Author Rachel Robertson launched Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of chronic illness and pain, edited by Heather Taylor Johnson, at a gathering in Perth held as part of the 2017 WINTERarts Festival. Rachel's speech captured the essence of this anthology, which gathers together 28 poets from across Australia who suffer from chronic illness or pain, or work with those who do.
Heather Taylor Johnson will be appearing at the Queensland Poetry Festival later this month.
I’m delighted to be invited to launch this wonderful book, Shaping the Fractured Self, edited by the amazing Heather Taylor Johnson. I first met Heather 18 months ago at a conference in Adelaide and within ten minutes of that first meeting I found myself agreeing to write an introduction to a collection of poetry she was editing. For those of you who don’t know her, Heather could perhaps best be described as a charming, extraordinary creative and literate whirlwind! She is also incredibly hardworking and gets things done. Within a year, she sent me the draft manuscript to read and now, less than two years later, she is here in Perth to run some workshops and read at this launch. Shaping the Fractured Self is a real achievement and I congratulate Heather, the 28 poets who are featured in the book, and UWA Publishing for producing what I believe is the first anthology of poetry about illness and pain in Australia.
For a long time, I’ve been interested in writing about illness, disability, pain and loss. I’ve studied how writers express these assaults to the body and self. I’ve bemused family and friends by reading books about suffering, about illness, about dying. Members of my book club have come to be wary about my book suggestions. “Let me guess,” said my friend the other day when I recommended a book to her, “it’s about dementia or cancer or something, isn’t it?” (It was.) And of course I’ve written about some dark matters myself.
I know how important it is for us to write and read about pain as well as joy, about illness as well as health, about tough times as well as good times. It is all the more important now because we seem to live in a culture where a facile sense of ‘being happy’ is the ultimate goal and where a good life is often defined as a life without vulnerability.
I want to refute this. I want to suggest to you that accepting vulnerability is essential to human connection and that genuine connection with others is of fundamental value to us all.
As the title of this book implies, the experience of chronic illness and pain may fracture or disrupt our sense of identity, our self. Many people here will know this. Our bodies are our homes – if our body (or mind) is in pain or is damaged or changed, this can have profound effects on every aspect of our lives - on our feelings, our thoughts, our senses, our way of living in this world. Sadly, illness and pain are also very isolating and medical treatment can sometimes distance us further from others.
This is why people choose to write about pain and illness. To write is to re-order and re-shape one’s life with a new understanding. It bridges the distances between people and helps the writer work out how to live with illness or pain or disability.
But most people are not writers; many more are readers. And readers need books like this. Because all of us need to learn to live in a contingent world, a world of suffering and vulnerability and interdependence. We may not be experiencing pain or illness ourselves right now but, surely, inside all of us is a small ‘fractured self’.
When you open this book, you will find a richness that will surprise and delight you. You will find yourself slipping gently into other worlds, held by an alchemy of language.
Listen to this section from a poem called 'The Small House of Her Body' by Kristen Lang:
She looks at her fingers as she feeds.
At the house of herself – how the floor
wavers at her feet. And at the satin-eyed
psychiatrists, like ravens on the ruins, their words
draped over joists and lintels.
And this line from Sophie Finlay’s poem 'Diary from a Sanitorium':
I dream of white shadows,
breathing in the ribs of my room.
Here is a stanza from 'What lies beneath my skin' by Rachael Mead:
Fear of death drop 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.
Just these few lines will, I hope, give you a sense of the richness to be found in this book.
Each poet in this anthology has contributed three poems and a short introduction in prose to their work and themselves. I love the combination of poetry and prose, of evocation and explanation, of the tangential and the direct. The short personal statements provide a context for the reader and a personal connection between writer and reader; they are mini-stories in themselves. The poetry that follows takes the reader imaginatively into the poet’s experiences.
Andy Jackson (one of the contributors in this book) says: 'Poetry seems to me a mode of writing particularly suited to deformity, to bodily otherness.' He is referring here to the way that poetry can express the fracturing and disruption that often results from serious or chronic illness. Poetry works with fragments and space, with processes of reiteration and accretion. With its use of metaphor and metonymy, poetry creates meaning through suggestion and evocation. Of all literary forms, poetry tolerates – and indeed creates – uncertainty and ambiguity, thus reflecting the many aspects of an illness experience.
Contributor Sid Larwill notes that poetry 'has allowed me to give voice to things that could have life in no other form – things that won’t brook direct examination but which must be approached quietly, almost secretively, as if looking at them only vaguely from the corner of your eye, at the limit of your field of vision. I’ve had to creep up on the things that matter.' He and the other poets here give us a much wider field of vision through which to see these things that matter.
Similarly, Rachael Guy says that that she finds in poetry 'the particular language' for her experiences. She says, 'I am writing my way out of isolation and into dialogue with others…'.
This is a vital role for literature, and for this anthology in particular – to break the isolation. Poets, as Leah Kaminsky puts it, can be the 'translator[s] of the maladies of sinew and bone'. We often relegate illness and pain to the margins of our community; leave the individual to manage as best they can. This may be, as I suggested earlier, because we are frightened of our own and others’ vulnerability. But vulnerability can be a strength, a gift.
As Sophie Finlay here notes: 'there is a strange sort of wisdom to this illness. It has forced me to slow down, to work part time. It has put me out of step with the external world, but my inner world glows even more vividly. It has made my own soul translucent to me. Illness seems to bring about a curious dichotomy of experience - of struggle and solace, of loss and wisdom.'
Finlay echoes Arthur Frank’s statement that “illness is privileged in the fullness of its participation in life—although, most people have to be sick to realize that.” We are lucky: the reader of this book doesn’t need to be ill to enjoy this fullness; we can experience it vicariously, poetically. This book commands our attention and offers us a gift—works of art that express a deep engagement with life, with loss, with humour, with wonder - in short, with the human condition.
I commend this book to you. It delivers everything the beautiful cover promises. It will sit by your bedside and warm your evenings. It will help your inner world glow more vividly. It is a great honour, then, for me to officially declare Shaping the Fractured Self launched!