Tina Parker is the author of three books of poetry. The poetry collection Mother May I and the poetry chapbook Another Offering were published in 2016. Her newest collection, Lock Her Up, was published in 2021 by Accents Publishing and was a finalist for the 2022 Virginia Literary Awards. Tina’s work has received support from the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and she is a juried member of the Women of Appalachia Project. Individual poems have been published in Appalachian Heritage, Still: The Journal, Pen + Brush, Rattle, and Literary Mama. She grew up in Bristol, Virginia, and now lives in Berea, Kentucky.
Demonstrating the creative value of archival records, Parker’s poems depict the plight of 19th– and 20th-century women found in the patient records of the Southwestern “Lunatic” Asylum, officially known as Southwestern State Hospital, located in Marion, Virginia. These records, housed at the Library of Virginia, include commitment requests, medical reports, and appeals for release. From grief over loss of husbands and children, to untidy appearances, to chewing tobacco and complaining, these accounts of very real individuals prompted Parker to give voice to the women past who were not allowed to make decisions about their own bodies and mental health. In this thought-provoking collection, Parker brings to life three characters and highlights their stories through poems and research. We grow in care and concern about Mattie M. Roberts, Rachael Wells, and Emma Darby, and are able to relate to their struggles and circumstances.
To hear more from Parker, watch this panel session from the 25th Virginia Literary Awards, the Mary Lynn Kotz Arts in Literature Award. You can find Tina Parker via her website www.tina-parker.org, or on Facebook and Instagram.
Featured here, the poem “Hair” imagines a response to the loss of an infant, the results of institutionalization, and the real desire to be seen and heard and remembered. It centers on patient Rachael Wells, 19 years old, who was presented to the asylum asking for her baby. Reported filthy, vermin-ridden, and with a swollen jaw, Rachael’s head is shorn and she is bathed. Parker leaves it to our imagination to fill in the gaps—a grief-stricken young mother, possibly abused by her spouse, left to find some way to make sense of her circumstances, to be useful – crocheting a blanket with the only material she has on hand.
Once sun touched
From the tops of trees
Now it comes out
I crochet into baby blankets
At night I gather strands
In the corner
See I am here
Please tell them
I was here.
Heartbreaking as these poems and their supporting documents are, Lock Her Up brings us face to face with the realities of mental health treatments and beliefs barely 100 years ago. Poetry is possibly the only art form that could capture such anguish.