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The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis

by Mike Barnes

Though “oblivion, and states approaching it” may, as Mike Barnes writes in the first of four lengthy essays that make up The Lily Pond, “slide away most determinedly from the very conscious act of writing,” they can be apprehended by those diligent (or obsessive) enough to attempt to capture them. Barnes’s own protracted state of near-oblivion – some 30 years of fighting bipolar affective disorder, originally misdiagnosed as schizophrenia – is the subject of this, his seventh book.
    Barnes, a novelist and short story writer as well as a poet, is adept at moving between the purely narrative – the what and how of his own mental decline (which includes, among other low points, a particularly gruesome suicide attempt) – and the intense imagery of his prose, which is both poetically compelling and evocative of the physical world. The neuroleptic drug Mellaril, for instance, makes his arms swell up into “clubs. Bland bats: long, smooth, round, heavy.” Pulling his jeans over swollen thighs means “pushing as if at cart wheels stuck in mud.”
    Famous artworks provide another means for Barnes to express the workings of his mind. A deeply depressive state is a Turner painting “with walls of solid-seeming whitish or grayish vapor shifting sluggishly, and only the vaguest hint here and there … of what might be a bridge, boat, sun.” The “implacable” hunters of Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow embody the author’s own figurative trek. Likewise, the numerous underworld narratives of Greek myth inform Barnes’s struggle against oblivion – they are a powerful current that runs, like the river Styx, throughout this memoir.
    Given Barnes’s “general amnesia” – likely the cumulative effect of electroconvulsive therapy, years of debilitating drug courses, and mental illness – The Lily Pond is the ultimate act of recollection. Barnes has imposed continuity on the fragments of his life, and done so in a way that is neither over-determined nor self-satisfied. Perhaps his greatest feat of perception is in recognizing that his struggle is ongoing: he has not been plucked from the underworld river; he has simply discovered – by torturous process of trial and error – how to tread water.