Nellie Bly & LightNight Liverpool

PaulineRoweLN poster

I’m looking forward to doing a public reading of my poems about Nellie Bly (1864 – 1922) for the first time on Light Night on 17 May.  The poems from my collection in progress – Insane Places – speak through Nellie as she’s trapped on Blackwell Island Insane Asylum, New York for ten days in the disguise of Nellie Moreno/Brown.  This experience was recounted in her exposé Ten Days in a Madhouse Her story is interrupted by a conversation with David Rosenhan who, as David Lucie, became a pseudo patient seventy years after Nellie to test the limits of psychiatric knowledge and diagnosis. His famous study On Being Sane in Insane Places is a classic study in the literature that questions and challenges psychiatry. My poems interrogate what it means to be mad through setting, place and experience.  It is particularly thrilling to be reading my poems  in the library of The Athenaeum, a club first founded in Liverpool in the late eighteenth century. My reading will start at 8.00 pm on 17 May.

 

Chaperone

“One for the pavilion”
the doctor’s voice an auctioneers

with poor young Nelly Brown
as bargain of the day.

The undernourished crowd sighed

to see the new unfortunate,
as though the playing out of power

were as good as a cold repast.

The ambulance surgeon
walked me through the well-kept grounds

to the insane ward,
to the rooms of broken women,
to the cells of hard billets
to the buckets of black water,
to the atmosphere of excrement and fear

to the rules and orders
to the white capped nurse,

“Take off your hat. You are staying.”

I heard my voice as though
in another mouth – repetitions
like childhood disadvantages
or the sound of guns.

“I am waiting for the boat.”

That first insane night
ruminant noise of nurses
kept us all awake.

The food was filthy, 
festering like a wound.

They removed my clothes.
“Do you see faces in the wall?
Do you hear voices? Tell us what they say.”

As though I had strange powers
beyond the world, powers they longed to kill

or claim themselves.

Then a parade of visitors,
each one scrutinised my face,
tried to see the skull beneath my skin,

the pickled brain beyond,
a specimen in a case.

Pauline Rowe                        from   'Insane Places'