Asylum, Sean Borodale: A Review

Before beginning the collection, I was struck by the title. I knew that it was written while Borodale explored the Somerset caving systems, but I wondered what the connection with Asylum could be – is Borodale making the suggestion that we are safer underground?

The sheer number of questions in the opening poem ‘Rehearsal at St Cuthbert’s Swallet’ reflects the ponderous exploratory nature of a lot of the poems and is an interesting choice for the opening. On first reading, it feels like this poem is in itself some sort of rehearsal for the journey we are about to embark on, particularly when the idea of self-reflection and examination is so prominent with lines such as “Why do I feel more invisible?”

When we think of underground, we think of darkness, which is where perhaps this idea of safety comes from – we can disappear in the dark. The notion of seeking asylum underground is explored later in the collection in ‘Limestone Quarry Blasting Siren Under Frail Sunlight’ where air raid shelters are introduced into the collection with devastating precise imagery:

“Eclipsing near to song, air minced to death.”

This idea of the air raid siren is further extrapolated in ‘Cold War Bunker, Harptree (Decommissioned)’ and there are many references to sound and voices in the collection, with the suggestion that this dark, dank, quiet space underground is a haven for silence.

Many of the poems make mention to voices, which is unsurprising as sound is probably one of the most alien things underground due to distortion and echoes etc. However, Borodale focuses more on what happens when the voice imposes itself into this silent world and many mentions are made of “dry throat” suggesting that we are silenced underground – whether by fear or the realisation that one comes face-to-face with the layers and scope of time when we see it clearly delineated in the earth.

One of the most persistent explorations of sound comes in ‘Aveline’s Hole’, where the technique of repeating the stanza creates an echoing effect, which is particularly effective as the stanza meshes the voice, the earth and the physical sensations of the speaker with clinical precision:

“The red paste earth

almost acoustic,

pressing the voice

back into the blackness of the throat.”

This repetition of stanzas occurs in a number of other poems, like ‘Shatter Cave’. The overall effect is to force us to pause, breathe and recalibrate – almost like we’re journeying through the earth as well and readjusting our bearings on unfamiliar territory. There’s also a sense of obsessive thoughts, which is some ways is also redolent of being trapped underground with one’s mind and allowing it full reign. However, Borodale makes reference to classical works at points, which means these repeated poems exist almost as a chorus between acts, tying into the opening stanza of ‘Monologue in Deep Threshold, Cockle’s Fissure’

“What is obvious in the dark:

the tragedy, from tragedian, the song, the story.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a collection examining the ‘underworld’ there are lots of references to skeletal remains – this is a dark collection, where human and earth come together in death. However, there is no sense of voyeurism – images such as “Curved porcelain-cup pieces of brain-mantle’ may be gory and grotesque, but they are also loaded with pathos and the clinical precision previously mentioned.

It is this precision that adds much of the beauty to the poems. ‘Rehearsal at Waterwheel Swallet’ is filled with beautiful images and moves fluidly from one to the other, ponderous but also weighted by the physical: “a black lake twenty feet deep, / its scab of gleam in the mist.”

There’s a weight in most of these poems. Time moves slowly underground, such as in “Picking through the Ruins of Fussell Ironworks Along the Lower Mells Stream’

“Moss drips;

the foot moves over stale mud.”

Here we get a sense of the layers of experience and the different layers from different times – Borodale makes reference to the layers many times in the collection. The first stanza in ‘Fossilised Fern Compression’ links layers of earth and time

“It is precisely cut like the insides of a watch

which counts nothing, serves nothing, wastes nothing.”

However, this is not a just a collection of imaginings of a cave. Many of the poems are experiential, such as ‘Measuring the Effect of Darkness on the Voice for 30 minutes, Goatchurch Cavern.’ When Borodale states “I exist in the colour of grey.” rather than simply “grey” he’s drawing attention to the fact that nothing below is as it seems when above. It is this perception of ‘other’ which drives a lot of the poetry and makes it more than a geological study. It’s also in lines such as

“the lift cage drops

to a buried childhood.”, the final lines of ‘Voice of Rex Ladd, Mining Surveyor (As the Hologram to All Voices, all Oral Histories in the Drakness of Coal Mines) that the power of the poetry lies. ‘Recorded at the House his Father, Coal Hauler, Built’ is another humanistic poem that deals with fear, just as in Cold War Bunker and it is the giving voice to these stories that drives the collection. But Borodale also gives voice to the earth.

‘Descent into St Cuthbert’s Swallet is remarkable’, formatted like a pillar of poetry rising or falling from the depths of the earth. Its short lines mimic a shortness of breath and capture fear and sense of trepidation when underground. Filled with references to the classical, it really ties the ideas of humanity and the underground/underworld together, acting in some ways as a denouement to the last act of the play. It ends “when the light / goes out” which is perhaps another nod to the stage.

But as with so many dramas, this collection doesn’t end in expected place. The final poem ‘Soil and subsoil’ open with a question, bringing us full-circle, forcing us to draw our conclusions.

“What did I dig for, which are not the dreams I will get?”


Published by nicolaheaney

I'm a poet based in Bristol via Derry, St Andrews and Madrid. When I'm not writing or performing my own poetry, I'm reading or trotting about with my camera. There is sometimes drink taken.

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Wood Bee Poet

Poems, thoughts...etc.

The Pledge

Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon

Nicola Heaney

Writer & Poet


'She would say to discover / the true depth of a well, / drop a stone, / start counting.' - Andrew Greig

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