“Beauty, imagination, understanding, empathy, recognition”: Heather Taylor Johnson launches Andy Jackson’s ‘Music our bodies can’t hold’

“Andy Jackson is such an important poet writing about a topic so deeply important to me: the othered body. I think this is his best book to date and I was so privileged to have launched it. Read the speech, then read the book!” -Heather Taylor Johnson

Andy Jackson’s Music our bodies can’t hold was launched by Heather Taylor Johnson at the Queensland Poetry Festival on 26 August 2017.

Music_our_bodies_can't_hold_Cover-300x462Reading Andy Jackson’s exceptional book Music our bodies can’t hold, I’m left asking myself what the purpose of poetry is. For me, its purpose lies beyond language, though language, of course, is the essential vehicle to get us to where we need to be. And is that a place of beauty, that old cliché? Is it a place of imagining, as the core practice of creativity would assume? Perhaps it’s a place of understanding, empathy and recognition so that we find comfort in a world we enter and leave alone and, in the midst of that, cling to others for connection. Music our bodies can’t hold leads me to all of these places, and for that, I’m both honoured and humbled to be launching this book tonight.

 

Andy’s work has always been about giving voice to the body that is othered. In the spaces between a stranger’s stare and the poet’s eye catching that stare, there are so many words that go unsaid. There are words that skin and muscle and bone silence. Words that hover like empty speech bubbles when we remember and when we hope and when we hurt and when we love. One of the purposes of poetry is to find those words, to write them and read them, which is Andy’s true calling and his gift to us.

In his previous books he strips his body bare to do this, but in this book – in this remarkable book – he takes a risk and embodies others like him: historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, who quite possibly had Marfan Syndrome; people like Jess, who he met and spoke with, and most definitely does. These poems are forty-seven different people, similar through a hereditary genetic disorder, but unique. Unique.

As a prelude, he writes from the voice of Antoine Marfan, who says ‘The last thing a physician / could want is their name on a condition / they have tried to understand and eradicate.’ As an interlude, he writes from the voice of the disorder, which says, ‘Names are critical, threads from a time before us, spiralling into the future’, and ‘Sometimes, too conscious of how I’ve shaped you, that minor rearrangement of elements that estranges, you look around for kin, as if you might find yourself in other bodies.’ As a postlude, he writes in his own voice, from his own experience, but having read the book to this conclusion, we know it to be a voice infused with every person in the book just as every person in the book carries Andy’s words.

Beauty, imagination, understanding, empathy, recognition – this book is a perfect example of what poetry can do and what poetry is. I’m going to go one step further and say that reading this book has made me a better person, so maybe that’s poetry’s purpose, too. So, with that I thank you, Andy. You’ve touched me deeply, and I’m happy to say, ‘This book is launched.’

-Heather Taylor Johnson

“poetry’s never been about ego or cliques, but about the spaces between us, the distant and beautiful voices coming closer, and QPF [the Queensland Poetry Festival] was exactly that this year… had such an exhausting and enlivening time – and so many stunning poets (so many, I missed out on seeing some) – Mark Doty, Ali Coby Eckermann, Quinn Eades, the Writing Through Fences group, Heather Taylor Johnson, Tony Birch, Omar Musa, Sarah Holland-Batt, Bronwyn Lea, Stuart Barnes, Racheal Mead, Ian McBryde, Anna Jacobson… and a huge thanks to David Stavanger and Annie Te Whiu, whose open-hearted and generous directorship made the festival so diverse, so relevant and so profound… thanks too for putting on Each Map of Scars and letting me launch Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold – they landed softly and well…”

-Andy Jackson reflecting on the launch of his book, Music our bodies can’t hold and the Queensland Poetry Festival 2017.

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Heather Taylor Johnson is an American born poet, novelist and editor who lives in Adelaide. She has written two novels, Jean Harley Was Here and Pursuing Love and Death, and published four volumes of poetry. She is also the editor of the anthology, Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain.

