The Thin Bridge by Andy Jackson. Whitmore Press, Geelong, 2014
Worthwhile poets are people who have found their own voice in the language of everyone else. Their use of words is distinctive, a distinction backed up by an original and poignant contact with the world. The originality of this voice does not have to be startling, or startlingly bizarre. It can be subtle, simple, nearly inconspicuous. Such is the case with Andy Jackson. There are significant quirks in the way he writes, but they don’t jump out from the page at you. They are the result of discoveries he has made in his long-term immersion in the processes of poetry and so have become second nature to his style, perfectly integrated into how he works.
For me, there are two fascinating poetic idiosyncrasies in The Thin Bridge. The first involves the use of questions. Jackson could be described as a poet who has asked himself What is a question and what can it do for a poem? A second intruiging device is his particular brand of ambiguity. This ambiguity is not the eye-catching kind achieved through a strenuous agitation of language (such as Brady Collar’s “even to constellations of cells / those curates of the inner world / fed by the long lit pipes of my veins” or Dael Allison’s “the crack of carapace underfoot the sole imperative”). More often than not, it involves the realization that everyday phrases can take on unsuspected significance when framed by a novel context. Both of these features add to our understanding of the resources of poetry; in the case of Andy Jackson, they also intersect with his interest in physical embodiment and the mystery of human corporeal nature.
By nature, questions make a direct appeal to the reader, a quality that gives them more urgency than statements. With statements, the reader has the leisure and the autonomy to judge their value without immediate pressure to engage; questions dramatically shorten this distance by addressing readers and demanding a response.
Throughout The Thin Bridge, Jackson finds other poetically significant ways to make use of questions. For example, “A Deer” opens with the question How to be lifted up from here? This use is basically reflexive: the speaker here is asking himself for a response which is then worked out (but not necessarily answered) in the rest of the poem. It is a kind of thinking aloud which kicks off with a general query. In “Two Portraits, No Black Rectangle”, questions function as a chorus, commenting after the event on the actions of the unsympathetic medical practitioner who plays a central role in the poem: “Can you move your boxers down just a little? / What does it matter what I felt? / Lift your chin up. That’s it. Just one more. / There were plenty more / but who’d prefer / the truth to relief?” Here, the questions also introduce a tinge of helplessness and bitterness. Jackson’s overall sensitivity to this kind of utterance is also displayed in the poem “A Language I Didn’t Know I Spoke”. After a moving encounter with a bird, Jackson describes the speaker’s return to mundane reality in the following terms: “As I leave, a group of hikers arrive, drawn / to the view, busily talking of other subjects. / I reply to their rhetorical greeting / without thinking . . .” He knows that their question implies no genuine interest in his well-being.
‘A Closed Window’ is a good extended example of Jackson’s use of questions:
You wake to a doctor, sitting where your leg would be.
How brave, they say, as if a body is to be endured.
Through a closed window — a wind-tossed tree.
You wanted to be normal, not to be reassured.
What is lost? An empty room soon fills with echoes.
How brave, they say, as if a body is to be endured,
you keep score, sitting in the stands. Who knows
what a nine-child home swallows with its noise?
What is lost? An empty room soon fills with echoes —
two girls, one lost at birth, and six growing boys.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be sung.
What a nine-child home swallows with its noise
is no more bitter than the taste of your own tongue.
Is a wood and plastic limb a tender, living thing?
There’s nothing to be ashamed, nothing to be sung.
They come at night — mask, needle, saw — calling . . .
You wake to no doctor. Sitting where your leg would be
is a wood and plastic limb. A tender, living thing
through a closed window — a wind-tossed tree.
What is lost? asks the first question, a true question in this case, but one addressed perhaps by the poem to itself as an announcement of its purpose and central focus. The issue is developed by the second question, Who knows what a nine-child home swallows with its noise? The form this time is rhetorical; by implication it suggests that, unquestionably, a great deal is lost. We can also note here that the question doesn’t really ask anything; instead, it functions in much the same way as an exclamation to indicate the high degree of bereftness: How much is swallowed in a nine-child home! But rather than labour the reader with harrowing accounts of distress and trauma, Jackson resorts to an intelligent mobilization of questions to coolly intimate rather than elaborately state.
