The Overload

The Central Ohio Psychiatric Hospital, intact.
(Originally published April 1, 2018)
A terrible signal
Too weak to even recognize
A gentle collapsing
The removal of the insides
I’m touched by your pleas
I value these moments
We’re older than we realize
…in someone’s eyes
A frequent returning
And leaving unnoticed
A condition of mercy
A change in the weather
A view to remember
The center is missing
They question how the future lies
…in someone’s eyes
The gentle collapsing
Of every surface
We travel on the quiet road
…the overload*
She stands at the foot of a hill, looking up at the hulk of a building; its north wing amputated, its flight long ago ended. Beside her is her heart, the man she loves, the man she wishes to be, because although she can marshal words, and bring together proof, and cite sources, and can even teach him to do these things, he can make music. She has retreated to things she is better at, but still closes her eyes and lives through music, becomes one with it. He is music, her heart. But she is realizing that music can be an evocation of a place, and each has its own score, its own notes. Dilapidation and decay is its own music. She knows this, remembers the third floor in her father’s office building, before it was restored, the peeling wallpaper revealing the past. Who lived there? What were the stories contained in those crumbling walls? What had been cut away? Who would tell its story?
This place, then, long abandoned. She had seen it from the highway, shining on its hill, and thought it some school or college, a place of learning, of light. It was not. It was a place of darkness, a relic of days when the insane were locked away from society. There was an article in the magazine section of the local newspaper, showing photos of ruin, crumbling walls, rusting bedsteads, abandoned files spilling over the floors, the stories of lives forgotten, and she had realized the nature of the building she had passed by unknowing her whole life. Now, she stands at the foot of the hill, looking up. This is as close as she dares come—sneaking in through a tear in the fence to explore its innards was something that does not occur to her, not just because she follows rules (she does) but also because even in its wrecked beauty there is a kind of malevolence to this place, with its truncated north wing and boarded windows. She takes a few photos. The music on the cassette playing in the car is “The Overload” by the Talking Heads, the last piece in the album “Remain in Light”. There is no light here, even if the darkness itself is really only a shadow. This place is dying itself. It will disappear utterly within a few years, erased from its hill.
She writes a poem about it. She really doesn’t write poetry, but there needed to be the music of her own words. She does not share—not with the man who is her heart but will not be for much longer, not with any other, as is her way. It lies dormant within the files of her computer, one of the earliest files she has, untouched for many years, sleeping in darkness. She forgets about it.
She moves away. The place vanishes. She moves back, and returns to the hill, and another building has replaced it, where she exchanges license plates, Ontario for Ohio, and walks to her car, walking in a parking lot where the south wing once stood, the one she stood and looked up at. The place is still there, in her memory. She is thinking about ruins, and about this place, and how she once ached to know its story, the rhythms of life, its dark music. She pulls out the photos, taken a decade before, looks, and puts them away.
Two more decades pass. The building passes out of memory, as evinced online. A search pulls up a few grainy photos, a single story from a woman whose father once worked there, a website devoted to other such asylums built along the same plan. Barely anything remains of its life or of its death. It is less than a ghost. It is consciously forgotten.
She does not forget. The poem, no longer dormant, blooms.
for a derelict asylum
formsfurtivefleeforth beforeandformerFEAR
                  voices echoSPEAKechoecho
                shrinks enter stagnant innards
           chainedpast patientinmates
                    BATS inthe double belfry
             partmiss ng GONE gone
ye truncated NORTHlimb in chapel
              bacchanticserenity VOID
                       (gloria in abjectis deo)
in cellar churning grueltracks ROT
                         (reel rotting rafters)
        barredglass crash LAUDAMUS TE
                       ego DECAYnon
                                                            EXEUNT OMNES.
The Central Ohio Psychiatric Hospital was, by the late 80s, in its death throes. Previously known as the Columbus State Hospital for the Insane, it was built in 1877 using the “Kirkbride Plan.” Kirkbride’s theories were that a place of peace and quiet, surrounded by gardens, would help those with mental illnesses to recover; unfortunately, his relatively progressive ideas were generally abandoned by the turn of the century. This building took seven years to build, cost over $1.5 million dollars, and was allegedly one of the largest buildings under one roof in the United States upon its completion.
The structure, particularly its central administrative building (where apparently many of the doctors once had apartments), was quite beautiful in its Victorian way. I had indeed seen it from I-70 as it rounded a bend across Broad St. It was right at the top of the hill that gave the “Hilltop” neighbourhood of Columbus its name. It reminded me a lot of its close contemporary University Hall at Ohio State. These days, old asylums and psychiatric hospitals are being saved and turned into boutique hotels and the like. There was no appetite for this in the early 90s. Despite a few desultory efforts to save the building, it was completely razed.
This was the first urban ruin I knew as brick and mortar (rather than in photographs) and cared about.
The poem has not seen the light of day since 1989.
*Song credits to Talking Heads and Brian Eno.