Backstory about My Poem, “Ernestine”

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Musings on Writing and Life.

A few people have asked about the origins of my poem, “Ernestine,” appearing in the fourth issue of kerning | a space for words.

In the summer of 2022, I started to read Heather Clark’s acclaimed new biography, Red Comet: The Short and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath. Seven pages into the first chapter entitled “The Beekeeper’s Daughter,” it is revealed that not only is there a multi-generational history of mental illness in Plath’s family but, unknown to her, her paternal grandmother, Ernestine, was committed to the asylum in Salem, Oregon by her husband, Theodore, in October 1916.

Today, the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health in Salem, Oregon occupies the former Salem Asylum for the Insane. Over the years, scores of men and women were confined to its prison-like wards and walls, many for reasons we find shocking and even laughable today. In a perhaps ironic twist of fate, the hospital was one of 1975 filming locations for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest long after the facility was closed and the patients scattered hither and yon.

Back in 2004, more notoriety headed the hospital’s way when urns of then unclaimed cremains of patients from numerous Oregon institutions were discovered in the hospital basement. From the museum’s website: “While touring the Oregon State Hospital a legislator and a team of journalists happen upon a shed-like structure. Inside, they discover thousands of corroding copper canisters that hold the cremated remains of more than 3,500 people who died while living at the state hospital, Oregon State Tuberculosis Hospital, Mid-Columbia Hospital, Dammasch State Hospital, Oregon State Penitentiary, and Fairview Training Center. Following this discovery, the Oregon Legislature passed a law so that information identifying these individuals could be disclosed for the purposes of reunifying them with family members and creating a memorial for those persons whose remains are not claimed.” In 2010, a film, Library of Dust, documented the story of this discovery. The cremains of Ernestine Kottke Plath, Sylvia Plath’s grandmother, were in a canister marked #177 from her death in 1919 until being claimed by a relative after 101 years in 2020.

The Oregon State Hospital Cremains Memorial was built within a relocated and restored 1896 structure known as Building 60—once the hospital pestilence house and morgue—and dedicated in 2014. The hospital basement where these urns were discovered in 2004 is now referred to as the “room of forgotten souls.”

Photos: the memorial (top of post) and (below) the cremains in the memorial and the state hospital.

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