SHAPING THE FRACTURED SELF (editor: Heather Taylor Johnson)

Posted on June 6, 2017 by in Book Extracts, Heightened Talk

(Anne M Carson)

‘There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.
– Leonard Cohen

If I was ceramic I’d be kintsukuroi,
pottery which has been knocked,
dropped, broken into shards then
mended with gold or silver lacquer,
a delicate meander of liquid gold
flowing into the breach. Kintsukuroi
the word a whole world, evoking
the kind of place where mending
is valued more than the break,
where old is treasured more than
new, where putting things back
together is an art form, things more
beautiful for having been broken.


(Andy Jackson)

‘I would be giving in to a myth of sameness which I think can destroy us.’
– Audre Lorde

sometimes I wake into a quiet sadness
blood pooling in my mouth
bones on fire – this is the worst
and best thing that has ever happened to me

one morning I couldn’t walk
the white coats
gave me a chair – I became an adult
while they tried to work it out
the closest was marfanoid habitus
’til a sudden knife in the chest
gave me enough points for the full diagnosis
hearing it, I felt sick

I have mitral valve prolapse, regurgitation
multiple pulmonary nodules
I get short of breath and produce
excessive mucous (clearly I’m very attractive)
my joints are hypermobile
and dislocate (they go out more than I do)
I’m the walking rubber-band

comments and names at school
don’t cross your legs, you look disgusting
spider-woman, anorexic slut
other things I can’t write

doctors accused my parents of abuse
threatened me with feeding tubes
ironic, it was only all this pointing at my bones
that gave me an eating disorder

since I joined Chronic Illness Peer Support
they can’t shut me up
we go on camps, socials, talk about whatever we need to
I meet the most incredible people
and call them my friends
(my dog helps me enormously with my grief)

I’m so motivated people find me exhausting
started studying nursing
but they told me I was too unwell
cried so hard I broke a rib – now it’s psych

I haemorrhaged every day for eighteen months
clots bigger than my hand
doubled over in pain until I passed out
I think about my future a lot
imagine a husband, two golden retrievers
a blue house by the beach, veggie patch
all the people I will help
life is extraordinary and so are you

now look at this photo and tell me
you still want sameness


(Stuart Barnes)

after Gwen Harwood

I know them by their lips. I know the proverb
about immediacy. Many slip
and shatter on sheer concrete, the older, the glass.
They held the common cold in hieratic,

are octopus-suckers. I imagine them
thus, lying facedown on acupuncture tables.
I apprehend firebirds. Their fearsome vacuum
surfaces disturbance. Flying saucers

might inscribe similar discs of stillness
in cereal: formations of purple, rose:
thirteen moons, an earth, a sun in syzygy.
They order qi, are venerable remedy.

They never play hard to get. Foul deed, foul day they aren’t.
All bell, no whistle. Anti-insurrection.
A trance in sudsy buckets; rinsed, their lips
await others’ blue skin. Love, their love is blind.


What lies beneath my skin
(Rachael Mead) 

The ringing phone ratchets me into tension.
It is everything and nothing,
filling the place poetry used to be.
Management only works in practice
and right now I’m all about theory.
The circling around guilt’s drain.
The awareness of performance
– the inability to stop. The anger.
Everything turned inward.
I prefer silence and when I talk
it’s all repetition. I let the phone ring.

Fear of death drops away like a silk
dress slipping from its hanger. The
knife rack, the rafters are pregnant with
possibility. I know what to do.
Walk the dog. Sometimes, this is all.
The gum trees raise their lacy fists, a
level of defiance I find impossible.
The glitter of creek water,
the black field of stars.
I put myself in the path of wildness and
let it fill my long and hollow bones.


Her arms and legs are thin
(Fiona Wright)

for Pip Smith (and after T. S. Eliot)

Do I dare
Disturb the universe? Do I dare to eat a peach?
When I can’t see what remains
and in short, I am afraid
and I cannot know what stands within my reach;
and there is time yet for a hundred indecisions
and a hundred visions and revisions, every time
before the taking of a toast and cup of tea.

I sit in sawdust restaurants of insidious intent
and there is time yet for a hundred indecisions. I wait.
My glass hands lift and drop a question on my plate:
do I dare to eat a steak, the squid, a peach?
Have I the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
(And they say ‘But how her arms and legs are thin!’)
I lick my tongue instead into the corners of the evening.

In short, I am afraid. And though I have wept and fasted
(And they say ‘But how her arms and legs are thin!’)
Although I’ve measured out my life, checked every whim,
They try to fix me in a formulated phrase
and I don’t dare see what remains –
I’ve simply bitten off the matter with a smile.
(I know it never can be worth it, after all.)

And this is not what I meant
not it at all.

How can I spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways,
how can I dare to eat a peach
when I know I am no prophet?
They say ‘But how her arms and legs are thin!’
They say I’ll learn the moment of my greatness.
They try to fix me with a formulated phrase.
They say it could have all been worth it
but this is not what I meant.

