In Through Out - my mental health poetry journey

by David Gilbert

June 14, 2015

Yesterday, I was privileged to be part of Critical Voices 2015 - an inspired day long event about "Connecting people, ideas, arts, medicine & health" curated by Graham Shaw (@CriticalVoice15). While the buzz lasts, I thought I'd post the poems I read. And if a kindly book publisher is looking in, I'd love to be in touch ūüôā


Glass to be Smashed

There’s always glass to be smashed.
The ball sailing to the shed
mum open-mouthed with the secateurs.

Or her, red in pearls and high heels
weaving between the guests
with a tray of sherry and canapés.

Or when they divorced.
The men carrying the lithograph
to the white van.

Or later on the ward
Robbie walking to the window
too slowly and deliberately for my liking.

Or when Debbie broke it off.
I’d had it with her aquarium.
Those fucking guppies.


Stevo - Legend                                                                              

Rob's a right joker, arrives looking like he's had a really rough night, reckons he's up for a steady set of light weights. But under his breath, as he's getting undressed, he admits he's ready to puke. I give him stick about Saturday's results. He knows I'm just having a laugh, I think.

Dazza comes in - not sure where I am with him. Some of the lads reckon he gets a bit uptight if he comes in for too much stick. So, I'm just like alright and he reels off a story about one of his birds who's giving him jip and I'm agreeing they're all more trouble than they're worth.

Jonny's next in with a smirk and a shuffle and we hang five and do fists. He's alright is old Jonny. Never sure what he's up to though. Bit of a dark horse. Dazza says he's rock solid, decent landscape gardener and all round painter-decorator if you need something done for cash in hand.

Tommo's always been a bit of a plonker but he can be a right laugh. I remember the time he whipped some guys arse, went a little bit mental over a bottle of aftershave, stolen, so he said, while he'd been in the shower. Poor guy never came back: how's it hanging Tommo? I laugh from the lockers.

Stevo. Legend. Always in at 7, building up a six pack. Looks himself up and down in the mirror naked all the bloody time. We rib him a bit about that, but deep down we all wish it was us. And who doesn't give it a glance? Pull the old stomach in - can't be too harsh.

Vince has problems we don't talk about too much. Something to do with his dad who's seriously ill. Maybe dying. We only know 'cos the girl at reception is one gossipy cow. To look at him though you'd never know and I'm not sure I should ask. I give him a nod.

Jez. Blinder, true mate. Find myself waiting for his texts whenever I'm bored at work. Creases me up. But yesterday he didn't get in touch. And I'm like wondering where he's got to now - he's never this late - or if he really rates me. Suddenly

My head's a bit of a mess and I'm feeling bad like I'm some sort of girl. Worried. Pissed off. I'll do an extra set of weights to save me going nuts, 'cos I hate this. Hate this sort of... sort of feeling of not knowing where I stand with one of the lads.


Morden Via Bank

Fell asleep at Tufnell Park missed Camden Town went sailing via Charing Cross came up at Warren Street. Well, what the hell, I thought turned right, zigzagged unfamiliar streets walked into a foyer, took a lift to an office that sort of looked OK sat down at a desk, scanned the in-tray then got up to make a coffee. Don’t think anyone noticed till lunchtime when a guy with blue eyes said: Hey, Steve. You all right? You look kind of pale. Must have been a rough night. A woman with glasses said: Have you done something to your hair? Suits you. Then she left me with papers to read and file. Drafted a couple of emails then realised I had a one o’clock meeting with the senior management team: Nice tie said the Chief Executive before we got down to business. It’s been a long day, I thought later as I wrote an overdue Board paper on Exception Reporting. I hadn’t even had lunch. It was already getting dark. I put my coat on, headed back to the station and wondered whether I’d get home too late or find another one.


The Jab

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

Wailing and wolf-like
Four men arrived

Serious and muscular
The quiet jab came

And my mother’s voice:
Please look after him



This way then that

Thursday afternoon at four he stopped
layering slabs of brown on grey on black
got up to get the scissors and masking tape
unrolled a sheet of frosted tracing paper
hung it over his face like a veil
looked out to where there once had been
a vision of roads and homes, shops and parks
where far off normal people ‚Äď smudges, lines
and dots ‚Äď moved this way then that. ‚ÄúSo tell us
what you can see‚ÄĚ said the art therapist:
“Animals? Shadows? Waves? Or weaving bones?
Come on, let your imagination go‚ÄĚ. He thought:
Shut the fuck up. Smudges. Lines. Dots…



Skinny Tracey and me.
We absconded.
Clubbed together
For a Loon Wa takeaway.