Music our bodies can’t hold is available from Hunter Publishers

Andy Jackson: Biographical Note

Andy Jackson: Three poems from Music our bodies can’t hold

 

“narratives of pain, illness, resilience and fortitude”: Jennifer Harrison launches Shaping the Fractured Self edited by Heather Taylor Johnson

Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain (UWAP 2017) edited by Heather Taylor Johnson was launched by Jennifer Harrison at the Dax Centre, University of Melbourne on 11 May 2017.

10203-ShapingTheFS-Cover-v5In a marvellous SBS documentary about New York women who live octo-nonagenarian lives full of vitality and insouciant style, one of the women noted, “As you get older, if you have two of something one of them is always in pain.”

Pain, then, is something that confronts us all with age. This week my mother, who is in her late 80s and lives interstate, has spinal pain. After we had talked about it for a while on the phone she said suddenly, “That’s enough about me. I hate talking about me this way. Tell me about you.”

Illness and pain are also very private and personal matters that often alienate us from the general discourse of daily health and vigour. Sometimes people feel too vulnerable to talk about pain, as if ashamed of their experiences. Shaping the Fractured Self addresses the psychological ethics and lived experience of pain and chronic illness. The book asks: what is normality? what is reality? who defines pain?

I’m so glad that the editor and publishers invited the Dax Centre to launch the book in Melbourne. The anthology’s themes reach into everything the Dax Centre holds dear to its historic art collection, and to its more recent child: The Dax Poetry Collection. The Dax Centre has always believed that it is the lived experience of mental illness and psychological trauma that most powerfully helps us to understand mental illness. To empathise is to counteract stigma. Shaping the Fractured Self is very much a book about lived experience. The insights into chronic pain are deeply powerful. The poetry is vibrant, exciting and emotionally engaging. This is poetry with something to say.

SFS Melbourne launch photo

Melbourne book launch of Shaping the Fractured Self with editor Heather Talyor Johnson (pictured far left). Dax Centre, University of Melbourne, 11 May 2017. photograph by Bel Schenk

When I think about the themes of the anthology my own identifications are threefold: I’m a doctor, I work as a child psychiatrist with young people with disability and their families, and I struggled with relapsing cancer for ten years in my 30s. I have always felt that by having cancer at a young age I did the psychological work of becoming 90 at 30. In other words, I ‘did’ the work of death early in my life, earlier than most. And I notice that this book is not only about the illnesses of elderly experience but also about the effects of chronic illness on early adult trajectories (work, relationships, financial striving). It is a testament to those who adapt, ‘live with’ their pain and refuse to submit to it.

All of us have a body. All of us are vulnerable to illness, every day. We have colds, appendicitis, tooth aches. These are episodic reminders of our vulnerability. In these pages are poems about all kinds of conditions: migraines, Ménière’s disease, Marfan syndrome – just to name some of the “Ms”. Not only did the poems reawaken my own (slightly dormant) illness narrative, but I could dip in and out of the images – relating, identifying, or not identifying. This is one of the book’s strengths: it is a moving prism of possible identifications, mirrors.

But these are also specific stories and it is an inspired decision by the editor Heather Taylor Johnson to include the framing narratives at the beginning of each contributor’s poems. I fell deeply into these narratives of pain, illness, resilience and fortitude. I then fell differently into the poems. It’s as though the two forms, prose and poetry, encourage each other, sometimes mysteriously, sometimes angrily, but always reminding us that a person is more than the sum of his or her suffering. As Peter Boyle says, “Illness, suffering, disease are not the whole of the story.” And, again, in his poem on the experience of having polio as a child (‘Paralysis’) he writes, “What does it matter / that I am only eyes / if I am to be carried / so lightly / under the trees of the world?”

The natural world and its resonances, both as solace and as a reminder of the vulnerability of life, is a frequent theme in the collection. In Beth Spencer’s ‘The Shipwreck Coast’ with its wonderful evocation of isolation and struggle in nature along the Great Ocean Road, she asks, ‘Rising and sinking. / Is that a form of swimming?” And elsewhere in the poem, the flow of the seasons also shapes the fractured self:

The grey beige relentlessness of my haven,
and the constant howling ripping of the wind
ate into my brain.

