Asy­lum: A per­son­al, his­tor­i­cal, nat­ur­al inquiry in 103 lyric sections

January 13, 2020

This book-length sequence by the crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed poet is a seek­er’s sto­ry, reveal­ing per­son­al and his­tor­i­cal trau­mas and how we search for under­stand­ing and mean­ing in their wake.

In Asy­lum, poet Jill Bialosky embarks on a Vir­gilian jour­ney, build­ing a nar­ra­tive sequence from 103 ele­gant poems and prose sec­tions that cohere in their inten­si­ty and their need to explore dark­ness and sus­te­nance both. Tak­en togeth­er, these pierc­ing pieces — about her nascent call­ing as a writer; her sis­ter’s sui­cide and its still unfold­ing after­math; the hor­ror unleashed by World War II; the life cycle of the monarch but­ter­fly; and the woods where she seeks asy­lum — form a mov­ing sto­ry, pow­er­ful­ly braid­ing despair, sur­vival, and hope. Bialosky con­sid­ers the oppo­si­tions that gov­ern us: our rea­son and unrea­son, our need to pre­serve and destruct. What are words when they meet the action of what they attempt to mod­i­fy?” she asks, explor­ing the pos­si­ble salve of lan­guage in the face of pain and grief. What Asy­lum deliv­ers is a form of hard-won grace and an aware­ness of the cost of extreme vio­lence, inex­plic­a­ble loss, and the mirac­u­lous cycles of life, in work that car­ries Bialosky’s art to a new lev­el of urgency and achievement.

Discussion Questions

In Asy­lum: A per­son­al, his­tor­i­cal, nat­ur­al inquiry in 103 lyric sec­tions, Jill Bialosky crafts a mosa­ic from the small tiles of her poems, a per­son­al and col­lec­tive ele­gy emerg­ing from seem­ing­ly dis­parate exam­i­na­tions of anti-Semi­tism, Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and her sister’s sui­cide. Equal parts lyric-mem­oir and Dan­tean jour­ney, the collection’s somber remem­brances sus­tain their own path out of despair. The craft­man­ship of Bialosky’s unflinch­ing lan­guage and pac­ing stretch across the per­ilous sub­ject mat­ter with a qui­et tenac­i­ty: & we moved slowly,/picking up rhythm as we traveled,/we would see it all.” These vital poems cre­ate an asy­lum of thought/& after­thought” that is both inti­mate and ambi­tious — a work that is much need­ed in our con­tem­po­rary moment.