POETRY HIDES IN THE BONES

Reviewed by Mary Cresswell

Immune Systems. Andy Jackson. Transit Lounge, 2015. www.transitlounge.com.au
978-1-921924-82-8. p/b 62 pp. 

Andy Jackson is a poet from Melbourne, Australia.
He writes about his concept of the ghazal and his writing of this book in Southerly

Illness can make you feel trapped – and so can being in a different culture. Andy Jackson’s collection of poems focuses on medical tourism and vividly illustrates the tiny space we are trapped in when we loose both our health and our usual sense of place.

In the very first poem, we begin our long walk to the hospital through stifling streets where:

        Your body
must take in all the same shocking

clichéd images of urban India and hold them,
tenderly.               [Apollo Hospital, p11]

The book is in two parts: the first poems (which are in ballad style, free verse, and other forms) take the speaker to the hospital, through medical procedures, and into recuperation. The world around is relentlessly physical and totally urban – it presses in hard on all sides, crushing us with humanity and its products; even the gods – Ganesh, Buddha – are plastic and stuffed in corners. If the speaker wants relief, there is no stepping out for a stroll in a lovely green lane; rather, he can find change only by looking at himself from a different angle.

I run to the pillars of culture, from the dizziness of mirrors.
Will I ever find a clearing in this wilderness of mirrors?

I’ve yet to see myself in glass, just what I’m becoming.
An ever-flowing churning stream, this distress of mirrors.  [Ghazal of mirrors, p43]

We pass through a mosquito netting of haiku into the series of 14 ghazals which forms the second part of the book, and here the overall tone changes. Perhaps it is now the sound of yearning – for home? (this section is the only part which references the speaker’s home in Australia) – for connection? – for cooler weather?

Our hotel room, a wooden loft, hovers in fog. At night,
our breathing slows – my skull, a fragile crystal bowl.

Strung together, hung from the clothes-line, saffron
flowers fall one by one. All that remains is the line.  [Ghazal, Kalimpong,  p51]

Or is it a yearning for health?

Breathe. The roads to the past and future aren’t passable.
A dense rust-grey floats over rivers of metal and flesh.

Turning rupees in your pocket like the idea of a self,
gazing at colonial facades, you’re still this tone of skin.  [Ghazal of the body, p48]

As a group, the ghazals address a different world than the world of the hospital and recovery. They strike me as more outward, less obsessed with the immediate here and now. Seen against the nitty-gritty narrative of the first poems, they are music, perhaps a flute song, that lures the speaker onwards to hope, to a passable road into the future, where life goes on:

Poetry dives, hides deep in the bones. Your body’s lost, splutters
in this tidal scent of rubbish, food, urine, diesel fumes on the street.

Your city’s hushed, ordered as a court. Here, blood’s timid whispers
are lost – lung-clearing men hack, a backfiring taxi booms on the street.
[...]
The limbs of the chilli tree are swathed in the purdah of dust and
getting-on-with-it. Its urgent red display as it blooms on the street!

Cows asleep on the median strip, twenty men sweating in a jeep, defecating kids waving hello, mandirs of dusty mandarins, kerosene wafting through a frayed curtain ... all life’s undisguised perfumes on the street.   [Ghazal, Kolkata p46]

The author has very legitimate concerns about medical tourism – if you jump the queue, you always push someone else back – and he voices these as well as his immediate personal discomforts. But the topic deserves its own discussion, not just a side note in a poetry review, so I’ll leave it at that.

To me, the greatest appeal of this book is the combination of intensely individual narrative with the music of the ghazal, all parts of the book (including the buzzing haiku) talking about the same situation in very different ways. This book is a fine contribution to the world of written ghazals, and it’s well worth reading.