And then just as I was about to crack
one morning the sun came out.

And the wind relented just a little.

And I fell instantly in love.

Still later in this long poem, nature brings death closer in perspective, “. . . a dead penguin on the beach, / its feathers slicked with oil. / Everything after all, just a step away.”

Poetry is the distilled art of language. Nothing is briefer, more somatic, more sensory. It is language under pressure, experimental in its purest form. And what art form can better express what the body senses in a paralinguistic sense?  The poems and prose texts reach towards the unsayable, often towards the interspaces between a smiling doctor and a devastated patient. The power inequality in these poems is addressed and recalibrated continually. Andy Jackson indicates that he came to poetry for two reasons – “to try to feel at home outside the church, and to try and feel at home inside my own body.” He says, “When language is placed in the hands of people who have been marginalised, and then spoken in a public space, small transformations can be triggered.” This is indeed a profound truth, a neurolinguistic philosophy, of a kind: that writing effects cultural change as powerfully as culture affects writing.

There are three poems from each of the contributors. Voices of carers and doctors are here too but do not drown out the lived experiences. A terrific introduction by Rachel Robertson references the controlling technologies of medicine, how the self is changed by illness experience, how narrative fragmentation is often the most appropriate form to illuminate the body’s actual experience of pain – but she also discusses how the lyric poem gives us entry into hope and a positive sense that the ‘darkness can be navigated’.

Many poets talk about how hard it is to write and share these poems. As Heather Taylor Johnson says, “I hated the poems I wrote on illness.” Yet her metaphors on Ménière’s disease (like so much imagery in the book) are fresh and engaging: “Still, you want to write about the sound in your left ear. You want to say it is time’s drone, molecules swimming past your head or the dam that will tug you under . . . None of this is natural.” (‘Trying to Write about Ménière’s Disease’).

As I said, I have had a very personal response to the book – as a doctor and child psychiatrist. I’ve just returned form the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatry’s annual congress in Adelaide, where so many interesting discussions and papers were presented, and I know that the only way forward in medicine is through co-dialogue with patients – where all services at every level of development are made and shaped in conversation with patients, and their families. It is quite strange to me that this is a new idea. Doctors might have training in medical expertise but it is a service not a power. In Andy Jackson’s poem ‘Nothing Personal’ he says (referring to the doctor), “He is not talking to me, but to my mother”. In her poem ‘The Waiting Room’, Jessica Cohen notes, “Another waiting room, . . . as bland as the beige of the walls / as monotonous as the grey ceiling tiles.” Drab hospital environments, uncaring treatment and cruel numbers (statistics often standing in opposition to the uniqueness of suffering, individuality). In her poem ‘The Numbers’, Fiona Wright emphasises the distancing effect of statistics when she glimpses the contents of the locum’s bag, “one sandwich in blue plastic, one nectarine, / three crackers, pink wallet, keys” and also later in the poem when she is given ‘three standard questionnaires, at twenty-eight-day intervals.”

Doctors smiling as they tell bad news can be particularly painful, a defence. But sometimes there are also helpful care narratives, as in Rachel Mead’s ‘At the Psychologist’ when she says, ‘But you catch it all, deftly, the tissues / placed just so. . .”

Often, the chronic conditions cannot be completely understood or defined by traditional medical diagnoses. Pain falls between categories. Many poems speak to the shortcomings of medical insight. In the poem, ‘The Body Electric’, Steve Evans notes, “But still I cannot sing it right. / Even if I go quite slow there are / glitches in transmission” and later in the poem, “I see the poor machine I am.”  Patients can easily feel themselves blamed when they don’t fit a diagnosis. Sometimes the treatment makes things worse. In ‘ENDONE.  Oxycodone hydrochloride 5mg*’ Stuart Barnes advises, “. . . do not show your new / -born child to a doctor or a pharmacist.”