She had lank black hair
Roaming reddened eyes.
Wired. Skinny Tracey and me.
We talked non-stop until dark.

"One day I'd like to have kids. Look at me,
Isn't that fucking absurd?"
"Who can tell?" I said.
I am left to tell

How she had a son.
Later, I heard
She was with her son
And collapsed with a fatal heart attack.


The Eel

Beneath the ice
an eel slipped through the murk
mouth bigger than the world.

The man watched and shivered
in the face of what he’d become.
His mind could not respond.

His body had to be coerced
by something other
or be abandoned.

His legs, heavy and traitorous, began
to bisect dreamless streets.
He still looked down

caressing the blade
whispering in his pocket.
His eyes were eventually drawn

by scaffolding and cigarette packets.
By pipework: the earth opening up.
Railway sidings at dawn:

The tenacity of dandelions!
He failed at first to recognise
this emerging appetite.



Slice of cheese


She says I have used too much of the remaining cheese for my sandwiches - the same cheese that she had left for Adam's sandwiches. I say there's plenty of cheese left for his sandwiche and I haven't used too much for mine. And even if I have, I say, I can give you back a slice for his or even more. But I'm sure there's plenty of cheese for both our sandwiches. She says there isn't enough for both our sandwiches and she should know, her being the one who usually makes his sandwiches. I put quite a big slice of cheese aside on a plate and say there you are. I've put some cheese on the plate for him. I am about to put another slice of cheese on the plate, just in case, but decide that's going too far. Then I notice that the slice of cheese I have put on the plate has pickle on it so I wipe that off while she is not looking. He doesn't like pickle on his cheese sandwiches. That much I do know.


On reading the above, she asks how I had wiped the pickle off the cheese. Was it with a knife? Was it clean or dirty? Knowing you, she says, it was probably with your finger. It wasn't with my finger, I say remembering what I had used to wipe the pickle off the cheese. So what was it? she says. Kitchen towel, I say. She goes to brush her teeth. It's feasible, I think looking round to see if I could spot the roll of kitchen towel and whether it could feasibly have been nearby at the time. But there was no roll of kitchen towel. It must have run out the day before. I fetched a new roll of kitchen towel from the hall cupboard, tore off a few sheets, so it didn't look quite so new and placed it between the fridge and bread board before she came back in.


The Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus

These days, the Preferred Place of Care
(or PPC) according to academics
is The Home or The Hospice.

Dad prefers to ignore
the finality of words
and officiates from Bed 6 on Ward 11E

summoning us
with parting gifts
as we gather

in comfy chairs provided
by the Project Coordinator for the Patient Pathway (or Matron)
and Betty, the cleaner.

He doesn’t want to go home.
He refuses the sweetened pleas of bed managers
to go home. This is home.

Contained by the, at last, certainty
of the rhythmic swish of the morphine pump
and ward rounds.

He swears the profile of a golden lioness
rises glowering from the trees
overlooking The Heath

and the paths where we handfed
Nuthatches, Chaffinches and Robins.
Fewer of them now.

He is more tired today.
I feed him slow spoonfuls
of leek and potato soup

tell him that Samuel
went to the zoo yesterday
held out his hand to touch

the Liberian Pygmy Hippopotamus
almost wiped out by civil war.
That Adam wants to bring it home.



I am thumbing the Sunday reviews.
An author who spent years at a crematorium
slopping and swabbing the hot fat
has written a book about it.
I have been searching online for lawnmowers.

There's one for £69 on Prime
with four and a half stars from 68 reviewers:
Cuts well with metal blades, is lighter than the old one
and looks good. Good value. Highly recommended.
My father used to push hard up and down

the long Spring garden, while the butterflies
swept from the sky to flood the purple buddleias.
I ran to the compost with piles of sweet grass.
He left us with a neat, wide-striped lawn.
I select a Spotify playlist: Barefoot Bliss Out.

This song is called A Cool Wind Is Blowing.
The magazine again: Death cafés and death salons
are one way this generation seeks to connect
and refamiliarise itself with death.
When I was a teen my science teacher said:

After all, what else is there to think about?
Cucumber sandwiches? I quizzed my mother:
You think too much, she said. Recently
I have become determined to be more decisive.
I will not pay more than £80 for a lawnmower.

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