Voices echo throughout this brilliant collection of poems, not only the voices of the schizophrenic, the bipolar, the possessed and the dispossessed but also the many voices of the poet which are often locked in contradiction and conflict. Contradictions that make one-time psychiatric nurse Sam Smith’s honest and humane observations, at times, almost too painful to read.
Poems such as ‘Heat’ which starkly and coldly paints a vivid description of a patient scalding himself to death and the futile efforts of staff to rescue him, or ‘Case Study’ in which a patient is so reduced by his confused mental state that he resorts to ‘auto cannibalism’. A series of poems labelled simply ‘Case Studies’ lay before the reader, usually without comment, the unromantic reality of Smith’s chosen profession. But comment when it does come is often scathing and direct as in ‘Case Study 2’ which suggests that perhaps our whole practice of too readily diagnosing mental illness or of not accepting simple truths can result in the harrowing and lonely death by suicide of a fellow human being.
No sector of Society escapes his observation and ‘We All Swim In The One Sea’ questions whether, due to their necessity to rely on their living as a result of their own diagnoses; ‘doctors/ and nurses become accomplices to/ insanity’. Smith questions also the very nature of illness itself as in ‘What Is Social What Mental Illness?’ A poem in which Smith defines clearly and precisely an instance of a patient who ‘uses’ his illness to ‘cure’ his social inadequacy. It is a stark insight. It is a detached comment. But underlying the observational reporting is the suggestion that either way; mental or social, the illness needs treating at some level. ‘Dialogue 30’ warns us that ‘psychiatry is an ongoing experiment’ and further; the diagnosis of mental illness is ‘dependant entirely on semantics.’ The poem; ‘A Type A Category’ attacks the education system while ‘Museum Piece’ looks at the cold reality of domestic violence but probes deeper into the roles that Society places upon men and women. ‘Dialogue 19’ warns us not to be too judgmental, that ‘On alternate days/ everyone can be/ Herr Eichmann/ and Mother Theresa’. Such truths pervade.
But traces of the poet’s black humour linger also as in ‘Incident 1’ wherein a patient has a compulsion to hurl food at others... although even incidents like this leave you with the recognition that in the world of mental health care if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.
While apparently critical of the whole mental-health profession and never hoodwinked into accepting things at their face value Smith finds time to observe old people sitting perfectly still ‘like lizards’ for hours on end and opines; ‘Time is a riddle/ through which life dribbles’ and in that phrase we sense also the poet’s compassion. For although Smith sees himself as merely observational and at times sceptical he can’t stifle the humanity which makes his poetry truly great. Nowhere is this more apparent than in ‘Justice Is Elsewhere’, a poem about an alleged wife batterer and child abuser who is himself distraught with anxiety. Both the title of the poem and the Nurse’s reaction to the man’s distress reveal, perhaps more than any other poem, an insight into the man behind this powerful and yet accessible poetry: ‘...confronted/ with such distress, a hand/ of its own accord, putting aside/ the mind's knowledge, reaches out/ to grip/ and rock/ a shoulder.’
Perhaps Sam Smith’s ultimate conclusion is that mental illness is what we as human beings inflict on other people. As if to draw attention to who these ‘other people’ might be, the final poem, ‘Point of no Return’, reminds us starkly that the road to being labelled mentally ill can be one trodden by any of us, but even more chillingly that it may well be that a relatively minor event can lead to Society taking the decision to ‘throw away the key’.
Don’t throw away the key that Smith offers you in this brilliant and humbling collection, for he offers you a key to an insight that few can offer us. If Shlovsky would have it that the work of the artist is to make the stone stonier then Smith asks you to consider the possibility that to label people as insane is perhaps the most insane thing that Society ever does. Few books, anthologies, poems leave you with the feeling that you have gained a privileged insight, Problems & Polemics however is one of those rare poetry collections. I urge you to read it. You’ll close the final page a better person for having done so.