Many poets speak of what chronic debility has cost them in terms of work, career advancement, educational opportunities and wellbeing. In her prose narrative, ‘From Clinic to Consulting Room’, Fiona Wright talks about the solace she has gained from writing but also notes, “I’m still not sure if this can ever be a consolation commensurate enough for what I’ve lost.” Nevertheless, Wright also sees that writing has a restorative, reclaiming power, “My glass hands lift . . .” (‘Her Arms and Legs are Thin’).

I want to emphasise the strange and often fragile beauty I found in many of the poems. Rarely have I read work that stilled and shocked me with such forceful immediacy. There are many wonderful images in the anthology. For example, Anne Carson in ‘Axiology’, “If I was ceramic I’d be kindsukuroi, / pottery which has been knocked, // dropped, broken into shards then /mended with gold or silver lacquer . . .” and here, Rachael Guy’s taut subjectivity in her poem ‘Discontinuation’: “I watch as skin crawls up my wrists, another person’s arms colonising my sleeves.” Fragility, however, is tempered with toughness and determination. In ‘Blade of Grass’, Sid Larwell reminds us to be careful of pathos, “But don’t compare me to a blade of grass. / I want to be something bigger, something stronger.”

Some authors contextualise their writing to a specific illness; others are more interested in the body in space and time, the disempowering or empowering experience, the way poetry sings both to and against death, towards medicine and against constriction. The work of Quinn Eades, for example, challenges our basic ideas of illness when he discusses the concept of the body as ‘outlaw’. Eades explores what becomes possible when “I write the body” and looks at how the “body falls right where we need it, falls here, in the writing, in the fragment, in poetry.”  This is an argument for deconstruction of prejudice and stigma.

Alongside Eades’s keenly academic appraisal of the place of fragmentation and power in art we find a kindred psychology in the work of a poet like Kristen Lang. Her writing, which explores themes of anorexia, also investigates ideas of empowerment/ disempowerment, through lyric, and is especially insightful about the effect of chronic illness on youth. Here is Lang’s entire poem ‘Hole’:

The dark breaks on the sea of its own rising,
a moonless tide swelling into shadow. At its centre,
a woman stands on a float of leaves, on their reds
and browns, their veins decaying and the not-

night waiting below. The black leans into her blood, full
and heavy with emptiness. Balancing on the leaves’
frail bones, she barely moves. In her heart, a stuttered
cry . . . this . . . this way . . . this way now. But the dark

swirls and the sound is swallowed. Her eyes
dig for the fall She is held by wire, the thin
clamour of her pulse.

I wanted to mention every author in the book, quoting a small insight from each of his or her works, but soon realised that this would not be possible in a short talk like this. And so, with apology to all the poets I have not yet mentioned, I return to a medical perspective, to Leah Kaminsky, a doctor and a poet, who asks in the final poem of the book (‘In Memoriam’), “What is a body, if not grace?”

In conclusion, Shaping the Fractured Self is a dialogue between the body and self by poets who assert their right to shape their own experiences of illness and pain. As Kaminsky wryly notes in her prose narrative, ‘Death and the Doctor’, “Poetry has a surgical eye”. This small epigrammatic insight encouraged me to reflect on the nature of poetry itself: how the poems in this collection carve deeply into what chronic illness feels like, how it is experienced, and what it means.

Congratulations to the publishers, to Heather Taylor Johnson for bringing such a terrific swag of writers together, and to all the contributors. This conversation with the book is my own. Yours will begin as soon as you open a page.

-Jennifer Harrison

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Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain is available from UWA Publishing: https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/shaping-the-fractured-self-poetry-of-chronic-illness-and-pain

Read a book extract from Shaping the Fractured Self

All Dressed Up – Stephen Lawrence reviews Mascara Issue 10 and Jacket 2, ‘51 Contemporary poets from Australia’

Internet sites are replacing journals. Beyond this clear fact, there exists little consensus about whether it is a good or bad thing – let alone how one defines ‘journals’ and their impact on culture – according, for example, to the (online) discussion in Overland, September 2011, and this month’s review piece in The Australian.

Mascara, out of the University of Newcastle, began as, and remains, an e-journal since 2007. It started publishing poetry only; now they have a long review list, and it is growing lengthier with each new edition. Mascara’s tenth issue, ‘Prose Poetry,’ is the first themed edition.

The site’s pages employ a simple, effective interface, leading us in with a solitary striking image; for the tenth issue, it is Tamryn Bennett’s text cityscape, ‘Aneki.’ This visually primes the reader for Alistair Rolls’ featured essay, ‘Baudelaire’s Paris: A New, Urban (Prose) Poetics.’ Rolls’ piece argues that prose poetry is an urban form – indeed, embodies the modern metropolis. He does this by using Baudelaire’s artistic response to Modernist Paris’ urban renewal. (I am glad Woody Allen didn’t encounter Baudelaire in his insolent tour of Modernism, ‘Midnight in Paris.’)

The featured essay also alerts us to Mascara’s tone and editorial choices. The journal is “interested in the way poems locate individuals, and how they connect cultures and languages.” To say Mascara hopes to “challenge the way we position ourselves… renewing the way we imagine ourselves and the world,” reads as a nebulous mandate – although this allows the journal to evolve in any direction it pleases.

Intimations of literary theory wash through the essays. And French Modernist art is never far away; Toby Fitch translates two pieces from Rimbaud’s Illuminations. Theorising also infests some of the poetry – although it is often takes the form of playful nods within a palpable landscape, such as Tim Wright’s:

Boxes in the landscape. The assumptions of architecture. A different beach. The longer a trend takes to reach one. The grimy inner city becomes an idea. Patterns of light through the curtains. The Bolaño effect. Packets of mud.

(‘untitled’)

Mascara’s very general brief is made more specific by announcing its interest in Australia’s interaction with Asian regions. Half the advisory board is Asian; however, the journal is more ‘international’ than its advertised focus on Asian/American texts. There are only two Asian poets in the current issue, although other works address Asian culture, and a few of the translations are of Chinese prose poetry. Chen Li’s fine pieces, for example, translated by Chang Fen-Ling, are sharp micro-narratives built around cores of meditation:

…she borrowed money and bought him another car without my knowledge. That was a white car, white as the morning fog on winter days.

(‘Black Sheep’).

Prose poetry invites off-centre composition and grammar, showing itself qualitatively distinct from verse rhythms. Overall, the poems are varied, and generally fine examples of the genre. Some take the form too far, though. Michael Farrell’s shrilly gestural spacings around punctuation risk the reader seeing only empty hocus-pocus rather than interactive nuances. Most other poets get it, though: sparing use of devices imply mastery, such as Kate Waterhouse’s poised slashes, and Bella Li’s censorship of selected proper nouns. Or Jaimie Gusman’s mastery of cock-eyed, sometimes shocking syntax: “No one wants me as in desires me goes fang-thirsty to the hole in the ground” (‘Everything is For Seen’). These mechanisms are effective not just for the power of their sparse use, but also for their lucid intentionality, setting up clear exchanges with the reader.

The quality of reviewing is mixed in this issue. Heather Taylor Johnson’s piece on Pam Brown is insightful, and a model of how authors can conversationally appear in their own reviews and still come up with engaging criticism. However, Roberta Lowing’s critique of Jenny Lewis’ After Gilgamesh is clumsy and self-praising. It is laudable that so many poets are given the opportunity to review other poets in Mascara, but some employ ungainly prose. This may be either an inadvertent editorial irony – “this issue’s about prose” – or it could be intentionally opening up a complex dialogue on the artistic forms and grammatical elements of prose poetry. One can buy in or buy out of this.

A core review is Ed Wright’s, of The Indigo Book of Australian Prose Poems edited by Michael Byrne. He notes the drawback of so many Australian anthologies: defaulting to established practitioners instead of (a more difficult editorial task) venturing a stance on the future of such poetry by offering more new voices. Wright also usefully summarises weaker contributions as “cute but ultimately throwaway thought pieces”; this gives us a neat summary of prose poetry’s pitfalls, at the same time providing a measure of its uniqueness as a genre.

Jacket2 is the new incarnation of the original quarterly Jacket – another early example of an all-online poetry magazine. The original Jacket was founded by John Tranter in 1997 and while Jacket 2 moved is now maintained from the University of Pennsylvania, it has maintained its Australian connection by keeping Pam Brown as its associate editor.

In Jacket2, as with Mascara, the layout problems and bugs are minor. (In the latter, reviewers’ bios go missing, one is twice as long as the poet’s contribution, and another poet is given a blank page instead of a poem.) However, Louis Armand’s opening image is so large it takes a few seconds to download each time one navigates back to the page. And in both magazines, essays or core works do not announce themselves until one either scrolls down further page-lengths or searches a couple of layers in.

Pam Brown has recently put on this site a ‘collection’ – the editors hesitate to call it an ‘anthology’ – of fifty contemporary poets from Australia. This collection is buried partway down the ‘Features’ pages, at the bottom of a side-menu. Although it is a pity not to be visible closer to the surface, the purpose of Jacket2 is to be – at least in part – an ongoing report on the state of poetry. The site’s banner proclaims that it publishes articles, reviews, interviews, discussions and collaborative responses, archival documents, podcasts, and descriptions of poetry symposia and projects. Not unlike a daily news forum, we will publish content as it is ready.

Given this ambitious brief, articles and reports come and go, and the viewer is encouraged to browse randomly rather than more actively search through the site’s dendritic pathways.

The anthology’s introduction rightly suggests that to peruse literary journals can provide a better indication of a “country’s poetic,” and the collection only aspires to be “broadly representative.” However, although they do not discern any current ‘schools’ of Australian poetry, this doesn’t prevent Brown from noting “trends” – a “lyrical resurgence,” and poetic responses to technological and financial changes.

This is not an anthology that proscribes ‘Australian poetry,’ and Brown consider this a form of cultural cringe: defining this country’s poetic resembles a spurious postcolonial seeking after national identity. Besides, “nobody knows how to answer it.”

Though it is titled “51 Contemporary poets,” at present only about ten are evident in the contents. It is an evolving list, Brown tells us in her introduction, and forty more poets will join them in “four subsequent installments.” This first batch is in reverse alphabetical order (claimed as a “recently developed ‘downunder’ method”). Mark Young, a broad-ranging poet from New Zealand, is therefore up first. We are obliged to go to another page for poets’ biographies, and then are distracted by advertisements for the magazine on the right hand side. Marketing increasingly encroaches in our world – and poetry is not exempt from this influence, in its content as well as its backdrop.

The first ten poets also include Alan Wearne and his hilarious ‘Sarsaparilla: a Calypso’:

On through Menzies’ days and Holt’s,
Patrick logged up minor faults:
countless friendships never stick
(what a temperamental prick!).
Laboured syntax? Let it pass.
Can’t quite “get” the working class.
Down at the dump though, smoking pot …
Riders in the Chariot!

And there is Tranter’s own exceedingly long poem, ‘The Anaglyph.’ (Commissioned a stale five years ago, it is garden-fresh compared to featured poet Joanne Burns’ 2003 offerings in Mascara.) In terms of length, several of the poets are pleasingly allowed space enough to provide a sense of their methodology – although briefer entries often create a more intense and satisfying impact.

I was searching for weak links amongst the first offering, but found that all entries are of a high quality and representative of the editors’ themes. Brown takes no risks: every poet here is established or active in the literary community. Even though we only have ‘Y’ to ‘T’ surnames so far, this first sample presages a fine and comprehensive online anthology.

Given the inevitability of internet productions, these two journals – Mascara and Jacket2 – have taken the technological lead, and look like they, and others emerging even now, will continue to use the medium to produce effective and collaborative products.

– Stephen Lawrence