Bug Man: Different sorts of poems about mental illness

by David Gilbert

March 30, 2016

Poetry opens a different window on the world. I believe it can often do more than story (with its neat beginning, middle and end) to illuminate people’s experiences, particularly about suffering.

I have written more straightforward verse about my previous mental health problemshere and about my recovery here.

These poems are slightly different. And I have not shared them with folk beyond my poetry circles before, as they may not be so ‘accessible’. But what the hell. If even one person gets something from them, then that’s great.

Much of my poetry lifts from observation to the surreal, or from narrative to obsessive worlds quite swiftly. I hope that you might appreciate – maybe ‘enjoy’ is too strong a word – this small glimpse into the world of being seriously ill with anxiety, depression and obsessive thoughts.

If you like these, or those in the other blogs, you might want also to and hear me perform at Critical Voices, on the 11th of June 2016, alongside some great artists.

Please note that line breaks will not appear as they should on smart phones. The poems are best viewed on a PC.


Bug Man

The bug man came to visit
laden with nets and specimen jars,
insect-catching paraphernalia
and sufficient scalpels for the entire class.
We sat goggle-eyed, craving caterpillars,

his larvae swelling and pupating,
beetles teeming over the desks,
hornets and bluebottles battering the walls.
Microscopes! Microscopes! He screamed.
By lunch there was a twisting slime

of slugs and snails, flies and spiders
peopling the shelves, spilling over
pencil cases, rulers and exercise books.
But by hometime we’d had enough,
our brains tired and fluttering.

We tried, but couldn’t make him stop.
The collections kept on coming.
The classroom became a fetid nest.
We barred the doors and fire exits.
Now we hold out.

Our hair grows sticky.
We’ve had to ration the locusts.
He whacks at the windows, muttering
about the influx of enormous bees,
of strange moths with a dozen wings.

He is terrible to watch
shrouded in a dervishing cloud
of flying ants, his eyes wild
and fixed on creatures in his mind
fast becoming invisible to us.



The first time I didn’t listen
it took my friends.
I couldn’t make out its colour
but I would watch

by the disused railway track
as it paused between thistles
to smell the air, turn, look
through me and disappear

into the high grass. I can’t
remember the sound it made, but
when I ignored it a second time
it took my family.

I don’t know where it came from
but the neighbours said
it’s the same one we’d imagined
on the edge of town in the February rain.

By then it had no face.
If I could blot it from my mind
I would. Each night I dream
dog shifts to wolf

to man and back again, then claws
me out of my skin. Now it has run
out of patience and is scratching
at the back door to be let in.



I slid between rooms
Severing wires

Unscrewing bulbs
And scissoring magazines

Limbs became heavier
And heavier to operate

I sat cross-legged
Fending off evil

While the bedroom wall
Grew dangerously thin

The black house began
Its whispering plots

My brother was sent
With poisoned Jaffa Cakes

Then came the scraping
And bleeding sound

Of thousands of chairs
Falling over themselves

Midnight’s rush
Of telephone calls

Rose wailing and wolf-like
Four men arrived

Serious and muscular
The quiet jab came

And my mother’s voice:
Please look after him



As a boy, he would beckon
The blue to arrive
Come fill the reservoir of eyes

Breathing in
He’d let the colour
Sweep entirely through

The waves within would rise
Blood-tide sing
and his blue skin glistened

But one day as he lay quietly
The jealous sea turned ravenous
and hollowed him out

Now his eyes are cloudy
He can only reach
The memory of blue

The word for blue
The anger for those who talk
The talk of blue

And, soon will stop listening
As he is pulled under
Back into blue



Sparrows rat-a-tat the double-glazing.
Matted feathers, smatterings of blood
and smeary wing-prints stain the glass.
The garden is a reddened blur.

There’s a soot-blast at the fireplace.
Seven blackened birds with gaping beaks
tilt their heads and fix us with yellow eyes.
One has a broken leg. Still it hops.

A screeching. The puffed up Robins
have done for Max (we taped the cat flap).
A swarm of collared doves descend
to join the magpies strutting the roof.

A scream. We turn. A thousand wrens
stream like jets through the letter box.
We hack at them with tennis rackets
fall back and jam the kitchen door.

They batter for hours, then all goes quiet.
The fuses blow. We wait into the night
tune and re-tune the old radio:
Nothing but the blast of birdsong.


For Lesley-Anne (RIP)

I unlock the magic box
The doves fly off, leaving

A couple of sad white rabbits
From my sleeve I draw

A bent Two of Spades
And a crimson scarf

I practice all night
Get better at it

Juggling balls
Spinning plates. I shift

From Flower to Devil Sticks
Master the Diabalo

Then more adventurous still:
Throwing knives. Swallowing flame

How they laugh when
I saw myself in half

Then escape
From handcuffs, steel boxes

Burning buildings, fish-tanks
The Door of Death

The audience cry
Encore. Now, drum roll please:

The Vanishing Act.
Bright lights. Applause.


Ward 9

It gets so quiet so quiet I read a lot
turn the pages slowly without rustling
soften crisps between tongue and cheek
whisper in the long white rooms
rummage through carrier bags without a scrunch
hum sonatas diminuendo

they say my heart’s percussion requires
toning down my neurones
blaze with some disremembered fire
but they can’t know the future can
always catch the past they’ll
find out too soon too soon

I hear everything they talk about
in the boiler room the radiators
their feverish swish and rush through
long pipes the valves each morning
that deadly clickety-clack. You hear
the cacophony of leaves outside? The evening
is too loud too loud the rising moon deafening

I would have been happy enough to remain
manager in a shop of silence or curator
archivist librarian gymnast mime or anything
without words – a collector of soothings
perpetual watcher of moons and satellites
but I was so young so young

when I learned to pretend to shout
tasted the shape of bugger in my mouth
kept it in began to crave the quiet
till it grew so strong it pinned me down
everything was soon too loud too loud
they keep me here for my own good
you need to go now there’s not much time
before the trolley comes round comes round

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