the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night




Serfs of Psychiatry
by Gil Fagiani

Serfs of Psychiatry by Gil Fagiani

Serfs of Psychiatry
by Gil Fagiani

Finishing Line Press, 2012; 27 pages; $12.00
ISBN: 1-59924-968-5, paper

Reviewed by Lynn McGee

Over three decades ago when poet Gil Fagiani asked a colleague about working conditions at Bronx Psychiatric Center, "…he warned me it could be rough," he says. "I had no idea what I was getting into."

In journals over the next 12 years, Fagiani documented his experiences as a mental health therapy aide, and the entries served "as a therapeutic outlet to ventilate my rage, frustration and shame at being a part of such a cruel and dysfunctional system," he says.

The journals also held the seeds of poems that comprise Fagiani's latest collection, Serfs of Psychiatry from Finishing Line Press.

These poems, writes Kirsten Anderson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the School of Visual Arts, "tell the back story of the powerless and abandoned mentally ill, and the equally powerless and abandoned low-level psychiatric 'serfs', the attendants…[who are] paradoxically entrusted with the day-to-day care of severely disturbed, often violent patients."

Of course, none of this would matter, if the poems weren't as skillfully wry and heartbreaking as they are, often resonating with irony, as does the book's opening poem, "The Geometry of Misery":

I went to the asylum today
a place where I worked for a long time
but hadn't visited in ten years.

All the people were the same.
There was the dwarf
with the non-stop laugh
who drank coffee all day
and raced around
who is without legs now
and sits slumped in a wheelchair.

And the math professor
who rattled off logarithms
and shook us down for change
who is mute now
and can't count beyond three.

And the tropical beauty
with the Palmolive skin
who smiled at all the men
and made love for a cigarette
who is toothless now
with a face that jumps with tics.

I went to the asylum today
a place where I worked for a long time
but hadn't visited in ten years.

All the people were the same.

Content-wise, Serfs of Psychiatry is a departure for Fagiani, whose other books include Rooks, Grandpa's Wine (forthcoming in an English/Italian version from Poets Wear Prada), A Blanquito in El Barrio, and Chianti in Connecticut. He is an associate editor, with editor Frank Polizzi, of Feile-Festa: A Literary Arts Magazine, and a member of the online poetry circle, Brevitas, which is dedicated to the short poem—14 lines or less—and through which, he has focused on the six-line poem, or fulcrum.

That economy of language is evident throughout Serfs of Psychiatry. In "Swing Shift," curt, staccato lines convey the miserable urgency of addiction, a subject the speaker has experienced first-hand:

I punch out
jump in my car
make three stops
smoke shop
coke spot
liquor store
rush home
without taking my coat off
blast my radio
mambo to the bathroom

kill the joint
lick the tinfoil
empty the jug
crash on my bed
without taking my coat off

Fagiani's journey as poet and activist began with his involvement in an anti-poverty neighborhood organization in East Harlem, while he was a cadet at Pennsylvania Military College—a conservative academic environment impacted nonetheless with student protest movements of the sixties, which inspired him.

"I experienced a 'calling' to work in the social service field," Fagiani says. "But by 1968, I had lost my moorings and became addicted to heroin."

Residing in Logos, a therapeutic community for drug addicts in the South Bronx, Fagiani recovered from substance abuse and "helped lead a rebellion against the Logos staff," he says. "Later I co-founded White Lightning, a radical group that sought to organize white working-class people in the Bronx."

That awareness of employment issues surfaces in the humanity with which he addresses not just patients, but workers at the hospital, as in "Miss Hunter is Dead":

For 43 years
Miss Hunter worked
for the New York State
Office of Mental Health,
in one asylum or another,
doubled the delirium,
her front teeth lost
to a patient's knuckles in '53,
half a thumb lost
to a seclusion room door in '73,
otherwise back sprains, bites,
scratches, occasional kicks.

Recently, she bought
a royal-blue Cadillac
twice the size of the psychiatrist's Toyota,
and was set to retire
to Noccalulu Falls, Alabama,
where her 96-year-old mother lived.

Miss Hunter's retirement is never realized, as she is discovered inside her apartment, having died of a stroke, and the poem closes with a list of objects she left behind, communicating the depth of her poverty and resiliency:

Inside a travel trunk
was a framed certificate of appreciation
signed by the governor,
a large-print bible,
an electric broiler,
two auburn hair extensions,
a wig cleaning kit,
a chrome cocktail shaker,
two packs of Gypsy Good Time
playing cards,
and a book on how to interpret dreams
for love and money.