This was never what I meant.
This is not it, not it at all.


Ten Things I Love to Hate About You
(Beth Spencer)

1.   Someone once described it as like walking across a room in the dark and no matter       which direction you go a board flies up and hits you in the face.

2.   Noticing, gradually – from the subtle clues amongst the cheery posts and triumphs        – the number of people in my Facebook feed who are living with a hidden illness.

3.  A change of government and the social terrain shifts; suddenly feeling like a        criminal again.

4.  The grief for all that never was. All the books, the friendships and loves, all the     children and grandchildren. All the students. All the clients. All the travels and        adventures. (Scaling inner mountains instead.)

5.   The exhilaration that rises with hope from a new theory or treatment or diagnostic      piece of the puzzle. And then under the surface (forged by too often), bracing for        the crash.

6.  Writing lists of how things have improved, to remind myself. (Because it’s        necessary. The reminding. And it has. In a way.)

7.  Writing lists of strategies and actions for the bad days when it’s hard to even      remember (or move) to consult such lists. But then I do. And that search for the       small obscure window, pushing against and through (don’t cut yourself), and then        finding the next little window, and the next.

8.   Salvaging a long difficult day spent prostrate by writing one not-great but not-awful       poem just before midnight. (Yay.)

9.  Imagining the events and parties and gatherings looked forward to with joy (but      then not up to going) laid out end to end in one long glorious summer of love. A        beautiful able-bodied parallel world.

10.  Learning (and unlearning and learning again) to embrace the space I be. Because      maybe, in the constellation of the universe, every misshapen star, every strange       permutation, is desired by life itself to be experienced and added to the mix. The      force of everything demanding everything. Even this. Learning and unlearning,      and learning it again, and again. (And again.) Until the star becomes the centre        (and shines).


On the eternal nature of fresh beginnings
(Peter Boyle)

This body next to you, said the German expert on design, is your ideal self – what you climbed out of once and have since forgotten about. Like gills and dialogues with rainbows, like your life as a ruminant quadruped, it has been erased from your waking story. When the time is right you will step inside it and it will transport you. Do not look at the claws that dangle from its withered right arm – consider only its wings. Say to yourself the word ‘Perfection’. Be confident. All the stars of the universe were placed millennia ago far inside you.


Of course not all great art has its genesis in pain, and not all pain – not even a fraction – leads to the partial consolations of art. But if lancing an abscess is the surest way to healing, can poetry offer that same cleansing of emotional wounds? Shaping the Fractured Self showcases twenty-eight of Australia’s finest poets who happen to live with chronic illness and pain. The autobiographical short essays, in conjunction with the three poems from each of the poets, capture the body in trauma in its many and varied moods. Because those who live with chronic illness and pain experience shifts in their relationship to it on a yearly, monthly or daily basis, so do the words they use to describe it. Shaping the Fractured Self is available from UWAP. Poets will be reading from the book next Tuesday, 13 June at Sappho in Glebe. 

Heather Taylor Johnson is the editor of the anthology Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain (UWAP, 2017). She moved from the US to Australia in 1999 to begin a post graduate degree in Creative Writing. She received a PhD from the University of Adelaide and, while doing so, found a husband and had three children. Her first novel was Pursuing Love and Death (HarperCollins 2013) and her second is Jean Harley Was Here (UQP 2017). Her fourth book of poetry is Meanwhile, the Oak (Five Islands Press, 2016). She’s been writing reviews of poetry and fiction for various literary magazines for more than a decade and regularly reviews film for InDaily. She was the poetry editor for Wet Ink during the term of its publication and is currently the poetry editor for Transnational Literature. She’s co-edited two anthologies but Shaping the Fractured Self is her first solo effort.

Heather has lived with Meniere’s disease for almost half of her life and finds the illness keeps making its way into her writing. Having given a paper at Oxford on poetry-as-illness-narrative and having expanded her thesis to include lyric essays and novellas – the stuff of her current work-in-progress and something she will speak about at the NonfictioNow conference in Reykjavik – Heather is a passionate proponent of illness narrative.

No Shelter (Andy Jackson)

Posted on July 19, 2010 by in Heightened Talk

Floating home from a poetry reading, fog and who I am
closing in as I walk forward, I am still visible.

A mostly full stubbie of beer, VB I suspect,
thrown from a slow car, swoops over my shoulder.

Fear hits. The Commodore’s brakes
light up. Now it’s just us

and the possums, lost at the foot of these trees
ringed with metallic bands.

Running is an invitation, standing still the truth
a hovering fist can’t see. I might think myself

an Aboriginal boy in Townsville, a single mum
in a rough pub, or myself in a school bus, ten again –

another’s hands perched on the seat ahead,
I wait as his prey, no shelter in the flesh. Tears

are slow scratches down a pale face. We are strong
when we hold it all in. Here is where men come from,

and return. One body must open like a gift –
all that’s left, the memory of what it was like

to be alone, a taste on the tongue like salt.

