Andy Jackson, Human Looking (Giramondo 2021)
Human Looking has changed the way I see the world. More accurately, it has changed the way I experience myself as a body among other bodies in the world.
Trying to describe it, I can’t do better than the Author Note that came with my review copy:
There are two ways of saying ‘human looking’: one with a hyphen, the other with a comma. In other words these poems are about how we judge others to be human yet not-quite-human. They’re also about the humanness of the gaze, the vulnerability of the person doing the looking …
Since puberty, I’ve live with a visible disability, and have had to carry around the weight of other people’s looking. Wrestling with this is Sisyphean; simply putting it down isn’t an option. In a sense, this is my fifth poetry collection about deformity and the fault-lines of human community, though I’ve never written poems quite like this.
There are poems about Andy Jackson’s own experience with the medical profession, and his own experience of ‘other people’s looking’. There are poems about many people whose bodies fall outside the normal, through birth, accident or human intervention: conjoined twins, people with BID (Body Identity Integrity Disorder – you can look it up if you’re interested), pillow angels (you can look them up too), injured soldiers, images from ‘museums of deformity’.
A number of poems engage with other works of art. ‘Song not for you’ responds to Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Song of the Dwarf’; ‘No Lament’ is a sonnet replying to Judith Beveridge’s sonnet ‘Quasimodo’s Lament’. ‘Not a performance’ is a response to a self-mutilating performance work by Mike Parr. There are responses to painter Francis Bacon, and Joel Peter Wilkin’s photograph ‘Art Deco Lamp, New Mexico’ (again, you can look it up, but I recommend that you read Andy Jackson’s poem ‘Light which acts as a mask’, at this link, if you do). ‘In Itself’ is a homage to actor Javier Botet, who has the same genetic condition as Andy Jackson, Marfan’s Syndrome.
Many poems make creative and/or destructive use of other texts. The first poem in the book, ‘Operations’, comprises words and phrases from Jackson’s own childhood medical file. ‘Borne away by distance’ is an erasure poem taken from the last chapter of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. ‘Unhomely’ creates an extraordinary synergy by having alternate lines taken from ‘The Handicapped’, an essay by Randolph Bourne published in 1911.
My usual practice when blogging about poetry books is to look closely at one poem. Here, I want to discuss ‘The Change Room’, which is possibly the most straightforward, least confronting poem in the book. You might say I’ve picked it because it lets me stay in my able-bodied comfort zone, and you could be right, but it’s also the poem that surprised me most, perhaps for that very reason. You can read it in Cordite Poetry Review, 4 May 2016, at this link. I’m assuming approval from Andy Jackson and Giramondo to quote it in full:
The change room This morning, walking almost naked from the change room towards the outdoor heated pool, I become that man again, unsettling shape to be explained. Such questions aren't asked to my face. Children don't mean anything by it, supposedly, so I shouldn't feel as I do, as my bones crouch into an old shame I thought I'd left behind. Chlorine prickling my nostrils, a stranger compliments me on my tattoos and shows me hers – a dove in flight over a green peace sign – as if the canvas was unremarkable. She turns and limps away, and something makes a moment of sense. I lower myself into our element and swim, naturally asymmetrical and buoyant. Quite some time later, showering, the man beside me is keen to chat – how many laps we've each done, how long I've lived in this town, the deep need for movement. Speaking, our bodies become solid.
In a seamless narrative told in eight short stanzas, three strangers initiate encounters with the poem’s speaker. It may feel like a casual anecdote, but every word counts.
The first line, ‘This morning, walking almost naked’, raises questions: why almost naked? where were you? where were you going? The questions are answered right after the line break, but they have been raised. The phrase ‘almost naked’ isn’t necessary as information. If someone is walking from the change room to go for a swim, it goes without saying that they’re in a state of undress. So the first line makes sure that the reader has the speaker’s body in mind, which prepares us for what happens next.
