The Irregular Self: Debbie Lim reviews Andy Jackson’s Among the regulars
Among the regulars
by Andy Jackson
Reviewed by DEBBIE LIM
An online piece by the Academy of American Poets suggests that poems about the body ‘are often poems of celebration and awe, poems that delight in the body’s mysteries, its “dream of flesh”’.1
In Andy Jackson’s ‘Among the Regulars’ the body is far from romanticised. Instead, the body – specifically the ‘irregular’ or ‘different’ body – is viewed as a battle zone that divides the self. In ‘A Passing Thought’, the poet concludes: ‘This body / is no sanctuary – it is here the war is fought and won, / before I can even decide which side I’d rather be on.’
Jackson, who has Marfan syndrome, takes the body (sometimes his own, sometimes those of others) as his immediate subject in this powerful first full-length collection. However, this is essentially a book about marginalisation and its impact on the experiencing of self. It is both personal and political, employing subjective experience to question the status quo. While the poems are often introspective they cast an equally acute look back at the world.
Often the speaker is placed within a specific social situation. In ‘No Shelter’, for example, the poet describes being targeted by hooligans while walking home:
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.
Typical of the collection, the language is beautifully cadenced yet grounded by a conversational tone and everyday details. The poems play out within unremarkable settings: backyards, pubs, hospital rooms, parties, swimming pools. But in Jackson’s poetry, the real drama takes place internally. He has a particular skill for capturing the crucial detail that belies deeper social tensions. For example: ‘a hairline crack dives across a wall’, ‘a Study Bible’s width away from my wife’, ‘a nurse’s ‘uniform opens an inch, / briefly exposing a hint of the sensitive flesh / of our different positions, how cold it can be.’
‘Among the Regulars’ contains three numbered sections. The first and third comprise a substantial number of poems presumably based on events from the poet’s life. In the second section, many poems are dedicated to or inspired by real-life people, most of them unconventional by way of their bodies. These include someone born with androgen insensitivity syndrome, a Melbourne video performance artist, and Justin Fashanu (Britain’s first black footballer to be paid a million pounds and who later came out as gay).
These poems inspired by others are fascinating portraits. However, ultimately I felt more often moved during the first and third sections, and felt these sections also contained the strongest individual poems. Nevertheless, I enjoyed these people-poems for their reach and shift of perspective
One such poem was ‘All is Not as it Seems’, dedicated to Ilizane Broks, born with androgen insensitivity syndrome. The condition means genetic males have outwardly female physical characteristics. However, often it’s not until puberty that the syndrome is diagnosed:
It’s too soon to ask you which box you’d tick,
which cubicle you’d rather use. Now, the mind
is a humming stillness, the body ambiguous.
Your soft wings hide the outline of wings.
At the verge of thirteen, your toes grip the edge.
Beneath your feet, a wind you dare not predict.
I also enjoyed the territory of ‘Strange Friendship’, a poem about the awkward and unspoken boundaries of male friendship:
The clinking of pool balls is an ambient sound,
the crack and sigh of another crude attempt.
I want to tell you how strange this friendship seems,
to ask you where your grief is, as if in your composure
you are being dishonest, but I fear this might be
the stone thrown into the clear face we’ve made.
Friendship between young Australian males is not a typical poetic subject. Taking place on a couch in a pub ‘where a certain absence / of intimacy’s the done thing’, the narrator yearns for a more honest connection with his friend. The final line undercuts the open-hearted disclosure with a comic ironic twist, as the narrator suggests: ‘I reckon I’ll get another. You want one?’
But for me, Jackson shows his strengths best in poems such as, ‘Nothing Personal’, ‘Quasimodo’, ‘Hairline’, ‘The Embrace’ and ‘Labourers’, from the first section, and ‘Secessionist’, ‘Breath’, ‘Metaphor’ and ‘The Embalmer’s Art’ from the third. These display a compelling voice that is incisive, complex and affecting.
Emotionally, it is a confronting collection. As I read, I felt admiration for its accomplishment while simultaneously cringing. The poems conjure those painful experiences of non-belonging that everyone has had and (mostly) buries as deep down as possible. Not so Jackson whose poems replay such events in aching close-up. In ‘Hairline’, for example, the poet recounts a childhood incident with his brother:
In the wake of what you said as if I wasn’t here,
it is so quiet I can hear my chest swell with breath
then shrink. A hairline crack dives across a wall.
Cobwebs wave in the breeze and paint flakes fall.
Mum attempts to patch the gap with diplomatic talk,
but the air won’t go back outside. So that’s it –
you want to know if this pain of yours is a sign
your spine will curve like a treeless leaf,
turn into mine. […]
Sometimes poems with a polished style can seem emotionally distant, as though the original impetus has been refined away. The poems in this collection, however, retain an immediacy that pushes under your skin. Perhaps this is partly generated by the intense focus on the physical; the reader is riveted into the poem like a self into its body. At times, the close perspective felt almost claustrophobic. Jackson uses William Carlos Williams’s adage ‘No ideas but in things’ to great effect. He also knows that attending to ‘things’ can be a powerfully subtle way of conveying emotion.
