Cameron Lowe reviews The thin bridge by Andy Jackson
by Andy Jackson
ISBN 978 0 9873866 4 9
Reviewed by CAMERON LOWE
Andy Jackson’s chapbook The thin bridge (Whitmore Press, 2014) is preoccupied with the human body. If I counted accurately, the words ‘body’ or ‘bodies’ appear in twelve of the twenty-six poems in this slim collection, and of the fourteen other poems the body is present as subject, or part subject, in nearly all of them. If this seems like overkill, it also gives The thin bridge a powerfully unified set of thematic concerns which works effectively in the chapbook form.
If the body is central to this collection, it should also be said that in many of the poems it is a starting point for broader reflections. The book’s first poem, ‘What’s possible between us’ (and it seems important that the question mark is omitted here), introduces the reader, somewhat tangentially, to the preoccupation with the body:
I part the vertical ocean of clothes
and find you there. Spider,
it is almost terrifying to me – suspended
only by the work of your own body. (p. 1)
It is a startling and haunting image, and of course, it is not just the spider’s body that is being evoked here. Yet it is a question the poem poses prior to this—‘Who knows what we’re capable of?’—that resonates throughout The thin bridge. And who is the ‘we’ in question here? One’s initial expectation, given the poem’s title, is that this will be a poem addressing a lover, and that the ‘we’ relates to a couple. However, the poem elides this expectation, producing a destabilising effect for the reader. As with many of the poems that follow this first one, there is a curious tension between the personal and a sense that the poems are probing broader issues. It is a clever dynamic that makes you want to reread the poems, to tease out what might really be at stake.
There is a strong autobiographical element to these poems—as well as a persistent lyric ‘I’—and it is perhaps worth noting that Jackson has Marfan’s syndrome, a condition that affects the body’s connective tissue and can lead to a range of medical disorders including heart disease and spinal curvature. I raise this because on one level the poems appear to demand this sort of biographical reading; the focus on the body—its shape, its frailties, and our responses to physical form—is such an important theme of the book as a whole. Additionally, such biographical information adds a layer of poignancy to a poem such as ‘Desensitised’, where there is a cheeky metaphorical play on the spines of library books, which the poem’s speaker must ‘push…back to vertical’ (p. 10).
Jackson has a talent for striking, and at times confronting, imagery. ‘Mother’s Day’, for instance, brings to mind Barrett Reid’s agonised ‘The Absent Heart’:
They crack open the bone
gates of your chest
to rechannel the paths
your life runs. Five hours
busy around the opened
chasm – machines and
surgeons. (p. 20)
Or, in ‘A certain type of poem’—which might hint at a Charles Simic influence with its ‘immaculate walls of an abattoir’—we are presented with another haunting image:
A life support system, humming after the body is taken / away (p. 7)
‘A language I didn’t know I spoke’, the poem that provides the collection’s title—it’s not exactly a ‘title poem’—is, curiously, one of the few poems in the book that doesn’t display a preoccupation with the body. Rather, the poem appears more concerned with connections between the human and natural world, and makes reference to ‘something obscure we have in common’ (p. 24). It is an interesting poem, in which the poem’s speaker goes on a bush walk and has an unusual encounter with a bird. My initial reaction to the poem was, perhaps ungenerously, that it indulges a little too much in the mysticism of communing with nature. I say ungenerously because the poem eventually deflates any pretensions of special insight on behalf of the poem’s speaker by the remark ‘I…feel / absurdly human’ (pp. 24–25). The poem’s final image, of ‘crossing back / over the thin bridge’ (p. 25), which presumably is a literal bridge but also a metaphor for the passage between different states of being, or states of awareness, is handled with a subtlety that Jackson exhibits throughout the collection.
For all of its considerable strengths, The thin bridge is also a little uneven. The travel poems in the middle of the book, in particular, are something of a flat spot, and seem misplaced in this collection; it might have been wiser, from an editorial viewpoint, to omit them. Few poets are able to successfully write convincing poems about exploring foreign places; as a reader, or at least for this reader, it always feels like being made to look at an album of someone else’s holiday snaps. The poem ‘Reaching and leaning’, which involves a hike in the Muir Woods of California, again provokes an uncomfortable feeling of being invited to share in some kind of mystic experience for the poet:
Standing still and writing this, the voices carry,
all the voices in my head, reaching
and leaning into light, this desire
that shares something with the wood,
the sap, the fingertip seed.
I place my palm against a sapling,
leave a trace. (p. 19)
This is a minor hiccup however, and the book’s final poem, ‘The bike itself’ (p. 35), is a brilliant choice to conclude The thin bridge. There is a temptation to read the poem as an oblique summation of the collection’s preoccupation with physical form; an abandoned bike is slowly picked apart until the object no longer resembles itself, and a half-demolished house is ‘only an empty frame / surrounding a fireplace’ (p. 35). And yet, as with the book’s first poem, ‘The bike itself’ is elusive and ends the collection on a wonderful image:
…Memories not even
lavender-patterned wallpaper can hold onto
lift into the sky, like pollen or dust in reverse.
CAMERON LOWE lives in Geelong, Victoria. His two book-length poetry collections are Porch Music (Whitmore Press, 2010) and Circle Work (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013).