* * *

You’ll find No Shelter in Andy Jackson’s new collection of poetry, Among the Regulars,which is available at Collected Works, Readings Carlton, Red Wheelbarrow (in East Brunswick), Brunswick Bound, on-line through though any “good” bookshop can, of course, order it in.

an interview with Andy Jackson

Posted on July 18, 2010 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

Andy Jackson has been a consistent feature of Australian literature for well over a decade now. We might as well call him what he is: a landmark of Aussie performance and page poetry. Among The Regulars is a collection of poetry just released by papertiger media. The following interview is an insight into the inspirations that have created the poet and the poetry.


What is the nature of the poetic identity for you? How closely do you cohere as a person, with that public figure, the poet known as Andy Jackson?


It’s complex, but I do know that my sense of poetic identity has been strongly shaped by how I got into poetry in the first place. In the mid 1990s, I put myself forward on open mic nights, reading things out that were half-formed and raw, not so much because I wanted to perform poetry, but because I wanted to say something, my own intimate feelings and ideas. On top of that, I think I wanted to control the way people see me. I’d lived with the staring and comments that having an unusual body brings, and I wanted to be in charge. This semi-conscious impulse lead me to the stage, through a fascination with the power of language (and communication!) into poetry.

The poetry I like to read (and hope/try to write) is poetry where something is at stake, something both personal and political. The poet is in the poem somehow, not just manipulating it at a distance. In my poems, the ‘I’ is usually me – and when it isn’t, I’ve still written it by accessing my bodily feelings. I’ve noticed, too, that if the impulse to write is purely intellectual, I can’t sustain it, finish the poem. The unwritten poem has to demand an answer from a part of myself I’m not totally familiar with, or in charge of.

So, I think people familiar with my poems have somehow become familiar with me. But, of course, only one (albeit crucial) aspect of me – they’d know me just as well by examining my rough drafts, my friends, my fridge, the pile of unread books in my room, my rubbish…

I’m now just as much purely on the page as physically visible, so inevitably my sense of poetic identity is shifting. The body is still important to me thematically, but my own body may be receding out of the poems. We’ll see (or read)…


I’d like to ask you about the idea of ‘controlling’ the way people see the poet. Also interesting is the process of transition as we ourselves move from ‘raw’ and ‘half-formed’ things to other, more cohesive and connected beings. Hence some see a ‘spiritual’ element in poetry. I was wondering how you understood such questions of ‘spirituality.’ The page offers us a medium for transformation, but the stage offers a whole new dimension to this process. Has presenting yourself physically been a crucial part of that for you?


Great question. In a way, you’re opening up the question of the difference between what poetry does for the poet versus what it does for the audience (or between the poet and the audience). A huge area.

What I think of “spiritual”, I don’t think of some kind of separate world distinct from the physical, or that cynicism-inducing section of the bookstore. I think we’re talking about transformation, unexpected change. Something about writing poetry opens up possibilities that aren’t immediately apparent or accessible through direct intellectual effort. It’s not otherworldly, but it’s certainly also not the way the dominant world operates. I like your phrase about moving towards being “more cohesive and connected” – my experience has been that this is what writing poetry can do – not so much make me a bigger, better person, but enhance my connections to others and to the world as it is (which sometimes mean I become smaller!)

A classic example for me would be my poem “I have a hunch…”. The first line is “I have a hunch / that curvature can be aperture” – a line that just came into my head, which I felt I had to follow the logic of. I have quite obvious spinal curvature, so those lines are of course puns on physical deformity, and suggest that it’s not straight-ness but difference that open up insights. I finished the poem by going with my intuition, and it has ended up being my own individual secular mantra or prayer.

But I didn’t just write the poem. I felt drawn to make it public, especially to read it in front of people. I remember the audible gasp when I first read it out – naming the elephant in the room, but also suggesting what the elephant might be able to do. I’m not so much concerned about what poetry means, but what it does, its impact. Not that it has one single impact either – poetry offers ambiguity, space, uncertainty, multiplicity. And, in my case, I hope it encourages a deeper sense of empathy, connection, an unsettling of ideology. Poetry works between poet and audience, I think. It has huge potential in a world of detachment and objectification, where everything is made into a consumer item – it can help remove the blinkers.

I can take myself and this process all too seriously though. A few years back, I was approached by a stranger on the street, who asked if I was “still doing [my] stand-up comedy”. Huh?! Your audience doesn’t always remember what you intend them to remember!

I have a hunch

that curvature
can be aperture,
given that light, like water,
does not travel in a straight line,
but finds the lowest point: an equilibrium.

The skeleton,
its gnarled paths and knotted logic
is best placed to receive that light;
not the blinkering eye,
mindless servant of the busy mind.

The skin moves, gracious
to accommodate the push of bones
and between the bars of ribs
the heart beats, regardless,

The body processes everything
in a fumbling and gradual physics,
a photosynthesis of sun, cloud, dirt and sound
into a pulse.

And what harm can the spit of strangers do?
It rains (god, it can pour!)
and the flesh shines all the more.