Book Review: Letters from the Asylum, by John Knight

Letters from the Asylum, by John Knight, published by Sudden Valley Press, distributed by Madras Cafe Books. RRP NZ$25 (incl postage).

John Knight is an Australian poet. You can find an interesting interview with him, and a bio, here. There is a lengthy and very well-put-together review of Letters from the Asylum by Patricia Prime at the Stylus Poetry Journal. I won’t attempt to be as comprehensive in this review, but I’ll begin by saying that I enjoyed reading this collection by a poet whose work I’d never read before.

Letters from the Asylum
begins with a lengthy introduction by John Knight, in which he mentions his terminal cancer, and also endeavours to situate himself, poetically and personally, within the context of postmodernism and psychoanalysis. Not being a huge fan of either, this introduction made me nervous about what was to follow; but John Knight’s poetry wears its theoretical underpinnings very lightly – in fact, the titles of poems often bear more evidence of “theory” than the poems themselves.

Much of the subject matter of this book isn’t easy. It encompasses the deaths of several people close to John Knight; his own illness and impending death; and also, facing the wider world, the deaths of many, near and far, known and unknown, in war. Some of the poems which are about the generalised horrors of war are excellent, such as “Pantocrator [Insert Year]” (p. 70), but in the main, the poems I responded to most are those in which these issues are made concrete in the lives of individual people, such as “…and burned the topless towers of Illium” (p. 24), about a Greek woman, “no friend of the Colonels”, now living in Australia, with its lovely closing couplet:

I left, too embarrassed to return or explain.
I’ve forgotten my Greek, and her name.

Another fine poem that deals with the death of one person, in this case by suicide, is “somewhere south of eden” (p. 36). It has a shorter line than most of the poems in this book, and for me, this works very well with the subject matter:

spike your hair
make up your face
it’s the last act

place the list
in your pocket
do not leave a note

Though the overall tone of the collection is sombre, the book is not without hope, if not for this life then for another. It ends with “Resurrection…” (p. 93), and that poem ends on an upward note:

Leaving the stones and the small wet world
whose sky meets air with water, turn
to the sun through the skin of the sky
and wait for the changing. Dragon no longer
but a prism of light shot across
the still pond. Quick, I’m gone!

John Knight is a fine poet, and this is a fine collection.