In his poem cycle, The Learning Curve, John Foulcher details the events and characters that may be encountered during a year in a Catholic high school.
The prose poem ‘Why Alan Won’t Come to School’ explores a school refuser who is struggling with their mental health. The poem is told through a third-person perspective, presumably it is the voice of one of the teachers, as it begins:
alan can’t come to school anymore won’t come we’d say but
he says can’t or his mum says… (Foulcher 2002, p15).
The tension between the different characters’ stance on school refusal is immediately apparent. This poem is relatable and authentic in its representation of school refusal, mental health and the inadequacy of schools to support some children. I understand the “we” in the poem to be the teachers, who lack the resources or knowledge to either understand or assist Alan and his family at this moment. The honest representation of the lack of understanding of mental illness and of how to support a student with mental illness may not result in the kind of high expectations that Jen Scott Curwood would like to see in YA literature, however, it is a move away from exploring “didactic, condescending, or pedantic” themes (2013, p17).
Curwood has written about the need for more realistic and positive portrayals of disability in young adult (YA) literature (2013). She states that the majority of books that include characters with disabilities are about mental illness, as is the case with this poem by Foulcher (Curwood 2013). Positive portrayals of disabilities move away from exploring “didactic, condescending, or pedantic” themes and instead “…envision high expectations for the character with disabilities, include positive contributions to society, build on strengths, show the person acting on choices, depict expanding reciprocal relationships with others, and ensure that the character with disabilities is afforded the same citizenship rights as others” (Curwood 2013, p17). Curwood sites a study by Koss and Teale, stating that “…there has been a shift away from coming-of-age stories to a focus on themes of fitting in, finding oneself, and dealing with crisis” (2013, p18). ‘Why Alan Won’t Come to School’ is a poem about “dealing with crisis”. It should be noted that Foulcher’s poem cycle is not YA literature. However, it is still interesting to think about the implications of the representation of mental illness in this poem.
The structure of the prose poem conveys the teacher’s feeling of inadequacy. The speaker/teacher relays a conversation they’ve had with Alan’s mother:
…she says there’s darkness in
school people there wade in it when they speak to alan
there’s lies there’s rumours in the words the faces and bells
and blackboards are like tar and he can’t move his feet are
set in it if he doesn’t run it’ll stiffen it’ll set it really will so
he stays at home… (Foulcher 2002, p15).
Alan’s name is written with a lowercase ‘a’ to highlight the disempowerment of this student as he struggles with his mental health and the inadequacy of the school to meet his needs. There is no punctuation or line breaks, which means that each sentence bleeds into the next. In reference to his series of prose poems, Gallery of Antique Art, Paul Hetherington believes that the structure of the prose poem, with the line filling the whole page enables him to construct “contained and restrictive ‘rooms’ that enable significant effects of poetic imagery and condensation”, as well as create “‘open’ spaces that enable significant effects of poetic indeterminacy and a ramifying suggestiveness” (Symes, D 2018). Foulcher’s prose poem has the effect of being both restrictive and open. There is a suffocating, panicked feel to the beginning and end of the poem where repetition is used to quicken the pace, for example, the poem ends:
…and he won’t come he can’t come he can’t come back
anymore (Foulcher 2002, p15).
This quicker pace reflects both the teacher’s voice as they panic at their inability to support Alan, and Alan’s anxiety at the thought of returning to school. The suffocating mood in the beginning and ending is further reflected in the boxed-in layout of the prose poem. The middle of the poem is more open in its description of Alan at home, in a space where he feels more comfortable and safer:
…he stays at home in the light spread on the carpet like the
gap in a forest the place you come to with strangeness and
silence to find some animal titled to the earth and the click
of its teeth echoing over the still grass and home is this
moment… (Foulcher 2002, p15).
The simile of Alan’s anxiety being compared with an animal reflects the teacher’s lack of knowledge about mental illness and their fear that once you name the illness it will hold greater power and become more dangerous. This sense of danger is conveyed through the “click of its teeth” that can be heard “…before that animal springs and slips into the word / we use for it…” (Foulcher 2002, p15). However, even though home has its own dangers with “…the tongue of their darkness licking / his ear…”, Alan still feels safer in the familiar space as “he wanders the dull house tracing the / facts of each room the kitchen the bathroom the sticky / smell of his family…” (Foulcher 2002, p15). The openness in the middle of the poem is achieved through the run-on lines and lack of punctuation that melds the imagery of familiarity, while still conveying the teacher’s fear of / concern for the danger that Alan may be in due to his poor mental health.
Hadara Bar-Nadav says of the prose poem, “…I also enjoy the caginess of the prose poem, that inherent tension in the mission of its line to continue on forever (despite the margin) and to be turned (because of the margin)” (2011, p45). Bar-Nadav compares two versions of her poem, ‘I Would Have Starved a Gnat’, where the lineation was altered by the width of the page margins (2011). This effect of the lines appearing to continue forever reflects the teacher’s feeling of being overwhelmed, whilst the effect of the lines being turned and of the boxed-in aesthetics of the prose poem captures a trapped feeling. This trapped feeling reflects both Alan’s struggle with his mental health and the inability of the school to support him and his family – the teacher is trapped by the confines of a bureaucratic structure.
The lineation of “anymore” on a line of its own at the end of the poem conveys the unease in the teacher’s voice, as does the quickened pace mentioned earlier. The format of the poem cycle means that this is the only poem we get about Alan in The Learning Curve. Unfortunately, we are seeing Alan at a time when high expectations don’t seem to be possible for him.
Bar-Nadav H 2011, ‘Who Is Flying This Plane? The Prose Poem and the Life of the Line’, Rosko, Emily, and Zee, Anton Vander (eds), A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, pp44-47.
Curwood, J S 2013, ‘Redefining Normal: A Critical Analysis of (Dis)ability in Young Adult Literature’, Children’s Literature in Education, vol.44, pp15-28.
Foulcher, J 2002, ‘Why Alan Won’t Come to School’, in The Learning Curve, Brandl & Schlesinger Pty Ltd, Blackheath, New South Wales, p15.
Symes, D 2018, ‘A ‘Meandering’ Line’, Axon: Creative Explorations, Vol 8, No 1, May 2018, viewed 4/8/2018, <http://www.axonjournal.com.au/issue-14/%E2%80%98meandering%E2%80%99-line>.