Sundress Reads: Review of Asylum

Caroline Cottom’s Asylum (Main Street Rag, 2022) is a soul stirring collection of poems recounting patriarchal violence and its direct connection to the frequency of institutionalization of women in the early 1900’s. This collection tackles the age-old misogynistic term “hysteria” in such an unapologetic way it keeps us flipping page after page to the end, especially with the form of poems like “Asylum 1,” where Cottom deliberately spaces out the words in each stanza to illustrate the experience of looking at the artifacts from the asylum captured by photographer Jon Crispin. This deliberate spacing becomes apparent again in “Girls Underwater,” where she recounts her mother’s plea to have the police called due to the father’s violence. In this piece, she also spaces out the words along the page to imitate the uneasiness associated with hysteria, or fear. 

Interestingly enough, Cottom’s poem “Causes of Mental Illness” list the satirical causes in a perfectly centered page each time, contradicting the erraticism of mental illness itself. This thematically pairs well with the poem before, “Elegy for Cousin Libby,” where Cottom delves into the shock therapy her cousin endured while at asylums in Tennessee and New York. The striking part of this poem is that a piece with so much pain is finely contained on the page as if beaten straight, resembling the one-size-fits-all approach to “treatment” that often left patients robotic and terrified; scared straight. 

Along with the heartwrenching retelling of Cottom’s traumatizing childhood with her sexually abusive father, she unabashedly recounts the history of her experience growing up as a young woman in the 60s before the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972. It only becomes apparent that Cottom is able to have some minor bodily autonomy in “Appetite,” where she reads Nobokov’s Lolita in disgust, but refuses to bring a friend for her father’s tendencies to seep into. Instead, she chooses to be the only one; a selfless act, though gut-wrenching. It’s also incredible how Cottom switches tone throughout the entirety of the collection to show herself growing older and wiser. The tone shift between “Daddy’s Suitcase” (5) and “How I Remembered” (56) stands in stark comparison between the lens of being a little girl and not understanding, to being older and understanding everything. Going from “Two weeks later a russet smear / on a shirt / in his suitcase. Shalimar. Rouge. Blonde hairs / on his suit,” to “In a college basement, a man counsels three women, one after the other. As fate has it, each speaks of being molested as a child by a man she knew well. The third stands in front, lower lip quivering—” is such an excellent way to tell us time has passed without telling us. It’s clear that Cottom is an experienced writer who knows what she’s doing, and her recollection of her experiences is life altering. 

The continuous obituary poem throughout is also a gut punch. “Obituary” shows Cottom unflinchingly recounting what her father was like, and how he treated women in general: her, her sister, her mother, and his many paramours. 

Cottom lists candidly from the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum’s late 1800s hospital records in her recurring poem “Causes of Mental Illness:” “doubt about mother’s ancestors, jealousy, mental excitement, greediness, women, egotism, remorse” (21). The use of the actual text here truly illustrates how bizarre it was that these were considered reasons to institutionalize women (when in reality, it was sexism and an overall hatred of women). It became apparent quickly through Asylum that you could be taken away for virtually anything. The deep empathy woven throughout how Caroline talks about the various asylums (now museums) she visited and/or researched in her life truly stands out—the Willard Asylum in New York, one in Camarillo, California, and one in Northfield, Minnesota. 

Asylum is not only wonderfully written poetry, but a historic analysis into America’s dark history with hospitalizing women who refuse to live in submission. And to all who experienced such horrors at the hands of the people who were supposed to be trusted, it is a simple I see you.

Asylum is available from Main Street Rag

Lyra Thomas is a black nonbinary poet from the St Louis area, currently residing in Carbondale, IL for their MFA in Poetry from Southern Illinois University, which is also their alma mater. They received their BA in Creative Writing in 2018. Lyra enjoys reading/writing poetry, curating Spotify playlists, and cuddling with their cats Max and Silver.

One thought on “Sundress Reads: Review of Asylum

  1. Kudos to this reviewer, whose perceptions are so keen, so right on. Thank you, Lyra Thomas, for delving deeply into my manuscript. Your appreciation of this aspect of female history, not only in the US, but in many other countries, is valid and valuable. Caroline Cottom, author of Asylum

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