ASYLUM / Caroline Cottom



poems by

Caroline Cottom

ISBN: 978-1-59948-918-6, ~72 pages, $14 (+ shipping)

Release Date: March 30, 2022

The Advance Discount price for this title has expired. For those who prefer to pay by check, the price is $18/book (which includes shipping) and should be sent to: Main Street Rag, PO BOX 690100, Charlotte, NC 28227-7001. 

PLEASE NOTE: Ordering in advance of the release date entitles the buyer to a discount. It does not mean the book will ship before the date posted above and the price only applies to copies ordered through the Main Street Rag Online Bookstore.

Caroline Cottom, Ph.D., was born in Tennessee. She is the granddaughter of sharecroppers; her mother grew up chopping cotton. She is a former faculty member at Vanderbilt University and Watkins School of Art&Design and now teaches writing in community settings and online. Her poetry appears in numerous journals and anthologies. As a nuclear disarmament activist, she led the coalition that helped end nuclear explosions in Nevada, recounted in Love Changes Things, Even in the World of Politics. Caroline and husband Thom, co-authors of The Isle of Is: A Guide to Awakening, have lived in Fiji, Ecuador, and Mexico. See

Asylum evokes a family’s veiled history, shaken into finely etched poems of restraint and elegance. Poetic devises, including short imaginative Obits of the poet’s father, form connective tissue. The book is perfectly arced, the poems linked and speaking to each other. Here is depth: of emotion, family, and landscape. “My ghosts are slender reeds, / my family’s bodies sinewy / from hoeing and picking / —cotton bits caught / on stubbled stalks.” Here is beauty. ~Veronica Golos, author of Girl


In this trenchant and deftly crafted collection, Caroline Cottom plays psychopomp to the shattered denizens of the asylum, only to realize that she has her own repressed narrative of sexual abuse to unravel. One stands to learn much from Cottom’s testimony that manages to marry the narrow path of poetry with a psychologically adept portrait of the survivor. Asylum serves the turn of truth and transcendence equally, and we are lucky to have it. ~Lise Goett, author of Leprosarium


These poems flow like the grounding Mississippi River, which runs through this collection of always beautiful, sometimes painful, poems. The poet travels the depths of family trauma— seeds sowed in the rural South—to the rapids of mental illness, to the sweetness of pie. The lyricism of the words and rhythmic variations flow with the poet’s memories and moods. Moving, with a spark of humor, this book gives hope through the darkness. ~Rebecca Reviere, Ph.D., Sociologist, Howard University

Church at Mooring

Mooring, Tennessee (1924 & 2000)


In the photo
my mother is four, posing
on the Mississippi flood plain—
one-room church in the distance,
muddy river water lashing
its pilings.

Plump cheeks, snow-color
hair, sleeves of her wool coat
longer than her arms,
her head turned as though
a voice in the water calls,
The currents could carry her
to the backwater where my father
will shatter her.

On a drive through West Tennessee
I’ve come upon the church, its steeple
choked with ivy, a rusted
cotton stripper in the yard,
brambles rupturing a broken-down
pickup truck.

Here in Mooring, farm shack
and field where my mother chopped
cotton as a child—
—head turned,
lace-up shoes wet with mud.



Asylum 2

Camarillo, California (1960)


We, students
humming hymns,
visit the women’s ward,
serve pink punch and cookies
from a battered tea cart.

The women
at the barred window.

On a green ripped vinyl couch,
a woman my and not my
stocky staring
tightly pressed hair.

What would my mother
see in me?
What would my mother
have to tell?

Brain surgeries, typhoid
in hanging cages.
Woman chained: bolted door—
was and wasn’t

Cygnet in the rushes,
from crows and foxes.
Nightingales whirring through
me and not me, a prison-er




The Salesman


Lights out in the twin-bed
bedroom, 2:00 a.m., startled

by Mother to get in the car,
we’re going across town

to Aunt Tiny’s. We slip onto
the bench front seat of her

green Chevy, ride through
Houston’s gloom-like streets,

the buildings dreaming.
At a traffic light Daddy’s

champagne Cadillac crosses
in front of us. Mother follows

to the Rainbow Lounge,
the parking lot blue-lit.

He steps out, hair slicked back,
on his arm a platinum blond.

Shaking, Mother sends
Cathy inside in her little bear

pajamas to say, Hi, Daddy.
We wait. The bar door flings

open. Storming out, Cathy
in tow, he kicks the tires,

yells Goddamit, Virginia!
She’s a client! Now I’m

shaking. Mother drives
home, puts us to bed.

I wake to the hall light,
the attic ladder creaking,
Mother clasping a suitcase
as Daddy tries to wrest it

from her hands. Carolyn!
Call the police! The beige

phone on the kitchen
counter, a time bomb ticking.

In the morning Mother
makes bologna sandwiches,

sends us to school where
I cry through music class.

We load the cars, third time
in six months, don’t

speak about that night
until Cathy lies dying.

She asks, Were you awake?


Asylum in the Fields

Northfield, Minnesota (1961)


The hay fields buried
under a carapace of snow

I tramp for miles
to the angular brick building

at the junction of
two unpaved country roads

to sing “O Holy Night,” but
no one peers out

the square windows embedded
in the walls and no one

unbars the wood door. For
whoever lives and dies

in that place, I can do

to bring back the hour
of the last glorious spring or

even winter’s first white
flurry. Voices

rustle in the dry
leaves in my piano,

fall on your knees once more.


SKU: 978-1-59948-918-6 Categories: , Tag: