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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.

So this week’s Lee Marvin readers were Tom Sullivan, the host Ken Bolton (standing in for Kelli Rowe who was unable to make it), Irmina Van Niele and Gareth Roi Jones.

Lee Marvin

Tom, I found out a while ago, actually works at the same place I do albeit on a different floor, but I have never heard any of his work before. Tom read a number of poems all new, which is really the whole point of these readings, to experiment on the audience. The first was a powerful piece called ‘Threshold’ followed by a 7 part series ‘Vox’, with some delicious lines – ‘drinking desolation like tonic’ and ‘night with its carriages of hours’. Tom also shared a pair of poems, ‘Swoon’ and ‘Blush’ written with fellow writer Gareth also on the bill, and then a further three poems with too many memorable lines to fit in this post, but one of my favourites being ‘unrelenting cutlery of rain’.

Ken read two long (compared to my work!)  narrative poems and began by telling us that he doesn’t like to write a poem if he knows what he’s going to write, which I thought an interesting statement and began thinking if this applies to me…Anyway, the first poem was called ‘Tale of Two Cities’, the setting a coffee shop in which the protagonist mused over the staff and people passing by outside. This was followed by the second part ‘Clocking On’, which began as a response to a friend called Pete. Ken reads well, using the familiar to engage his audience by sharing things they can relate to.

Irmina, of Dutch heritage, began by explaining how her writing reflects her artwork and is often a response to particular life events. Irmina read a piece called ‘Mother Island’, in which she described her somewhat difficult relationship with her mother and the influence she had on her in her youth. Again there were many wonderful lines – ‘endless support to my endless mother’ and ‘her madness is slippery’ stood out, as did her reference to her mother as a ‘child mother’. Irmina’s piece struck a chord with me, many parts mirroring my relationship with my own mother. The piece finished beautifully – ‘where there is a sliver of time and she is calm, something can possibly be said’.

Gareth ended the evening reading two poems, the first, ‘Astral Travelling’ he worked on with Tom, which described a regression through his ages, a big picture down if you like. It began with a series of astronomical terms, and again haunting lines like ‘you, the centre of black holes in hearts everywhere’ and reminded us that we live in ‘the driest state in the driest continent on earth’. Ending in his heart, it made you think about how small we are in such a gigantic system of life. Gareth finished with a poetic monologue ’52 Hertz’, about the song of a whale of unidentified species that can only be heard at this frequency.