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I went to the launch of Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain on Wednesday, a stunning collection edited by Heather Taylor Johnson, and the first of its kind in Australia from UWA Publishing.

Launched by Peter Goldsworthy, this is an exquisite book; to be absorbed, examined, shared and treasured.  In his foreword, Peter explores poetry as a cathartic process, the ‘cleansing of emotional wounds’, with ‘much hard-earned wisdom and hard-wrung poetry in the pages that follow.’

A plethora of diseases and conditions are represented – cancer, mental health, disability, postnatal depression, ageing and dementia.  Heather herself suffers from Ménière’s disease, an imbalance of the inner ear, and one she writes about here.  But what makes this anthology so special is its structure; three poems from each poet preceded by a narrative describing their illness and the impact it has.

And Heather has gathered together some fine Australian poets – the likes of Fiona Wright, Andy Jackson and Stuart Barnes alongside those who read at the Adelaide launch – Gareth Roi Jones, Ian Gibbins, Rachael Mead, Rob Walker and Steve Evans.

Gareth suffers from migraines, a debilitating condition painfully conveyed in his poem ‘aching’:

hours when simply standing up

is a pickaxe

when the growling dog

won’t let you through the gate.

Ian is a neuroscientist so knows about the body, how it works and how it doesn’t, demonstrated by his brilliant performance of ‘Cataplexy’, a poem which explores this rare condition where extremes of emotion trigger a switch from consciousness into a waking dream-like state.

Rachael was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, states eloquently expressed in ‘What lies beneath my skin’, which opens with:

The ringing telephone ratchets me into tension.

providing an insight into her daily management, when walking the dog offers some relief:

I put myself in the path of wildness

let it fill my long and hollow bones.

Rob’s condition is chronic osteoarthritis, a degenerative bone disease, where in his poem ‘radiology’ (composed with Magdalena Ball), ‘holding our future in nervous hands, we come with X-rays’, likening this process to ‘reading the stars within’, an ‘internal astrology’, a captivating image.

Steve suffers with temporal epilepsy, experiencing Alice-in-Wonderland-type moments of surreal forgetfulness.  In the ‘Body Electric’, he shares what it feels like:

My body is short-circuiting.

a tumultuous journey culminating in the final stunning lines:

And my words are brittle copies

Of what I used to do. My fingers fail.

I just can’t make a fist of this.

These snapshots are enough to tempt anyone living with chronic illness and pain to seek the bigger picture captured in this collection.  And they need not be a fan of poetry to be able to appreciate the unequivocal raw beauty of the afflicted self.

Last night I went to the launch of Little Windows at Booknook & Bean, an exciting new line of chapbooks from poets Jill Jones and Alison Flett.  Published in a series of four, poets Andy Jackson and John Glenday helped Jill and Alison fulfill the first quota.

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These limited edition handmade chapbooks are exquisite, developed to get South Australian poets on the map and this they will do.   Alison introduced the series, thanking all those involved in its production, before handing over to Jennifer Liston to MC the event, with each poet sharing three poems from their chapbooks.

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John was first up, joining the event via Skype from Scotland, and began with ‘the apple ghost’, a haunting poem of loss in which an old woman has kept the last apples her husband picked before he died.  There are ‘shelf over shelf of apples, weightless with decay’ prompting the dead husband to roam the home at night and attempt to try ‘to hang the fruit back on the tree.’  The ‘undark’ followed, the first poem in the chapbook, continuing the delicate theme of death where ‘those girls’ have ‘come back’, ‘their footprints gleam in the past like alien snow’ and the light they once had has ‘burned through the cotton of their lives’.  John’s final poem I didn’t quite catch (too busy manoeuvring a crate to sit down!) but I’m glad to have discovered his work.

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Alison read next, sharing three poems from her fox series, which I adore, beginning with ‘fox 1: umvelt’ where he moves ‘in silence through the city’, ‘the pavements are thick with his thick foxy scent’ and after he’s gone, leaves ‘his shadow smoking and stamping in the air.’  In ‘fox 2: corporeal’ aspects of the fox are presented; ‘his eyes are amber planets’, his tail with its ‘bristling quivering tips’, his ‘feet listening to the nothing’, his heart ‘a dark livid thing.’ The human connection is explored in ‘fox 3: liminoid’ when Alison encounters one crossing the road ahead as she walks with her friends from a nightclub, feeling ‘a pencil line of silence’ running between them as they regard one another in the din, and how this ‘gift from the fox’ returns ‘when theres noise all around’, ‘its taut string singing the silence’.