When ‘the change room’ is first mentioned it doesn’t feel as if it’s carrying any non-literal weight. But a slight shift in its meaning comes with the third line: ‘I become …’ Without disrupting the conversational surface, the change room has taken on a metaphorical dimension: it’s not just a place where the speaker has changed his clothes; it has changed him by exposing his body to an othering gaze, articulated in a child’s question, which we assume to be something like, ‘Mummy, what’s wrong with that man?’
‘Such questions aren’t asked to my face.’ That’s the key to this encounter: it’s not person to person, but person to person-seen-as-thing. The poem pulls back from blaming the child, but can’t shake off the hurt of being objectified. When a girl shouted a racial slur at Adam Goodes on the football field, the same line of logic applied: she didn’t mean any harm, so it’s wrong to be hurt by it. But the impact is there regardless of intention, and the word ‘supposedly’ leaves the question of blamelessness open. An ‘old shame’, from a history of encountering such attitudes, is felt in the body (‘my bones crouch’), and is compounded by the thought that I / shouldn’t feel as I do’, and anyway it’s something he thought he’d outgrown. So much complexity is contained in these few lines.
As the whiff of chlorine calls us back to the present enterprise, the swim, there’s a second encounter – the kind of inconsequential encounter I’ve been documenting in my 500 people posts. The other person is introduced as an abstraction, ‘a stranger’. We learn details one at a time – first her gender, then her tattoos and by implication perhaps something of her anti-war, pro-environment politics, and finally her limp. The three lines of this conversation raise questions: isn’t it a bit odd for a stranger to approach you at the pool and chat about your tattoos? what is going on that she shows her own ‘as if the canvas was unremarkable’? She is putting her attention to the speaker’s body and drawing his attention to hers, but in a way that seems to assume that the skin and bodies aren’t of much interest. It’s not exactly a denial of the body, but it’s the opposite of ogling. It’s also, crucially, an opposite to the gaze of the first encounter.
Only when she walks away, and we see that she limps, ‘something makes a moment of sense’. Along with the speaker, we understand that she has been acting on the basis of shared disabled status – an equivalent, perhaps, of the ‘nod’ that brown and black writers describe – but he hasn’t understood the nod until she walks away.
This is the only stanza (apart from the final one) that ends with a full stop. Elsewhere the transition between stanzas is, to use a key word from earlier in the poem, unsettling. The lack of carry-over here suggests that something has been resolved.
The sixth stanza is a moment of respite, the swim. Here too the language is alive with possibility. Water is ‘our element’. I once met a man whose PhD thesis was on the use of pronouns in political speech, in particular we, us and our. He would love this our. It most obviously refers to the speaker and the ‘stranger’: he has accepted the fellowship she offered. In water their various asymmetries can be natural. But water is also everyone’s element, including the child and parent from the start of the poem. The ‘our’ here is an assertion of common humanity. Asymmetrical bodies are also natural, and no less buoyant than symmetrical ones.
In the third encounter two men are showering, possibly completely naked – at least that’s how it would be at my local pool – and they chat, unselfconsciously, about what they have in common. They have swum in the same pool, they live in the same town, and moving to a slightly more philosophical and self-disclosing level, they share a ‘deep / need for movement’.
Though I find the last line – ‘Speaking, our bodies become solid’ – completely satisfying, I have trouble saying why. The earlier encounters focus each in its own way on the speaker’s body as different. The man in the shower, ‘keen to chat’, isn’t interested in that difference at all. It’s not that he’s strenuously ignoring it, he’s just not interested at that moment. Paradoxically, not paying attention to the difference enables the speaker (who we can assume reciprocates the chat, as he probably doesn’t in the earlier encounters) to think in terms of ‘our bodies’. Here, in this moment, he is not that man, nor a member of a particular group, but an embodied human talking to another embodied human. The line contains an echo of a powerful moment in the Catholic Latin Mass, when the priest would genuflect as he intoned, ‘Et verbum caro factum est‘ / ‘And the word became flesh.’
Speaking can rob us of our humanity, can express solidarity, can affirm that same humanity. The humble change room has become a metaphor for a place where transformation is possible.
I am grateful to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.