Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of chronic illness and pain. Edited by Heather Taylor Johnson
“Of course not all great art has its genesis in pain, and not all pain – not even a fraction – leads to the partial consolations of art. But if lancing an abscess is the surest way to healing, can poetry offer that same cleansing of emotional wounds?” –Peter Goldsworthy, forward
With work by Fiona Wright, Stuart Barnes, Peter Boyle, Andy Jackson, and more, Shaping the Fractured Self showcases twenty-eight of Australia’s finest poets who happen to live with chronic illness and pain. Each have contributed short autobiographical essays to accompany their three poems, capturing the body in trauma in its many and varied moods. Because those who live with chronic illness and pain experience shifts in their relationship to it on a yearly, monthly or daily basis, so do the words they use to describe it. Shaping the Fractured Self gives voice to sufferers, carers, medical practitioners and researchers, building understanding in a community of caring.
‘Meanwhile, the Oak is more impressive with every reading. We’re drawn into an ecology where people really do give a damn about each other and the world their friends, lovers, children and animals inhabit….How clever, how good, her writing is. Taylor Johnson’s poems expand our knowledge while they increase our delight. Read this book!’
– Michael Sharkey, author of Another Fine Morning in Paradise
‘A gifted and gifting collection. Open, generous and accessible poems of love, illness, survival, and so much more. Visceral and redemptive, witty, tantalising, alive.’ – David Brooks, author of Open House
Meanwhile, the Oak (Five Islands Press, 2016)
My dog Tom
There goes that wind, my space snagging on an updraft
then flying across the yard. Over the fence lives a small boy
whose father calls him a girl. A treble clef rises from his cry
and my space joins it, spinning our notes into a mess of confusion
jazz being improvised on out of tune horns. Our music hits a straight path
and heads for the tree, where baby chicks kick their ways out of eggs
such an ache for sunlight, such tiny fissures. My space builds a layer of warmth
around those eggs – mother-vibes I cannot help but send out with the wind.
Clouds come like a few fish turning into a school, then sirens
and the low-pitch howl of my dog Tom. This is where his space begins:
in the gut, where first the wind is felt. His flies further than mine
heavily past the railway line and over Sussex Street where I know the scent of rain
is strongest – in the park, where father birds sit on radio wires, vibrating to music
being transmitted to a house where maybe a fire burns, where maybe another dog
is feeling Tom’s space, is sniffing the air, is taking it into his own.
‘Family, memory, cultural mores and diasporic musings form the fascinating content of these poems, but it is their speaker’s levity insight and generosity of spirit that makes them a pleasure to read. I recommend this book to all readers who have felt, as Taylor Johnson has, that ‘no earth has ever been theirs to claim.’ – Ali Alizadeh, author of Ashes in the Air
‘Heather Taylor Johnson writes about the things that matter and some things that didn’t seem to matter before. Her poems are digressive, surprising, vital, and will find readers beyond poetry’s forts and ghettos.’ – Aiden Coleman, author of Asymmetry
Thirsting for Lemonade (IP, 2013)
Why Painting is Like Geometry
At university in Music Theory I learned about mathematics.
Between binge drinking and finding my soul
I discovered the inevitable:
inspiration doesn’t become creation without fine tuning.
I bought a Dave Brubeck CD and listened while I studied
while I strove to write poems without counting syllables
while I ate two minute noodles and drank six packs of beer
while I tried to sleep to my roommate fucking
in time to beats of jazzed up fives
a coed from the second floor.
I memorised melodies and had to do equations
and questioned my vocation as would-be poet
because Take Five wasn’t a stroll down an alley
of garbage cans and scurvy cats, the woman in red
a hobo whistling, a man in a suit with an alto sax;
it was perfect numbers from fractions
with order and reason
and from it came rhythm and song.
I wanted to be that woman in red, that very sax
because I wanted to believe that magic lies within the muse
and the artist and the sound and the word and the pen.
I wanted to heed the creed of art for art’s sake.
I was eighteen.
I only just passed Music Theory
then ascended to drinking bourbon and cokes
and lost my virginity at a party.
That boy dumped me in two week’s time
while the bourbon took turns with cheap red wine
and I wrote poems on life-til-now
while others took notes in Art 101
on why painting is like geometry.
‘Taylor Johnson sings praises of the natural world and domesticity. Love poems abound…so that every page speaks of the ‘things or bodies need’ – love, food, acceptance, shelter and belonging.’ – Libby Hart, author of Wild
‘An open conversation with family and friends, and with the things of this world, which traverses the stresses, the niggles and the sadnesses, but mostly the complexities of celebrating the everydayness, the ongoingness of living.’ – Jill Jones, author of The Beautiful Anxiety
Letters to my Lover from a Small Mountain Town (IP, 2012)
Past the point of tree growth, where the sky opens
to the wind, I open to you. I am not surprised-
this was always our journey.
We take each breath as if our last, the higher we get
the dizzier the exhale, twisting our ankles
and falling on the palms of our rubble-burnt hands.
Mostly we indulge in water and views: things our bodies need.
So now we are here – tree line.
Where I can look at you freely without analysing my love.
Where I can walk toward you in this gaping space
sturdy bare feet atop the rock and snow.
Where I can say to you this is not a place
where trees die; it is where they dream of living.
‘These poems on birth, motherhood, love and death have intimacy and raw warmth – and a fresh wonder at inner and outer worlds.’ – Eva Hornung, author of Dog Boy
‘Heather Taylor Johnson writes in an immediately attractive way of the small things that are big.’ – Tom Shapcott, author of Chekhov’s Mongoose
Exit Wounds (Picaro Press, 2007)
Gumtree combusts in the heater
and I’m as cozy as I’ve ever been
sweat pants, ugg boots, maternity bra
and that shirt I got from the brewery in Utah
where we drank Polygamist Porter.
It was a year post-wedding, a year pre-children.
He’s drinking a lager now
which he brewed with cardamom pods
then poured into that fine glass mug we bought
from Heather Mountain Lodge
—haven from the rain
and he’s wearing his club scarf of Bulldogs Bulldogs
through and through,
and I realise I’m getting into footy.
Our tacker on the cushions with the stuffing pushing out yells
Oh! He got it! Well done! Go the Blues or the Bombers or
the Power or the Dockers
whichever pops into his enormous little mind
and our baby’s on a rug with toys dangling down
toward his enormous little astonished eyes
and I laugh at the commentators,
call some player by his name,
get nervous before a set shot.
I’m thinking warmth,
the gumtree combusting,
the boys, warmth
the hanging photos in front of me
the two of us
naked shadows in the sand
the Coorong over Easter
the three of us
shadows in the pebbles
by the lake at the foot
of the glacier in Montana
and the sun on the backs of our necks, warmth.
The next one will show four shadows touching
not yet known.
I never watched football in America.
Never watched a Super Bowl
or had a favourite team.
Never knew the uniform colours or mascots by name
but then I never knew the smell of kindling
from newspaper and a dead gumtree branch.
I’d never had rivers flowing through my breasts
and I’d never shared a bed with a dedicated sports fan.
I never imagined this bustle contained
in a small living room
could be part of the build up
to the Grand Final.
And on that day, I wish for rain.
The sound of it on our tin roof.
The players sliding in thick, cold mud
and losing grip on the slippery ball.