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Andy followed with ‘blue mountains line’, a poignant journey in a train carriage ‘the colour of tendon and bone’, where ‘outside, the mist has lifted and left behind the shudder and billow of mountains’ and ‘that knocking is only an empty wheelchair, wobbling with the motion of the train.’  Andy then read ‘breathing’ posing the question ‘How do I carry this air?’, the scene a cremation described as ‘Theatre in reverse, decomposing you into these vague and pressing sensations in my head and chest’, leaving us with the simple line ‘Breathe out, breathe in -.’  Andy finished with a wonderful poem I’ve heard him read before, ‘what I have under my shirt’, offerings to explain the impact of Marfan Syndrome; ‘a speed hump (your eyes must slow down approaching)’, ‘the shape of my father’, ‘infinite shirts’.

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Jill completed the readings beginning with ‘the wall, the door, the rain’, a thought-provoking poem where ‘there’s nothing I can claim of this world someone keeps giving away’ being ‘white with entitlements and modern footwear while blasphemy accumulates in my dreams’.  Next came ‘big apples leaf summer’ rich with childhood and ‘the kindness of leaves’, as Jill contemplates ‘I am to be diamonds, pick me-ups, queer riddles you do not know’, crossing the playground her ‘confusion was greater than the hills’.  Jill left us with ‘mighty tree’, the final poem in her chapbook, each line a stand-alone statement knitting beautiful images, where at the end she pleads ‘Oh mighty tree fall on me. Make me a legend or a nest. The magpies can pluck my dream. The ghosts can have the rest.’

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This is a wonderfully fresh series, small finite collections presenting snapshots of poetry.  Finishing touches are being applied to the website to enable others to gaze into these poetic windows of brilliance.

 

 

with a bang! And having missed last week’s readings, I was determined to make this week’s, the line-up simply too good to miss – Matt Hooton, Rebekah Clarkson, Heather Taylor Johnson and Andy Jackson.

Lee Marvin 2

Hosted as ever by the highly entertaining Ken Bolton at the Dark Horsey Bookshop, Matt was first up with a series of questions for the audience – did Anne of Green Gables make it over here? Is Evel Knievel considered an icon here? And were we familiar with the concept of party lines? Setting the scene for an interesting read of his latest short story ‘Is this our inheritance our Lord and is that your voice we hear on the party line?’ We were presented with a scene in which two young boys are watching Evel Knievel perform his stunts on TV during his Korean tour, where ‘there is too much rocket, not enough bike’. What I particularly loved about this was the repetition of a raven image throughout the description of a seemingly ordinary suburban scene – ‘a prescription of ravens’ when the single mother knocks back a few painkillers in the bathroom; ‘an abandonment of ravens’ when Evel Knievel lands in North Korean airspace; culminating in the line ‘the inheritance of ravens goes quiet’. A thought-provoking piece.

Next to take the stage was Rebekah and it was her first time reading here. I knew of Rebekah, but was not familiar with her work. She read a piece of personal non-fiction called ‘Learning to swim’, which had been commissioned by an American journal. It pulled you in from the start, opening with ‘I don’t want to talk about the storm’ where after we learn her daughter was out at sea during it with the story also alluding to a meta-physical storm. And so we hear how Rebekah ‘fake swims’, which is considered an art form, a ‘careful construction of circumstance’, breathing out on the right side only. A memory is shared of her father trying to teach her to swim by literally throwing her in the deep, a somewhat traumatic experience, which ends in an apology from her father, the only time she ever hears one. To progress her ‘fake swimming’ Rebekah joins a swim class ‘full of pissed off women having done everything for everyone’ where she learns bilateral breathing and soon starts to ‘crave the silent underwater world’. Rebekah read well, thoroughly engaging her audience.

