian asylums, a time log was kept of the occupations undertaken by inmates

On the first day
Raising and housing potatoes

On the second day
Cleaning shoes
Raising and housing potatoes

On the third day
Cleaning shoes
Attending chapel
Raising and housing potatoes

On the fourth day
Cleaning shoes
Attending chapel
Mowing and raking grass
Raising and housing potatoes

On the fifth day
Cleaning shoes
Attending chapel
Mowing and raking grass
Wheeling coals
Raising and housing potatoes

On the sixth day
Cleaning shoes
Attending chapel
Mowing and raking grass
Wheeling coals
Raising and housing potatoes

I couldn’t take too much time in the exhibition and had to scoot quickly after immersion. I sought the peace and quiet of a café down the road to recover. Tea and scones did it. I put myself back together and reached for my pen.

David is a poet who also works in the NHS to support service users to have a stronger voice. He blogs about healthcare and poetry and is on Twitter too much. David is also performing at Bethlem Gallery’s Reading the Site event on 29 October.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond‘ is on until 15 January 2017.