Collected Works, 9 December 2017
My job today is to talk about poetry in general and Andy Jackson’s new collection, Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold, in particular.
And I will do that. But first I want to do something else.
I want to tell you about my daughter, Sophie.
Sophie is 16.
I spent a day in the city with her this week.
It was one of those wet days.
Sophie and I crowded under an umbrella. And as we walked around the city together I noticed that people noticed Sophie.
You see, Soph has Down syndrome. That means she’s easy to spot. Easy to single out as different – whatever that means.
And, so, whenever we walk together some people stare … and some people smile … and some people glare … and some people say things.
Sophie knows all this, but she keeps walking.
She keeps walking because being stared at is normal for Sophie.
It’s normal because those people don’t see Sophie – don’t see the individual.
All they see is her syndrome.
I wish I could change that, but I can’t.
All I can do is walk with Sophie and pay attention.
I also pay attention to the photographs Sophie sometimes takes.
You see, Soph already has a photograph in the National Museum for Australian Democracy.
And she loves the telephoto lens. Loves the extreme closeup.
And the pictures she takes are unusual.
They’re unusual because when people look down that telephoto lens at the kid with Down syndrome they reveal themselves.
In Sophie’s hands the telephoto lens magnifies the soul.
Poetry – when in the right hands – can be like that telephoto lens.
Magnifying. Revealing. Unmasking.
A warning: we’re now entering dangerous territory because I don’t often talk aloud about poetry.
I read it. Write it. Think about it.
Poetry is so intimate, though, I always struggle with making public that which, for me, is intensely private.
I wanted to make an exception for Andy, though.
If you’re wondering – ‘Why Andy?’ – I’d suggest you go to an Andy Jackson reading or spend time with the last poem in this collection, the autobiographical ‘Moonlight’.
Here are the opening lines:
my body shaped itself into a question mark
I wasn’t that interested in answers
slowing down I felt a tension in the chest
shame burrowed into muscle
not the end of a sentence but its beginning.
This is the kind of poetry that could make another poet jealous.
Let me go back to poetry in general for a minute.
My favourite take on poetry has always been Frank O’Hara’s because he’s such a smartarse.
O’Hara once wrote:
I don’t believe in god so I don’t have to make elaborately sounded structures … I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve.
If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, “Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.”
That always makes me laugh.
It also reminds me of something I read once.
A fighter pilot from World War 2 was asked what it was like – being in a dogfight.
And he said – and I paraphrase – that it was like being chased around the block by someone with a gun.
That’s what poetry has always felt like for me – the writing and the reading.
When it’s working it feels like someone or something is chasing me in the dark.
And I can’t see it and I can’t name it, but I know it’s there, and it’s terrifying. Exciting, too.
And that is what reading Andy Jackson feels like for me.
That’s because Andy knows how to use his telephoto lens – and sees things other people miss – and, like O’Hara, knows how to make the poetry get up and run.
And what does Andy see in Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold?
The obvious answer is: people.
These are portrait poems. Non-fiction poems. But they’re much more than that … because good poetry is about using words to say that which is beyond words.
And when, in this book, Andy trains his telephoto lens on people with Marfan syndrome he takes me to that poetic penumbra.
And in doing so – in focusing on the individuals rather than the syndrome – Andy rescues his readers from ignorance and intolerance.
That’s important. Very important.
But none of that matters if the poems can’t run.
And I’m here to tell you that these poems could run track for Mineola Prep.
In ‘Lindsey’ … a group of teens with Marfan syndrome visit the zoo to watch a pair of giraffes ‘slowly nodding as they walk away’.
In ‘Mel’ … the narrator is not an ‘inspiration or a victim, I’m a runner’.
In ‘Dalton’ … the departed ‘always touched the piano keys so softly’.
In ‘Jonathan’ … the narrator philosophises ‘we don’t end where the skin is, we’re liquid and air, we enter each other’.
In ‘John’ … we meet a man who met a man ‘who wouldn’t play a drum until he’d stroked it, given thanks to the doe.’
In ‘Molly’ … we’re part of an internal monologue, telling ourselves ‘most of the time we’re stuck in the chorus / a walk on part (or limp- or wheel-on).’
In Edith … we’re taken back to the turn of the 20th century and meet an ‘orthopaedic manufacturer, an immensely fat gentleman, the colour of a November fog, [who] constructed for me a prison of iron.’
Reading these often astonishing poems, it felt like not one but many people were chasing me.
And every time I come back to this book another one of those people finds me.
And I’m struck by the diversity of voices that have found their way to me in the dark.
The point I’m making is that this book isn’t poetic ventriloquism.
This isn’t Andy Jackson dancing around in the clothes of, say, Abraham Lincoln.
This is great poetry. This is – indeed – music our bodies can’t hold.
As the narrator of ‘Alice’ says,
I don’t see it as a half-empty glass
or half full – there’s water everywhere.
In conclusion, I’d like to make a confession.
There are some people you should never loan books to.
I’m one of those people. I possess – rather than own – more than a few books that never found their way back home.
But my wicked ways have finally caught up with me.
When Andy asked me to launch his new collection I went back to my pirated library of poetry to re-read his earlier books.
They weren’t there. I loaned them to someone – can’t remember who – and they nicked them.
Serves me right.
I don’t blame the thief.
I’d have done the same.
I’d have done the same because – when I repurchased Andy’s books and re-read them – it was clear to me that Mr Jackson is building a major body of work.
Andy’s poems are unique.
They see things no one else sees.
And they sure know how to run.
That’s a roundabout way of saying Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold is an important book from an important poet.
And that’s why it is an honour for me to say: This book is launched.