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

By – November 17, 2021

This is part of a com­bined review for I Had a Broth­er Once: A Poem, A Mem­oir.

In the sim­i­lar heart-break­ing epic style as Edward Hirsch’s ele­giac poem Gabriel, two recent­ly pub­lished book-length poems — Adam Mansbach’s I Had a Broth­er Once and Jill Bialosky’s Asy­lum—are both painful­ly trag­ic explo­rations of grief fol­low­ing a fam­i­ly member’s sui­cide. Mans­bach and Bialosky both rely on their Jew­ish faith and Jew­ish his­to­ry to inter­pret and make sense of their sib­lings’ sui­cides, despite this ulti­mate­ly being an impos­si­ble task. Sur­vivors’ guilt and the ques­tion of What if?” haunts both of them, as their igno­rance regard­ing their sib­lings’ depres­sion and feel­ings of iso­la­tion is a recur­ring nightmare.

Mansbach’s book is labeled both poem and mem­oir, as he lyri­cal­ly weaves togeth­er the busy hap­pen­ings of his own suc­cess­ful pro­fes­sion­al life with the hor­ror and shock of his brother’s sui­cide, which he kept pri­vate for a long time, even while on tour for his best-sell­ing adult pic­ture book, Go the F**K to Sleep. He wor­ries that some­one will find out about his brother’s death and con­front him about it, peel­ing away a pro­tec­tive mask that he wears when being a pub­lic writer and enter­tain­er. Mans­bach writes, break[ing] down on cam­era is not / in anybody’s inter­est” and what would my friends think, / i won­dered, watch­ing me…what would i think of myself / if the mask did not at least slip?” Mans­bach writes about his feel­ings of self­ish­ness, sad­ness, anger, and con­fu­sion sur­round­ing his brother’s death and his strug­gles sep­a­rat­ing his pub­lic per­sona from his pri­vate mourning.

The metaphor of the mask, both as a cop­ing mech­a­nism for sur­vivors of sui­cide vic­tims and for those suf­fer­ing and hid­ing their depres­sion, recurs through­out Mansbach’s book and is also men­tioned in Bialosky’s book. When writ­ing about the process of going through her sister’s pos­ses­sions after her death, Bialosky writes,

A draw­er of junk jew­el­ry, combs & brushes,

sweat­shirts, made-of-hon­or dress wrapped in cello—

phane & stored like shad­ows in the closet…

…a life mask made of strips

of papi­er-mâché as if to mock

the dead’s eter­nal masquerade.

Where Mansbach’s poem is more nar­ra­tive and direct­ly address­es reac­tions to grief, Bialosky’s poem is more lyri­cal­ly dri­ven, com­bin­ing images with­in nature, excerpts from his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments, and a stream-of-con­scious­ness style that cre­ates asso­ci­a­tions between ideas and images that at first seem unre­lat­ed. Asy­lum, which is divid­ed into five sec­tions that each have small lyrics” with­in them, proves that when grief trans­forms us, we look for pat­terns to make sense of the world. In nature and through yoga, Bialosky finds inspi­ra­tion and relief. Sev­er­al times, she quotes yoga instruc­tors who encour­age her to breathe through [her] strug­gle” and use the tree pose as a way to metaphor­i­cal­ly root her­self to the ground and be in the present moment. Bialosky weaves this spir­i­tu­al med­i­ta­tion with his­tor­i­cal and sci­en­tif­ic facts rang­ing from descrip­tions of car­bon monox­ide poi­son­ing to a list of terms used by var­i­ous main­stream reli­gions in response to sui­cide with­in their cul­tures. These excerpts help Bialosky place her sister’s sui­cide with­in a larg­er soci­etal con­ver­sa­tion about why sui­cide hap­pens and how it for­ev­er impacts fam­i­ly members.

Both writ­ers evoke the Holo­caust in ways that help them con­tex­tu­al­ize their sib­lings’ sui­cides with­in the larg­er Jew­ish expe­ri­ence of exis­ten­tial crises, along with the hor­rif­ic images of gas-induced deaths. Bialosky quotes Paul Celan, a Holo­caust sur­vivor and poet who suc­cumbed to sui­cide, through­out her book as a way to cre­ate links in Jew­ish his­to­ry between moments of col­lec­tive and per­son­al trau­ma. Some of her lyrics on nature evoke the con­nect­ed­ness between the nat­ur­al world and the spir­i­tu­al world as a way of under­stand­ing her expe­ri­ence, while also pep­per­ing in state­ments about sui­cides dur­ing and after the Holo­caust. In a short prose lyric, Bialosky begins, Beneath the soil is an under­ground sys­tem of roots, a con­nect­ed fam­i­ly that shares their nutri­ents. If a tree or plant is under duress, some­times the giv­ing of nutri­ents from one to the oth­er will bring a sick tree back to life.” Mansbach’s regrets reveal them­selves in a sim­i­lar man­ner to Bialosky, though more con­ver­sa­tion­al­ly and confessionally:

…in my head that’s where

he always is, sit­ting in his car

with me scream­ing don’t do it

from the back seat like some

spir­it cursed to be unheard…

…ask­ing why of all things

did it have to be gas.

Mansbach’s poem explores silence and the dif­fi­cul­ty of being hon­est about trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences. He strug­gles explain­ing to his young daugh­ter what hap­pened to this uncle she / can­not remem­ber.” He tries to “…take his / pic­ture out, show her, / try to open the blinds, / let in some air, some light.” He doesn’t want his brother’s sui­cide to be a mys­tery; he doesn’t want to be the type of father who can­not open up to his daugh­ter and tell her the truth. He doesn’t want depres­sion to be silenced and not writ­ten about.

Both writ­ers scat­ter rhetor­i­cal ques­tions through­out their poems, ques­tion­ing how to mourn, how to move on, how to cre­ate rit­u­als of heal­ing. Toward the mid­dle of her book, Bialosky writes, What if it is those who sur­vive who nev­er rest?” This ques­tion feels like the cen­ter of both of these writ­ers’ books, high­light­ing their strug­gles with regret and how to have mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships with friends, their chil­dren, their spous­es, oth­er fam­i­ly mem­bers, and ulti­mate­ly, with them­selves as they nav­i­gate the after­math of suicide.

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award in Poet­ry. Her man­u­script, Laugh­ing in Yid­dish, was a final­ist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poet­ry. Her poems and essays have been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ingGreen Moun­tains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the For­ward, Poet­i­ca Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. She con­tributes book reviews to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as well as to oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Lit­er­ary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Hon­or­able Men­tion Push­cart Prize and was nom­i­nat­ed for Best Spir­i­tu­al Lit­er­a­ture. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She is a mid­dle school Human­i­ties teacher and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two kids. 

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.