A thoughtful and affirmative poetry collection gives fresh insight to the daily reality of being sectioned under the mental health act.
It is a running cliché that creative people must be pigeonholed as suffering from some kind of mental illness; whether it is a symptom or the source of inspiration, the link is often re-enforced to explain away natural talent.
Ultimately, a creative person is an ordinary person who lives through the same day-to-day things we all do (everyone wears socks). Given the popular statistic that 1 in 4 people will suffer from mental ill-health at some point in their lives; and the lesser-known fact that 1 in 10 will live through severe or enduring mental ill-health for a significant portion of their life, if not the whole of it – mental health affects many people to various degrees of association.
What is important about Dan Duggan’s work is that he presents the stark details of this reality in a sincere and compelling way. His writing seems to exist in spite of his illness and recovery, highlighting the relative normality of what can often be a dehumanising situation. Like the best contemporary poetry he says a lot with a little, employs subtle and intuitive use of rhyme; without slavish adherence to traditional forms for their own sake:
But those wonderful days before acute psychiatric/when I starved and sang in tandem[…]It cost, but so does time, stretched/beaten and hounded.
Dan focuses upon what seems to matters in a restricted world that many of us only see at a passing glance. We eavesdrop on challenging conversations, sometimes lone thoughts, others absorbing the effect of other patients, brief interactions that prove to be the hinge between a good or a bad day. Old Horses highlights a brush with normality, and the bracing effect it can have upon time under observation, watched by those who are freer:
And the horses never galloped in front of us/they had pride and sanity, straw and water.
Dan’s artwork is incredible and appears throughout the book. The long-staring figures (visions/others/self-portrait) beg the question of witnessing or simply looking through you, with a silent obligation. To me they resemble tree men or the sense of being eye-to-eye with gnarled horse knees. Anyway, they lend a surreal edge to the text and the determined and focussed pencil strokes betray a human hand, consciously productive through circumstance.
Some of poems are given context by the titles siting them in different wards, so we begin to piece together a chequered medical journey. As much as the little victories might seem short-lived, undermined by relapse, they highlight the resilience of people who have undergone extreme challenges of shoring-up an identity, for good or ill, against a diagnosis:
And the sight of a room of hunger/is a wonder at the self imposed/upon self.
Not In Comparison (from the eating disorders unit)
In Acute in the Rain (on Section Three of the 1983 Mental Health Act) Duggan makes reference to the sense of incarceration that can come from an extended stay in hospital after a compulsory section:
When you come upon sanity/it seems a trifle, to lose that pivot/on logic the way rain hits water
It’s difficult to isolate Dan’s opinion of the British mental health system, as much as a book can be quietly political and intensely personal, Luxury… seems divided, small consolations stand out against a backdrop of forced treatment, often necessary. Duggan states concrete facts, without judgement. This empathetic edge is often turned away from himself to the plight of others, perhaps a mirror against his own situation, but in many respects the poems feel like a voice of shared endurance:
The gravest error is to mistake/the gratitude for being spared/as sanity. That is why we are here/not elsewhere.
The term “acute” pops-up frequently, the central tension of mental health and diagnosis, indeed the extent to which an illness can infect identity – it is a good term for the book overall – the language and observation are hyper-specific, but defiantly human, granting the humdrum and the extreme equal measure in an often dehumanising environment that can harm as much as it tries to help. Luxury of the Dispossessed is neither an expose or an apologia for mental illness and the systems that seek to manage it within society, but it provides a piercing insight into the daily realities of living through it.
Find out more about Dan Duggan and buy the book HERE