The repetition of What is lost? in the third stanza indirectly communicates the extent of the loss and possibly a sense of hopelessness. We often resort to unanswerable questions when we don’t know what to do with ourselves: Why me? we ask when baffled by an unfortunate turn of events. This leads us on to the poem’s final question: Is a wood and plastic limb a tender, living thing? The form of this question is again basically rhetorical; it certainly seems to suggest that the expected answer is No, of course not! At the same time, you might feel that there is a hint here of sarcasm or scorn: merely posing the question suggests how ridiculous it is to ask it in the first place, since the way it is phrased only emphasises the disgusting contrast between wood-plastic and tender-living. Interestingly, though, in the conclusion of the poem, there is a reminder to us that the opposition might not be so clear-cut: there is “wind” in a “window” and a tree, though made of wood, is obviously in its own way a tender, living thing. This neatly reminds us not to get trapped by the yes/no logic at work at the heart of this particular question.
‘A Closed Window’ artfully deploys questions to highlight its concerns and to draw the reader into a more active engagement with the plight it describes. By nature, the question is questing, and even when no answer is arrived at, there is a sense of progression towards an enhanced understanding of an important problem. Questions also lend Jackson’s poems a kind of thinking-on-one’s-feet quality and this contributes freshness and spontaneity. Questioning can also shift poems out of surface descriptiveness and into a demonstration of a more profound grasp of the situation. We see an instance of this in “Their Positions”, a poem about beggars in India that concludes as follows:
. . . By then,
the flinty echo of coins in
a metal cup is a memory. When
I do give something, somehow I expect
one of us to disappear. What is this
currency? I think, as a dog limps past,
lies down underneath a parked car.
In these lines, Jackson is trying to come to grips with terrible poverty. With the question — a true one this time — What is this currency? he attempts to understand why he feels that the act of giving somehow cancels out the opposites of relative wealth and indigence (a situation possibly mirrored in the final reposeful image of the mobile but impaired dog lying beneath the immobile but powerful car). The focus on currency suggests economic exchange, but Jackson wants to push the puzzle beyond the realm of money. The question becomes: What kind of exchange between people would remove the extremes of both over- and under-privilege? The poem provides no answer to this line of enquiry, but it arrives at a potential point of interrogation, the energy of which can fuel our own further investigations and reflections.
Unanswerable questions of this kind provoke us, tease us, infuriate us, — and may even spur us on to intuitive insight. In this regard, they are more productive than statements. They possess something of the quality of the koan, a Zen “exercise for the mind” for which Ernest Wood gives the following quaintly phrased but lively explanation:
All reasoning is a building on top — adding something to an existing and mentally seen edifice of knowledge. Then, if you are told to put in an attic underneath the cellar, you just don’t know how to go about it. But if the person who told you to do it were the Supreme Architect of the Universe, or it were your Zen Master — which comes to the same thing if you be facing your Master with true Zen faith — you try, and you go on trying until suddenly you have solved the problem (Zen Dictionary: 55).
Jackson poses his own koan in the final poem of The Thin Bridge, in which he also returns to the earlier question — now put indirectly — of What’s lost?:
The black bike someone left, locked up,
is daily deconstructed by theft. With each
walk past, you think — I could do with that,
a simplification, where what’s lost isn’t up to me.
Without knowing it, this is Coburg’s version
of a zen koan — where has the bike itself gone?
A mynah swoops and clips a pigeon, a plastic bag
becomes a flag on a figtree and a young man
stares into his laptop’s dim, flickering screen.
Now you can’t walk past the half-demolished
house — no roof or walls, only an empty frame
surrounding a fireplace. Memories not even
lavender-patterned wallpaper can hold onto
lift into the sky, like pollen or dust in reverse.
