Sarah Barnsley’s debut collection The Thoughts is a wondrous and vital book that pushes the boundaries of what a poetry book can do and the subject it takes on - in this case, the mind (said to be medical science’s final frontier).
Divided into eight sections, (Ruminations, Compulsions, Avoidances, Magical Thinking, Thought-Action-Fusion, Formulation, Treatment, and epilogue) the book follows a coherent narrative arc, which is somewhat ironic given the chaotic experience of compulsive thinking.
Such thinking goes beyond excessive worrying or extended bouts of rumination. ‘The Next Poem’ shows this starkly: ‘I would have to touch everything in my box room in a specified order … and if I got it wrong I had to start over.’ Then in ‘The Thoughts,’ the poem is set out as a table of text with a list of examples (‘grabbing money from naked strangers in bank’) with a box to measure distress levels. In ‘The Horse,’ the metaphorical equine mind is anxious about choking on an apple: ‘and the more the horse tried / to swat the thought away / the more the apple grew.’
The approach taken by Barnsley perfectly fits the subject at hand. The poems come in many forms, from your expected black-on-white lineation to the downright surreal - as a questionnaire, a puzzle, funding proposal, and PhD Viva that draws on Barnsley’s experience as an academic. This makes the subject of intrusive and uncontrollable thoughts all the more direct by putting them in everyday examples.
The penultimate poem, ‘Examples,’ was, to my mind, the most moving, as it shows how common compulsive thoughts are in society: ‘We are pilots, lorry drivers, lawyers, firefighters, artists, opticians,’ as well as the types of thoughts they have: ‘an office worker who thought he’d blow up the building / if he switched on the lights.’ Exposure and challenging thoughts are two of the main strategies in treating compulsive thinking.
This is a superb collection, smattered with humour, that shows a condition many experience but is rarely talked about - one of the many invisible disabilities, and one which Barnsley bravely makes visible.