A Poetry that Holds Great Power: Heather Taylor Johnson reviews ‘Immune Systems’ by Andy Jackson

Immune Systems by Andy Jackson Transit Lounge Melbourne, 2015

immune systemIn Andy Jackson’s new book, Immune Systems, we are shown India through three distinct lenses. Section one sees the Indian urban landscape through an overseas patient who is there to receive treatment and recover, whereas sections two and three use formed poetry as links to the country: haikus and ghazals, respectively. The haikus offer a break from the heaviness of the first section, consisting mostly of tiny Japanese odes to mosquitos. The final one, not about a mossie, is ironic existentialism, bringing us back to Jackson’s emphasis on his own identity in a country crammed with so many others. Perhaps it is because they are earlier poems (written 2008-9) or perhaps it is because they differ so much from the poetry in section one, which came out of a 2010 Asialink grant thus had a project focus, but the ghazals of section two lack both personal and political investment in relation to the medical tourist poems, so I don’t want take up time talking about them. I’d rather focus on the poetry in section one; it is those poems that I feel make Immune Systems such an important book and show Jackson, too, to be such an important poet.

The book opens with ‘Apollo Hospital’ – as much an invitation from Jackson to his readers as it is an invitation from the hospital’s signage to Jackson – to enter the world of medical tourism in India. Traditionally a scheme where people from underdeveloped countries travel abroad to receive better medical treatment from under- or less-developed countries, medical tourism now includes people from developed countries travelling to underdeveloped countries to receive cheaper medical treatment, which is the case in Immune Systems. In ‘Apollo Hospital’ there are brief glimpses of the surrounds, and they are those crowded, sensory-laden images we expect from a foreigner in India, a place where things break down, and it is not only bodies: umbrellas, bricks, ‘[t]he tamarind tree barely holds its seed pods’ (23). But Jackson’s purpose is not to offer city-street clichés of India. Throughout the poem he is focused on the hospital, telling us to cross the street, take a left, bypass the first building that might be mistaken for a hospital, pass a plethora of vendors. With all these directions, there is a sense that we do not want to get lost, that we must make it to the hospital.

The next poem begins his recovery. In ‘Everything went very well’, he writes:

An incision along – suture of – resectioning –

This line not only shows the inadequacies of language when describing the trauma of the body, but also seems to suggest the monotony of yet another procedure for someone so accustomed to surgery, as if he is saying, ‘does it matter which part of my body has been affected?’ This duality of meaning can only be achieved by avoiding the pathos so easy to embrace when trying to describe illness.

The poet’s treatment does not always include medical follow-ups and rest; often it is the simplicity of human interaction, the importance of human touch. There are two dream poems where language is either a barrier to understanding or completely unnecessary. But mostly the section is focused on illness: his own and that of others around him. The link between poverty and illness, between physical deformity and poverty, cannot be ignored in India, but the fact is that the poor are prone to the fakery of medicine and ill-equipped facilities so, in fact, they are being ignored. Jackson is a privileged patient in the country; he did not fly half way around the world to be ignored, but to get proper treatment at a lower cost. In the long poem ‘Whatever exists in the universe’ he posits the privileged tourists and the local destitute against one another:

In suburban Chennai, the husband and wife
take poison, give sleeping pills to their two children.
Only Janani, three, severely retarded,

Yes, I keep forgetting, India has more millionaires
than any country. Why must we
focus on the negatives?

At the entrance to the ambulance bay, another shrine.
On the waiting room wall, a crucifix.
From the internet café, above the traffic, the call to prayer.
A man, on a nearby rooftop, does push-ups.
Whatever exists in the universe, exists in the human body.

They implant a pacemaker in her brain
when her body resists the medication.
No longer does she spend ten hours a day
washing off imaginary germs.

20,000 unlicensed medicine factories. Inspectors bribed. Up
to 25% of pills are fake. 1 child dies from encephalitis every
2 hours in Uttar Pradesh in a single hospital. 3 children per
incubator in an epidemic ward. Last year 60,000 women
died during pregnancy or childbirth.. 60% of the world’s
undernourished children live in India. Numbers stick in

the throat.


Further on he writes,

Sometimes I’m afraid all my scars will tear open
……………………..or worse, that they already have.


This couplet sums up what Immune Systems says to me. Poetry urges readers to feel, but good poetry does so while also forcing readers to think, to consider the human condition by way of the world around us. In this book Jackson not only shows us his own vulnerability through a needy, faltering body, but also through his questioning of ‘Why me? Why not them?’ in which the case of vulnerability is transferred to those around him, revealing a greater vulnerability of human kind, that which could be thought of as a question of identity, that which could also be termed as compassion. And because he can see his world and that of those around him with a fluid and, dare I say, balanced eye, his poetry holds great power. I highly recommend this book.

Andy Jackson reading from Immune Systems (video Ralph Wessman – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tCJPM5lrjw)

 – Heather Taylor Johnson


Heather Taylor Johnson is the author of three books of poetry and one novel. Her fourth book of poetry will be published by Five Islands Press. She is the poetry editor of Transnational Literature and is currently editing The Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain. She recently gave a paper in Oxford discussing why poetry is the genre best suited to illness narratives.

Immune Systems is available from http://www.transitlounge.com.au/


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