Review by Jackie FoxNancy Kerrigan - The Voices

by Nancy Kerrigan

Finishing Line Press
Post Office Box 1626
Georgetown, KY 40324
ISBN 1-59924-420-9
30 pp., $12.00

Since I was a mental health worker in a previous life, I was instantly intrigued by Nancy Kerrigan’s chapbook The Voices: The Poetry of Psychiatry. Kerrigan is a psychiatric nurse and knows this confusing and frightening territory well. She captures all the nuances of mental illness, from an obsessive-compulsive child’s mind “like a needle stuck in a groove” in “Once is Not Enough” to an aide’s grief when a patient commits suicide in “The Palace Guard.” She also captures the humor often deployed by those who battle mental illness, which is something people often overlook. In “Off Hours,” when Kerrigan’s car is impounded and a former patient calls the police and gives her a ride to the impound lot, the woman yells, “Patients to the rescue!” as she drives away.

The first thing that stuck me about this chapbook was the layered meaning in its title. People with schizophrenia are plagued by hearing voices, and collectively, this population often lacks a voice. The stigma of mental illness follows people to the grave, as Kerrigan makes clear in the wonderful poem “Anonymous.” She starts off by describing 1,600 unmarked headstones on the grounds of a Connecticut psychiatric hospital, making it

a cemetery.
Row after row of upright
square cement blocks exist
like a set of teeth
for the medical examiner.

This hospital could be anywhere; I remember hearing about a lawsuit to allow names to be placed on headstones at a similar facility in Nebraska. Kerrigan doesn’t get on a soapbox about the injustice. She doesn’t have to. She just says, “Every life should/have a wake.”

Then she tells of the strangers from all walks of life who come together each year to recite the patients’ names,

to let them fly off
the runway of the tongue
like planes into blue space.

By this simple and powerful act, the patients’ identities and humanity are returned to them. I felt like I could see their grateful spirits rising as their names are read. It’s a lovely ritual, and the poem it inspired has stayed with me.

“Ward 24” is powerful in a different way. Kerrigan relates her experience on St. Patrick’s Day in 1966, coaxing institutionalized patients to come to her therapy group. She describes the overmedicated state that was common in that pre-deinstitutionalization era: “Eight-hundred/milligrams of Thorazine made walking feel/like trudging through deep mud.”

Kerrigan goes on to describe trying to entice patients to attend her group therapy session.

Come to my group, my plea, as I knelt offering
filtered cigarettes as free admission tickets.

You’d have to understand the psychiatric (or prison) systems to recognize cigarettes as coins of the realm. The people I worked with 20 years later were outpatients and not nearly as overmedicated as patients of yore, but cigarettes remained a constant. I remember when one of our patients was hallucinating that Cherry Coke was coming to get him over the trees. It probably sounds funny but he was terrified. I’ve never felt more helpless than at that moment. All I could think to do was to offer him a smoke. He accepted it and it seemed to help. I told him I didn’t see her but I think the nicotine did its work better than I did.

I defy you not to be haunted by the following image, when Kerrigan handed out green carnations to the women in her group that day:

Anna sniffed the blossom; Edna placed it between
her breasts. Rose wore hers over her ear.
Vivian shared a memory about the feel of seeds
in her hand when she gardened. The oldest patient,
Lillian, who had a lobotomy watered
the blossom with her drool.

Kerrigan doesn’t only focus on present day psychiatry. In “St. Remy, France,” she pays tribute to Vincent Van Gogh, who “immortalized psychosis”:

No pills or potions to halt
the constant condemning chatter
of your mind. Moved, I hear
the voices of former patients,
my own voice, reminding me
mental illness respects no one,
yet it can leap right off
the borders of the canvas, transforming
torment into masterpieces.

Mental illness may not respect anyone, but Kerrigan’s respect for her patients and colleagues comes through loud and clear, and she makes sure their voices are heard.

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