(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.
‘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
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
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
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
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
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.