Australian poets Andy Jackson’s Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold and Tanya Thaweeskulchai’s A Salivating Monstrous Plant feature poems about the body. This is a body living in space and time. Although there is joy and pleasure here, the body is often under threat — from operation, society, nature.
In Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold Jackson presents portraits of people (including himself) with Marfan Syndrome – a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissues. Thaweeskulchai makes her poetic debut with her book, and presents a series of short, dense prose poems to think through the body as a metaphor “outside of its functionality, removed from practical movements” (ix). They both share a commitment to vocal, stylistic and formal variation, ranging through a number of registers to provide a kaleidoscopic perspective on what the body does and what is done to it by the wider world.
Jackson’s Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold has three sections that are bookended by a prelude and a postlude. The title of every poem is the name of someone with Marfan’s. They are fragmented mirrors, however, and Jackson himself is never far from view.
An “Interlude” can be found in two sections as well – the first being a two-page prose poem with bracketed white space that is home to removed sentences, which themselves become the poem of the second section. Section one reads, in part:
) I still don’t know whether to identify with
the substance or the rupture, these words or the unintended
And the correlate in part two then becomes:
ridge of this surgical scar.
The ball hurtling towards me, my hands moving
before thought. (40)
It is the task of the reader to fit them together, to acknowledge the interruption that is happening in the text, just as it does in the bodies of those with the syndrome.
Yet these poems are poems of people, an attempt to get to know someone beyond their condition, “a mask behind a mask behind this” (40). Although the word ‘we’ features heavily in the opening poems, Jackson transitions from collective to individual identification/consciousness/awareness. The book ends with Jackson positioning himself as a poet among his people. The ‘I’ matters here, even as it says “we can sense ourselves in the seemingly empty spaces” (86). It is variously affective, and intimate, as it allows his readers to glimpse the hopes of the poet, whilst also acknowledging that poetry is “not surgery or a ramp/not an embrace or a letting go/but a way of leaning carefully into whispers” (85-6). Jackson humanises people too easily dismissed, hearing the notes of their humanity. It is tender and insightful, presenting to us a community of individuals, where people become more than their disease, more than how their bodies are defined by society.
The body in Thaweeskulchai’s A Salivating Monstrous Plant functions both as corporeal subject and metaphor. These are bodies made up of organs with actual physiological functions. There are five sections of varying lengths, containing poems that are ornate and visceral prose works with complete if fragmented sentences, . often situating us in a place of violence, constantly at breaking point. This is the body after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For example, her poem “Island shores” begins:
See, the flapping wings of a seagull carrying blood from its flesh, the fruits and throw-away seeds gathered underneath. The others pull into the sky with their feathers dyed red and black, and the dyeing anchors their physicality into an old apple being picked from the grass. Turning my head disrupts the stasis of a narrow, sickly tree. It no longer sleeps – instead it lifts its heavy clump of branches and leaves. Drowsily. Running (13)
There is an arresting opening image as well as the references to the Fall, all connected to the body of the speaker; even the tree is “sickly”, suggesting a world that is eco-poetically sinister. When taken together, the layering of images locates nature as the antithesis of the healthy and pure. It, like the body, is cancerous, leperous, dangerous.
Although working in very different rhetorical registers, Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold and A Salivating Monstrous Plant allow the reader to reflect on the body as more than the sum of its parts, more than its chromosomes and its organs. In the case of Jackson, the marrow is a commitment to other people, insinuating these poems as love poems. In the case of Thaweeskulchai, the skeleton is a dark view of “the natural”, giving us a looming counter-pastoral world. Both books realise the tongue’s ambition to speak its very truth, and appeal to readers looking for formal play and a redemptive hope (in the case of Jackson) and an ecopoetics of daring that implicates the body in a painful world (for Thaweeskulchai). Both poets engage with a poetics of corporeality that responds to real concerns of health and global warming, inviting readers to critically reflect on how our bodies might change and grow in the here and now.
Andy Jackson. Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold. Melbourne: Hunter, 2017.
Tanya Thaweeskulchai. A Salivating Monstrous Plant. Melbourne: Cordite, 2017.
Robert Wood is the author of two books and recently completed a residency at Columbia University. Find out more at: www.robertdwood.net