During Gil Fagiani's years working at Bronx Psychiatric Center, he also began attending Lehman College, of the City University of New York. He read Don Quixote in the original Spanish, and "for the next half a dozen years," he says, "I threw myself into reading the classics of world literature. I read all of Dostoevsky's work in English, as well as Melville's prose, and read deeply from Russian, French, English, Spanish, and Latin American and American literature."

The wandering education of a poet, fused with years witnessing the hallmark of a society's humanity—how it treats its most vulnerable members—inform Fagiani's work, which "steers clear of left-wing political rhetoric or any type of human services jargon," he says.

Indeed, he even finds a place for humor in Serfs of Psychiatry, albeit the darkest kind. In "Maestro," he remembers a patient who tutored him in Spanish, chastised him when he didn't "speak like Queen Isabel," and who

…looked like an old brown pear
on Popsickle sticks, her high heels
clacking down the hallways.

She said she was from a rich family,
taught literature in Havana
before fleeing Castro's firing squads.

When I told her I was studying Spanish
she said, "Buena, I'll be your teacher,
from now on call me Maestra."

…Maestra had a thing about women
in the family way—she hated them,
and she glowered at Nurse Johnson

when she became pregnant.
Once Nurse Johnson was standing behind
the medication cart dispensing meds

when Maestra charged, tearing
her flower-print maternity dress.
The nurse brained her

with a steel pitcher of Kool Aide
sending her sprawling on the floor.
As I dragged her to the Quiet Room

I whispered "Sin vergünza—shameless"
"No," Maestra said, semi-conscious,
"It's sin ver-qüen-tha."

It would have been easy to sensationalize life at a notorious urban mental facility in the mid-1970s through early 1980s, but instead, Fagiani creates common ground with any reader who has struggled, felt despair, triumphed, or survived.

"…I was very influenced by Black and Latino writers, such as Richard Wright and Piri Thomas, who wrote about their experiences feeling scorned, degraded, and less than human," he says, and in that spirit, finds irony in a system of care set up to measure the immeasurable, as in "Edwin":

A wheelchair rolled on the ward,
Edwin's lower body smashed
from the fall he's taken
out a third-story window
of his mother's housing project.

He had the spent lecher's look
of one of Goya's royals,
his face fat and oily
with a moustache so thin and shiny
it looked like it had been put on
with a grease pencil.

I grew fond of Edwin
after being made to observe him
every fifteen minutes
to assess his will to live…

Since 2005, Gil Fagiani and his wife, the poet Maria Lisella, have curated the monthly reading series of the Italian American Writers Association (IAWA), at Cornelia Street Café in the West Village of Manhattan.

He credits an article by IAWA founder Robert Viscusi, "Breaking the Silence: Strategic Imperatives for Italian American Culture," published in 1990 in Voices in Italian Americana, for impacting his writing with its "bold assertion that Italian America lacked a tradition of self-critical discourse, and needed discursive power through language, narrative and dialectics."

That perspective "went to the heart of my previous ambivalence and estrangement from the Italian American community," he says, and in Serfs of Psychiatry, he embraces Viscusi's concept of "self-critical discourse," shining a light on his own journey from addiction to sobriety, from radicalized student to poet with a social conscience.

"Historically, poets have played an important social role by writing honestly and viscerally about issues that the political establishment would prefer to either ignore or suppress," he says. "That is why the most powerful poetry is sometimes compared to prophecy."

Given the shrinking availability of health care to those who need it most in the United States today, Serfs of Psychiatry can certainly be read as a kind of prophecy, or warning. The guarding of resources is a reality in the collection's final poem, "My Wife Accused Me of Having Another Woman," in which the speaker climbs a tree in his hometown, and in the end,

I balanced myself on the trunk
scooted up
fifteen feet off the ground
when a squirrel came charging down
squaring off with me
looking like it was about to leap at my throat.

Standing still
I heard the young
stirring in the branches above
and slowly backed down.

While the meek have perhaps inherited the tree, the powerful can always return with chain saws—and this is exactly the kind of wary musing Serfs of Psychiatry inspires, while hope lies in the inalienable details of each person's life, that the poems reveal.

Lynn McGee's poems are forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Tilt-a-Whirl, and Blue Stem. Two of her poems were just published in Big City Lit, and two recently appeared in The New Guard; one a finalist and one a semi-finalist in that magazine's contest judged by former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall. Other poems of hers have appeared in the Ontario Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Sun magazine, Phoebe, Pittsburgh Quarterly, The Southern Anthology, Laurel Review and other journals. Her poetry chapbook, Bonanza, won the Slapering Hol national manuscript contest; she also received a MacDowell fellowship, and earned an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University.