Tuesday, February 23, 2010

From the Back Ward to the Blackboard: From McLean Hospital to the College Classroom






From the Back Ward to the Blackboard...

By Doug Holder

Back in July of 2009 I lost a job of 27 years. I had last worked in a community residence program at McLean Hospital and the program folded. During my time at the hospital I got quite an education, clinical as well as literary. Presently I am teaching at Bunker Hill Community College and Endicott College, a decidedly different environment.


I started working at McLean Hospital in 1982. This was before a lot of the land was sold off in the 1990's. The grounds were sprawling, and beautifully conceived by none other than Fredrick Law Olmstead. I worked on a locked, high security ward, that housed psychotic patients who required close supervision...in the parlance they were a threat to themselves and others. I wrote a poem about my first night there that was included in a booklet of poems that was published by a small press in 1998: "Poems of Boston and Just Beyond: From the Back Bay to the Back Ward." (Alpha Beat Press.) It concerned a patient's delusion about me--quite a shock to this nascent mental health worker:

First Night on the Psychiatric Ward

The night seemed perfectly cast
stormy, thunder and rain
the patient was biblical
long hair and a beard
with his staff at his command.

He put a paternal hand on me
and called me his "finest creation"
What could I do
but thank him?
He smiled
with divine
patronization
undoubtedly I was a much valued acolyte.

Then suddenly
a flash from the storm lit the building
in a momentary spectral glow
a clap of thunder howled down the locked ward.

He looked at me like a proud teacher
patting me on the back
" Good work kid, good work."

At the time I was coming off a bender of reading concerning the Beat poets: Kerouac, Ginsberg, etc... and there was a patient on that locked ward who had a written correspondence with Ginsberg--which I thought was great. I heard from the start that Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and others had "residencies at the asylum." I was intrigued by the poetry groups Sexton lead as well. In 1984 the dye- was- cast. I transferred out of the night shift, and took a day/evening position on Bowditch Hall--the very hall Lowell was housed on. There I saw a framed and signed copy of Lowell's poem "Waking in the Blue"--the famous poem he wrote about his time on Bowditch:

Waking in the Blue
by Robert Lowell

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare's-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My hearts grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the "mentally ill.")

What use is my sense of humour?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with a muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson gold-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbet and ginger ale--
more cut off from words than a seal.
This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean's;
the hooded night lights bring out "Bobbie,"
Porcellian '29,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig--
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swash buckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.

These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.

In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.
(There are no Mayflower
screwballs in the Catholic Church.)

After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor's jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.



For some reason this sparked me to start my first poetry group on the ward in 1986. At a later point I submitted Lowell's "Waking in the Blue" to Robert Pinsky's "Americans' Favorite Poems" anthology, with my introduction to the poem. To my delight I was included in the anthology.

I originally did the poetry group on the ward I worked on, but later on I moved them to other settings in the hospital. There was an article I did for a now defunct magazine "The Boston Poet" about poetry on the wards.

Some years ago Alex Beam of The Boston Globe was informed that I was running poetry groups on the ward. He called to ask me for an interview for an article he was writing about the "mad poets" at McLean for the magazine DoubleTake. The magazine was based in Somerville for a short while before it folded. He interviewed me at my home on Ibbetson Street in Somerville, Mass. It was evident that he was in the seminal stages of his research. Later I was surprised to get a call from a fact checker from the Atlantic magazine, in which another article about McLean by Beam was to appear.

In 2000 I started a poetry group on North Belknap Hall. Later I started to run groups on two separate wards, and expanded to Appleton House, a sort of community residence for long term patients. In 2002 I moved to Waverly House, and my poetry groups ended, although I did set up clients for literary and journalistic internships at "the new renaissance magazine," and "The Somerville News."

Over the years ex-patients to returning patients, to folks I see out in the street stop to talk about the groups. Some have published poetry since leaving the ward; one fellow I run into now and then is working on his English degree; one I lost touch with applied for a poetry program at Stanford. But whatever they took for the experience, I hoped the groups made them feel a little less like "patients" and a little more like a poet.

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