And then it was Heather, to whom I could listen for hours! Heather read a chapter from her forthcoming book from University of Queensland Press now in its final stages of editing. Here we find Orion, son of Jean who is in a coma in hospital having been diagnosed with cancer. In his bedroom ‘sunlight splashed the walls’ as he plays with a toy plane, which ‘has to follow the bottom racing stripe otherwise the world will blow up’. Death pervades this chapter, as we learn that Orion’s Nan also had cancer and often talks of dying, so he seeks out ‘Very Viv’, the ‘most fun of all the grown-ups’. When visiting his Mum in hospital, his friend, Juniper, tells Orion that his Mum is going to die (Juniper then gets scolded by her own for saying this). So Orion seeks release in the hospital playground, playing monsters with Juniper and a boy they befriend with an eye patch. Later, driving home with his Dad, Orion imagines they are ‘the only car in Adelaide on a conveyor belt’, pictures the danger and feels he has ‘died many times in his mind’. Big concepts for a little boy, can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

Andy closed the set reading the only poetry of the night. He shared a few from his collection the thin bridge, back in print again from Whitmore Press, and began with ‘Double helix’, which I remember from Heather’s poetry night, a poem about passing on genes with cleverly repetitive lines – ‘genetic screening is not an anagram for suicide’, ‘a disorder of connective tissue sewn into my own’, ‘you can be so lonely you don’t want to be touched’. Next came the poem ‘The platform’ about a young bird being placed out of harm’s way followed by ‘On being sculpted’ by his partner, in which he asks ‘will I ever be finished?’ and ‘who threw that yellow square across the floor; the moon, the streetlight or us?’ Andy then read from his next collection Immune systems, available from Transit Lounge, based on his visit to India, the first a string of statements connected by their strangeness. A ‘schoolgirl yawns’ with ‘henna snaking around her hands’ and ‘In the courtyard’ there is medical tourism as Andy is diagnosed by a man who ‘holds my wrist like a flute’. The last poem shared was about returning to Australia, to ‘wilting leaves and cobwebbed pegs’ and ‘a neighbour hammering a nail into a mortgage’, such vivid images.

It was a wonderful evening rich in literary ‘wowness’, which I know is not a word but I don’t care, it was fab.

 

I was invited to an exclusive gathering at Heather Taylor Johnson’s house last night to listen to the poetry of Andy Jackson, here from Victoria to complete his PhD at Adelaide University. I hadn’t read any of Andy’s work before the invite and once I did, was looking forward to hearing more.

Andy Jackson

Andy has performed widely, received awards for his work and been extensively published; his first full length collection, Among the regulars, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Prize for Poetry in 2010 and in 2013, his collection, the thin bridge, won the Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize. Andy has Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder of connective tissue, and the impact of this on his life is explored in much of his work.

The thin bridge

Heather introduced Andy, who started with a new poem, ‘What I have under my shirt’, which he told us had been rejected by a few journals and after hearing it I thought, more fool them. The poem offered several ways to explain his ‘body shaped like a question mark’ to use Andy’s words, comparing it to ‘a speed hump your eyes slow down over on approach’, followed by other explanations such as a ‘backpack’, ‘nothing’ or ‘infinite shirts’. It was a thought-provoking piece, really quite profound.

Next came a poem about parenthood called ‘Double helix’ in which Andy used line repetition; ‘what looks like a pattern is composed of chaos’, ‘I didn’t think of having children until I met you’ and ‘you can be so lonely you don’t want to be touched’. Powerful stuff.

Andy then shared what he described as a kind of love poem for his partner Rachael, a poignant description of them taking a bath, with the beautiful line of ‘I slipped, bumped my thinking on your actual body’ as he is almost dumbfounded by what’s happening.

‘The elephant’ was a poem about the proverbial one in the room, literally, where ‘there isn’t much room for us’ and so they are forced to ‘inch along the wall’, culminating in the wonderful last line of ‘He reverently lifts my arm, as if it were a tusk, lifeless’.

Andy closed his first set with a poem about the decomposition of a bike in Coburg called ‘The bike itself’, telling us how pieces were taken away over time so he finds ‘beauty in absence’, leaving ‘memories not even lavender-patterned wallpaper can hold onto’.

Unfortunately I didn’t stay for the second half (more fool me!), but it was a delight meeting Andy albeit fleetingly and to hear him read. It was a gorgeous event, filled with candles, soft lights and bright stars, both above and of the SA poetry scene, with Jill Jones, Rachael Mead, Alison Flett, Kathryn Hummel, David Mortimer, Mike Hopkins, Pam Maitland, Aidan Coleman and Amelia Walker, who were also invited to share a poem or two.

But lets return to Andy. His work is achingly beautiful, haunting, conjuring images you just want to put your arms around or slip into your pocket to take home to keep. If you’re not familiar with Andy’s poetry, I would strongly encourage you to get familiar; his collections have already been ordered.