A handful of poems verged into prosiness and as a result felt flat or strained. ‘Beneath the Surface’, ‘Severance’ and ‘Opening Night’ were examples of those that, for me, did not quite lift off the page. Also, ‘Comfortable’ and ‘Cells, Dying’ seemed to lack the richness of characterisation and detail needed to make these poems fully convincing.
But these criticisms seem petty cast against the book’s strengths. The best poems go beyond being technically successful works on the page; they also reach out with a complex humanity. This is a poetry in which seemingly contradictory attributes are embodied. Lyric beauty combines with an unflinching gaze, self-assuredness with vulnerability, awareness of minute bodily gesture with existentialist questionings.
The vivid sensual image is a signature feature of Jackson’s poetry. Here are a few examples: ‘that patch of schoolyard asphalt / freckled with blood like the breaking of rain.’, ‘The thin white frames of schoolgirls rise like lighthouses.’, ‘A million things are hidden in this bass clef shape’, ‘the vehicle / that will make a jigsaw puzzle of your face’. Such phrases are visually arresting but also have an effortless music and are rich with psychological implication.
If the poems in the first section establish the poet’s entrapment in his body, and those in the second extend to the experience of others, then the poems in the final section seem connected by the notion of the self’s separation. Many of these are about death, division, or a crucial life-segmenting moment.
‘Secessionist’ (which won the Rosemary Dobson Prize in 2008) is one such poem. Perhaps my favourite of the collection, it is visceral and masterfully controlled, combining a sense of the surreal with an almost savage economy. In it, the speaker describes the hellish existence of living with his estranged twin, who shares his body (seemingly like the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng):
I feel a breath at my neck and wake. A dream
only a stranger’s brain could make jolts me back
into my body. Who else roams these bones?
The morning sun cannot melt him away.
He throws back the sheets as I reach for the snooze,
my brain a dead leg he drags through the day.
Tautly paced, the poem culminates with the speaker plotting to kill his other half: ‘And tonight, as he slips / into sleep, a molecular frequency keeps me awake, / sharpening this knife.’ The ending gains greater pathos from the implicit knowledge that murdering the twin also entails suicide. The question being asked might be: How far will we go to escape the pain of our (bodily) selves?
The image of conjoined twins – two identities vying within one body – seems a fitting metaphor for Jackson’s vision of the self. It’s an image of the self in conflict, its dual (duelling?) entities: self versus body, self versus society, and ultimately, self versus itself. Perhaps even the self in time (past battling future) is yet another conflict. But while it’s essentially a portrait of division and alienation, it’s also one that asks us to consider the multiplicity of identity. Interestingly, this twin imagery is reflected in the book’s cover artwork: two white resin heads sculpted in the poet’s likeness sit nestled together in a bird nest.
Another central recurring image is that of gaps (and cracks, silences, holes and vents). In ‘The Direction of Vents’, a woman walks up to an old tree in a park and wraps her arms around it: ‘…perhaps she has opened / a vent in her skin, wider than the nib of this pen / that lets things out, not in.’ The vent seems to represent a means of personal release.
But perhaps it is the final poem that offers the clearest insight to the significance of gaps in the collection. ‘The Embalmer’s Art’ is an unsettling elegy spoken by an embalmer who takes us behind the scenes of his vocation. Here are the last three stanzas:
Every line looks how the family expects –
precise, seamless, unremarkably human. Yet
the gaps are beyond repair and leak. Under
each clean surface, tiny lives swarm and feed.
I evoke a face with the eyes shut, the frozen
unknowable dream. This is our recurring theme,
that in grieving there are some curtains
we don’t want thrown open, this skin
a net composed of yearning, and of holes.
Here, the gaps suggest the irreparable distance between the self and others – a space through which emotional pain flows to the surface. They are the holes in the body’s theatre curtain that expose the vulnerable authentic self.
One of the most memorable poems for me in the collection was ‘Breath’. Dedicated to the poet’s partner, it reads as one of those seemingly effortless works conceived when life’s chaotic points momentarily align. Here it is in full:
I ache to speak without a mouth, make the page
a pale limb dotted with life’s subtle buds.
The world and its molecules turn without this strife.
I have thought myself into knots, my intensity-twin.
There is a language of body, a grammar of gaps.
That day bowed down with the weight of our tongues,
your room a womb for the selves we’ll become.
And now, adrift in the silence of Pärt, an absence
both Rothkos know, I think of you and weep
with joy, even though the continent is shrinking.
My skin is a map of welts from pinching myself.
Go to our room! You say, as the streetlight blinks,
and take that brace of language off, your heron-ness –
for a while, I will cushion your mind with my breath.
Perhaps breath – of the self yet unbounded by it – is one way of spanning those gaps, and transcending the body, albeit briefly. This is a radiant sonnet which forms a rare still point in the book.
‘Among the Regulars’ is a distinctive, impressive and thought-provoking collection. By asking the reader to step into the body of another, it challenges us to consider the impact of assumptions of ‘normality’ on the individual. Ultimately though, it is the presence of Jackson himself breathing through the lines which makes this such a moving work.
1. Academy of American Poets. www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/18999
DEBBIE LIM lives in Sydney. She received the Rosemary Dobson Prize in 2009. Her chapbook Beastly Eye will be published by Vagabond Press in 2012.