A few years ago I went to visit Thalia at her university. In the course of my stay, she told me stories of the local defunct insane asylum. Or, as it used to be called, the sanitarium.
This Sanitarium was known for its fairly humane treatment of patients. And also for its self-sufficiency, until the government took over and they quite suddenly had no money and had to shut down.
This place features intriguing architecture. From afar, it appear blandly symmetrical. But up close, it is anything but. The window casings are different for each floor. The two turrets of the main office are similar, but not alike.
It is terrifying.
And then there is the graveyard.
The insane were buried on the property, unless their family could afford to bury them elsewhere. There is the hill of the first cemetery, with rows of little, numbered rocks marking each grave. Most of the numbers are worn off, but careful records still identify each person. Except for in one upper corner of the field, where the stones have not only had the numbers worn off, but they are set in a circle.
The entire place is eerie.
Not necessarily with ghosts, but with the weight of confronting humanity, and all that humanity means. Which is what encounters with insanity does: forces upon us the ideas of what it means to be human.
Last night a lecturer read Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” aloud, and the imagery brought the Cemetery of the Ridges suddenly to my mind.
And I had to write about it.
I just started scribbling sentences, in between taking notes. Not all of it made sense as I went, I wanted to get the idea-pictures down.
I had known – I think – that this graveyard did not start at the number one. (The first cemetery is missing.) I thought it began somewhere in the hundreds. But “hundred” does not fit well into the flow of a line.
So I made up a number.
The first one that came into my mind.
It sounds good and has the right syllables.
When I got home, I looked up the cemetery, to see if this numbering thing was a myth.
It is real. The first graves are lost to time and legend.
This graveyard starts at the number sixty-four. Exactly.
The poem above is, with a few minor word changes, exactly what I wrote during class.
I revised it slightly on my return home, trying to make spookiness even more present.
In the Graveyard at The Ridges Insane Asylum
They do not start at one. That one has been lost.
So now they begin in the center of their count:
Sixty-four, sixty-five, sixty-six, white stones on a hill.
Row on row from the crest slope down
To the river, wending, whispering,
With tall, stark pines on one side
And short, flat markers on the other.
We were taught not to step where they lie,
The buried ones, just as if there were not
Six feet of sod between us. But some markers
Stand in a perfect circle, and we are unsure
Which way the insane lay, facing outwards or in.
So we stop, one body length from the edge,
And wondering, gape at the sacred ring of Dead.