Jackson’s comparison is a playful one, but it serves as a stepping-stone to a preoccupation with stripping away the superfluities, false concepts, and rigid conditioning of the self. How much of ourselves can we lose and still be who we think we are? The answer to that, of course, must be wholly individual and worked out over a lifetime.
You might have puzzled a little over the phrase Now you can’t walk past the half-demolished house in the second half of ‘The Bike Itself’. Initially, I read it as meaning that the speaker couldn’t bring himself to walk past the house because it pained him to see the place in its demolished state. However, I don’t think this is what Jackson is primarily on about; the verb can has nothing to do with individual ability. Instead, as we saw in the case of the bike, it is a question of objective reality: you can’t walk past the house because the house — reduced as it is to a fireplace surrounded by an empty frame — no longer exists in a way that qualifies it for that label in language. The house has been unhoused and the memories once associated with its material presence have been dispersed for ever.
The ambiguity is very gentle here, nearly imperceptible. Jackson’s unique sesnsibility enables him to realize the productive ambiguity in everyday phrases. You could say that there are no hidden meanings in his use of double-meanings; it’s not as if one meaning is somehow hidden behind another one or obscured. No, Jackson’s puns are more like optical illusions: they depend on the way you happen to be looking. If your perspective is in default mode, you will register the obvious meaning, but not necessarily the equally accessible other sense. This requires a shift of view-point.
What triggers an awareness of ambiguity? In ‘The Bike Itself’, there is a nagging feeling that the phrase doesn’t make enough sense in the context. There is something inadequate about it; it is out of character with the poet’s usual precision. This gets you thinking about the phrase and sets you off on a hunt for alternative interpretations. It’s unlikely that the line refers to some physical obstacle such as some form of temporary fencing that prevents a walk-by. So, by a process of sounding out the phrase you come to see that it can be taken in a different way. The quiet Zen context signalled by the word “koan” also suggests a metaphysical framework within which the phrase could be understood in a way that makes better sense, both aesthetically and intellectually.
The triggering is of a different order in the poem ‘On Being Sculpted’, in which Jackson exploits the ambiguity contained in a question. Will I ever be finished? the speaker asks, as he does his best to stay still for the artist at work. The poem has already made the artistic context clear, so we know that his question means When will this sculpture of me be finished? In this case the meaning is perfectly adequate, and yet, perhaps prepared by other questions in The Thin Line, we can’t help recognizing the fact that the line may mean more than the immediate context requires it to say. It may be that the process of art-making exposes the subject to his own sense of inadequacy. The phrase also reverberates with Jackson’s larger existential concerns about human capability and his refusal to accept that what we are is somehow set in stone.
Like twins who enjoy swapping identities, Jackson tests the attention of the reader, especially with regard to the creation of meaning and the interpretation of key ideas across the course of this collection. The first line of ‘The Machine’ reads “you’re allowed to unplug yourself”. Coming as it does in the shadow of the title, we are led to read this line as if it referred to the speaker as human machine. The implication is thus one of dehumanization. However, the verb unplug may serve as a metaphor for suicide, a reading triggered by another ambiguity inserted undemonstratively into a poem about trees: “A dense stand of centuries-old redwoods, / the young, keen among giants. It’s the dead I admire most —” . However, as the poem progresses, we learn that the speaker is being examined by some kind of medical device and that, because he is frequently examined in this way, his familiarity has won him the right to disengage himself without assistance. Both meanings “work”, but one operates locally within the context of the specific poem, while the other suggests intertextual linkages between different poems within the collection.
