Other Side of the Sky
David Ross Linklater
Who was one form of reality wandering the garden,
a vast absentee
living at the bottom of a well in search of the truth.
Finding strange things there — inheritances of the blood,
the wars in it, each heavy flight of the butterfly.
Who cured the sick but could not turn the tools inward,
lacking application among the lilies of society.
Who was a silhouette in practice
hungering for heaven but inhabiting hells,
and studied under the lamp, that purgatory,
the intimacies of the body and soul
perfect in their inclusion of each other
or who did not fit there at all.
Who was an answer to a question in its infancy:
infinite mathematics, galaxies, subatomica,
the mind weighted with what must be the palace
burning. Who saw God in the boat,
The Moonrise, same as the ancients
and the trees and rivers held her too.
Whose arms were tracked with holes
where light struggled among the shadow of the slide machine,
the divinities leaking out, tapping their feet,
To be naked in this way is to be redesigned,
signed in, archived,
transparent in the sun’s depressions.
Who at times was wonderfully sensible
describing the road leading there, its peaks and downs,
talking quite freely about the versions of the self.
It was just that the day lacked direction,
there were too many possibilities,
it was multiple and relentless.
Who disappeared completely in the rocking chair
and though the brush was seldom at the canvas,
those far-off pastel landscapes
where the soul unfastened
and the world was covered in blasts of being.
Who simply did not feel the position,
the shackles of the bright peacock feathers
that caught the anxious light.
Let there be more of it, then,
on the other side of the sky,
let your deadness walk you to the island of truth,
your hands to touch the fine pebbles stripped from mountains.
May you meet your beloveds in the atoms
where the sheer force of your will
will anchor to what it couldn’t
in the shade of that other world.
Alexander Peacock was 32 when he was admitted to Gartnavel Hospital on March 27th, 1895. He was a physician from Gourock, studied at Glasgow University and was for two years Assistant Medical Officer at Smithston Asylum. He was a year older than I am now.
The extract I responded to was three pages of entries concerning his condition and movements of that year — five months from March to August. I was drawn to Alexander’s transcript over the others suggested for two simple reasons: it’s intriguing and felt personal enough to explore. Here was a man who spent his life trying to help others but who could not show the same care for himself; a very human trait and all too common. Self-care is often not a priority.
He was admitted to Gartnavel due to being addicted to cocaine and morphine. Entries in the journal state that he suffered from continual incoherency and delusions, telling the nurses he had been to heaven and hell, and that he had been down a well in search of the truth. Whether he meant these statements literally or figuratively is beside the point — they are where he went in one way or another. These images, particularly that of the well, were enough to spark the poem.
We’ve all experienced some form of psychological distress in our lives, whether fleeting or prolonged. My family has had plenty of it and I’ve seen it time and time again with friends, so this project felt close to home from the beginning. I’ve struggled with my mental health at various points in my life too. For these reasons I wanted the poem to explore the human vulnerability of Alexander and in turn, I suppose, all of us. Of course, the poem was to be sensitive of the man and treat him with respect, whilst also exploring his condition and the condition of society at large, particularly in those days with regards to mental health. Knowledge on the subject was still in its infancy in the 1800s and early 1900s and, though we know more than we ever have done, we’re a long way off understanding the intricacies of the mind and what can be done to most effectively treat various conditions. For the most part, though, the language in the archive treats him with dignity, something you don’t always expect when considering the ‘old days’ approach to dealing with mental health.
Alexander would joke about being a ‘lunatic’, the nurse writing that he did not ‘feel his position’ at the hospital. He may not have considered himself to be in that company or to have any reason to be there. We could put this down to denial or that he was hesitant to take that next step in seeking help. It must have been frightening. There’s a taboo surrounding mental health even today so it must have been tenfold back then, especially when coupled with addiction. However, from the extract we can see that on occasion he was honest to himself and to those who attended him about his condition, the nurse saying he was ‘at times wonderfully sensible.’
The extract (to me at least) was difficult to read as in places the handwriting was rough. This served as inspiration, lending itself well to the case of Alexander — a lot was unreachable and would never be known, belonging somewhere back there in history. The anonymity of the writer of the journal and their handwriting’s unintentional redaction formed the vehicle for the poem, the ‘Who’ in each stanza, and the tone of the poem itself; a searching one, both for the man and for some form of salvation in a personal and wider sense.
I wanted the poem to say this: here was a soul who suffered, but who lived and walked the garden and gazed upon the same moon as I do, same as his mother and father did, same as their mother and their father did, and so on all the way back to the ancients. 1895 isn’t that long ago in the grand scheme. A flicker. We could have been friends. So this poem is, in my own small way, a tribute or celebration of sorts, a handshake, a strange hello from afar.
Alexander left for Ireland on pass from Gartnavel on July 28th, returning for one night on August 5th. He left the next day and was never seen again at the hospital. His movements after this date are unknown.
[Patient record for Alexander Peacock, HB13/5/124]
David Ross Linklater is a poet from Balintore, Easter Ross. He is the author of four pamphlets, most recently Star Muck Bourach (Wish Fulfillment Press, 2022). His work has appeared in The Dark Horse, bath magg, New Writing Scotland and Gutter. He won the 10th Ó Bhéal International Poetry Competition, was awarded joint first place in the 2022 Neil Gunn Poetry Competition, is the recipient of a Dewar Arts Award and has been shortlisted for both the New Writers Award and the Edwin Morgan Award. He lives and writes in Glasgow, where he works as a screen printer. @DavidRossLinkla / www.davidlinklaterpoetry.com