A final example involves the idiom “the doctor will see you now” from routine medical discourse. This sounds perfectly natural in English, but Jackson detects its potential for ambiguity. In ‘Government Hospital for Women and Children’, he writes about mothers-to-be waiting for their appointments in an open courtyard, “talking of family, money and politics”. The ambiguous line Most of them will be seen today is manipulated just a fraction (the omission of “by a doctor” and the use of the passive voice is enough to put us on the alert) to literalize it and to introduce the larger topic of social visibility into the text. These impoverished women will briefly emerge from the anonymity of their lives to become visible to official representatives of the society they inhabit. At the same time, the phrase reminds us that the women and the immense practical difficulties they face in their lives are ignored for the most part by this same society. Again, intertextuality helps to prepare us for such a possibility. In an earlier poem, “Desensitised”, we have the lines “Clear-faced young doctors / tap and frown through research as I pass. / I am still waiting for someone to ask me / for my family history, to take off my shirt.” Here, the poet-librarian goes about his work in a state of professional invisibility. Surrounded as he is by doctors, however, he half-expects one of them to take an interest in his condition (Jackson suffers from severe spinal curvature), and to finally “see” him — as a noteworthy medical case in the first instance, but also as a fellow being occupying a shared space.
The title ‘We Are All Flesh’ provides the most simple statement of how Jackson conceives of the human body. One basis for human community, he insists, is the fact of our carnality: we are, all of us, flesh and blood. This shared carnal reality is explored at the end of the poem ‘The Future of Genetics’:
. . . as the house lights come up on us.
We can’t help but gaze at each other’s arms
and faces. Lights shine and turn on the surface
of our eyes. We are all strangely alive.
All our very good questions are answered
confidently. At the exit, a metallic tree
of coathangers, a sign disclaiming
responsibility. We lift our heavy coats —
the hangers chime.
First, there is the rediscovery of human physicality in the exposed skin-surfaces of faces and arms. Then, there is a kind of guilty re-covering of this physicality — an effort to efface it — which the putting on of “heavy coats” seems to indicate. Our coats are our social clothing, our public personas; our collaboration in the suppression of the fact that we are all flesh is signalled by the sinister chiming of the coathangers. At the same time, the hangers function as metaphors for our mutual separateness: we hang differently, but we all hang.
Our common fleshliness is also the source of an inter-connectedness that goes beyond the borders of species. Two poems describe Jackson’s encounter with birds. In ‘A Language I Didn’t Know I Spoke’, he describes one such meeting: “The silk of his black breast, / his eyes rivets of rust-red, wings / suddenly arms folded to barely conceal / something obscure we have in common”. The creature in this admiring depiction is briefly anthropomorphized (wings become arms), but, in turn, the speaker is eagle-ized (at least, I think it’s an eagle) when he tries to answer the bird after it has called him with a sound “like a stone being dropped into a small, deep pool”. The poem doesn’t really probe the nature of this “something obscure”, but it yields the image of the thin bridge that gives the collection its name. The body seems to hold the key to this bridging or crossing over into the intimate presence of others. At the same time, this bridge is also the poem, the embodiment in language of the poet’s inter-communication with other lives and other things.
This bridge imagery is echoed in the description of a mundane railway platform, the setting for a second encounter across the divide of species:
The chick began to panic when
I lifted him with our hands
to place him underneath
the nearest tree on a patch of dry grass,
as the train arrived, early for
once. I came back to check on us.
– The Empty Platform
The startling use of “our” ands “us” here dissolves habitual boundaries between human being and fledgling in the eyes of the speaker. The usual distinctions no longer apply: they are empty. This emptiness may refer to the Buddhist idea of the Void, a formless potential source for all actual forms. Elsewhere in The Thin Bridge Jackson expresses an interest in Buddhism, but that does not mean that it provides the sole overarching explanation for his insights. In this case, the solid materiality of the suburban platform as well as the stress in the opening lines of the poem on corporeality — “Straight away, he made the skin / of my thumb, genitals, eyelids / no longer belong / only to me” — also allow us to read the poem in another way: that it is the shared heritage of vulnerable flesh and blood that inclines the speaker to regard the plight of the chick with compassion.
It is important to make it clear that Jackson has no wish to reduce human beings to anatomy. The Forensics Museum at Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok may be full of specimens of “the bodies we are becoming”, but the sight of an exhibit of smoker’s lungs is something “only our innards recognise” (“Forensics Museum”). Here, the physical body is a very alienating thing. His idea of strange aliveness is an aspect that does not equate only with our biological organism.
Jackson approaches this issue of the inter-penetrating body and its affiliations obliquely in a poem called “The Rope”. The explicit topic of the poem is Christian asceticism:
When I was a boy, fluttering
and swooning secretly in what the lace
and smiles in catalogues implied,
I hadn’t heard of Saint Simeon.
Those pulsing boundless moments
had no room for thought or history.
He binds his body with rope, so
tight the worms are drawn to the flesh
and begin to feed. He is smiling,
even when the other monks unravel
the knot, peel the cord from his skin,
expel him from their family. We
have such strange and beautiful bodies,
such bones and folds and eyes
that catch the light. Me, I braided
the red ribbon from a Bible, the nerves
that burned beneath my cool skin,
and a thread I still can’t identify.
Where is he now? Pacing
the shifting dunes within us, unaware
only the sand can dissolve the rope.
Here the body is subject to restraint. Saint Simeon’s self-mortification is aimed at suppressing our physical nature for the sake of a divine ideal. For this reason, he becomes for Jackson an image of denial, an image that possibly still haunts many of us in “the shifting dunes within us”. Unlike the saint, the poet here strongly endorses the body in all its strangeness and beauty and, rather than binding his body with rope, tries to harness its “braiding” powers with two other strands of identity, the traditional spiritual outlook of the Bible together with a third mysterious element that is neither sensual nor theological. In the conclusion to the poem, the central theme of binding oneself — an idea that implies fixity — is dispelled in favour of a dune-like interplay of wind and sand. Our essential strangeness, the poem suggests, is alive in this mutability. At the same time, the image of the peeling of cord from the skin resonates with Stephen Potter’s description of poetry in Steps to Immaturity as something that is “alive all over, like skin, being part of a person”. Poetry can, in its own way, help us to divine a greater intensity of living.
When writing gets stuck in convention it can become like Saint Simeon, a paradoxical exponent of bondage who attempts by this eccentric tactic to prove his uniqueness. In The Thin Bridge, Jackson takes a different tack, seeking liberation from fixed ideas about what it means to be human — and to write this freedom. This in turn is reflected in his realization of the shape-shifting nature of questions and his attentive listening in to the ambiguity that resides in idioms and ordinary phrases. Without mystification, he attempts to come to terms with our mysterious talent for making connections. In this endeavour, he is assisted by the image of the thread. It appears in the opening poem ‘What’s Possible between Us’: “Spider / it is almost terrifying to me — suspended / only by the work of your own body. / Too often, I surface with handfuls of air, / thinking the connecting threads were within.” The thread thus becomes a link, an in-between-ness that works against the isolationary impulses of the egomanic personality. It reappears in the DNA “strand” —
Each DNA strand, if unwound, would span
a metre and a half. We’re quietly impressed
and think of knitting, of surgery and love . . .
– The Future of Genetics
— a fibre that Jackson characterizes here as a “span” that can be “spun”. A variation on this theme occurs in a detail from one of his Indian poems: “A roadside cart has caught / her sari — one stray yellow thread / unweaves itself behind them, as the bus / takes them away” (‘Government Hospital for Women and Children’). For Jackson, poetry is a matter of teasing out these various threads across our bodies, threads that shed light on both our fellow inhabitants on Earth and our enigmatic embodied selves. This process also results in the creation of tautly crafted poems.
It’s strange that the phrase “She is capable of anything” in English can have such a strongly negative meaning. Hence Jackson’s first question, and one that remains with the reader long after the book has been absorbed: Who knows what we’re capable of? And here there is no doubt that the question is a call to knowledge.
Simon Patton soldiers on, living with his partner, two cats and Sealyham the Terrier near Chinaman Creek in Central Victoria. He translates Chinese literature. The essay “Translating Yu Jian: Encounter and Transmission” appeared in the Australian Poetry Journal (4.2) and versions of two of Yu’s poems co-translated with Tao Naikan were included in Southerly (74.3).
The Thin Bridge is available froim http://whitmorepress.com/titles/