Book Review: Music Our Bodies Can't Hold (Andy Jackson.)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

"Something very interesting is happening at the moment in Australian literature. Disability is beginning to be given space to express itself. And not as inspirational or tragic, but in its complexity and diversity. There is a tremendous history, of course, to writing by disabled people in Australia, but this feels like a new wave of sorts. A beginning, and incomplete, but significant nonetheless."
             -Andy Jackson, Among the Regulars, April 27, 2017


Since the publication of his first book of poetry, Among the Regulars, in 2010, Andy Jackson has been one of the driving forces in Australian disability poetry. Not only has he worked to help bring the work of other Australian writers with disabilities to national attention, but through his blog ( which takes its name from his first book), Jackson provides writers an international window to view what is occurring in disability literature in his country. With his latest book, Music Our Bodies Can't Hold, Andy Jackson makes a contribution that deserves a place on the bookshelves of anyone interested in disability poetry, regardless of national affiliation.

Music Our Bodies Can't Hold is a collection of poems in the voices of people, both historic and currently living, who had or are reputed to have had Marfan Synrdome, the condition with which Andy Jackson himself lives. As Jackson states in his brief introduction, it is "a heritable disorder of connective tissue, where the body is unable to correctly make the protein fibrillin-1…Most people with Marfan (though not all) are tall, thin and long-limbed." For many, the person whose image most immediately comes to mind is Abraham Lincoln. Unlike some physical disabilities that until recently almost certainly meant a short life, history provides examples of people with Marfan who made substantial contributions throughout the centuries. One of the tasks that Jackson's book performs is to surface the names of these individuals. While it has become increasingly common knowledge that Lincoln may have had Marfan Syndrome, how many people suspected as diverse a group as Segei Rachmaniov, Mary Queen of Scotts, Robert Johnson, Euell Gibbons and Osama Bin Laden? This discovery alone should send many readers running to Wikipedia.

The majority of the poems in Music Our Bodies Can't Hold , however, are in the voices of still- living people. These voices come from all sections of society. "Lindsey", the first speaker in the book says, "I want a shirt that says, no I/ don't play basketball," and, indeed, Jackson demolishes such stereotypes simply through the wide range of voices he offers readers. Whether famous or obscure, each of the poems gives us the sense of a distinct individual.

The book is structured to suggest the hereditary aspect of Marfan Syndrome. As laid out in the table of contents, there are two sections of 23 poems each, representing the two sets of chromosomes that contribute to human biological development. The title of each poem is simply the first name (there are no duplicates) of someone with Marfan Synrdome; the poem ends with the year of that individual's birth, and, if applicable, death. These two sections are pinned together by an interlude with the title "A Disorder of Connective Tissue Speaks." The forty-six chromosomal poems are introduced by a poem in the voice of Antoine Marfan, the doctor who conferred his name on the disorder, though he did not have it himself. They end with a coda called "Moonlight" in which Jackson adds his own birth date to the end of the list.

One of the pleasures of reading this collection is watching the way that Jackson tries to fit the poetic style to the author. For example, Delta blues guitarist Robert Johnson is represented with a poem in the style of a twelve bar blues song. Akhenaton, whose reign gave rise to a lithe, fluid style of art that contrasted with his predecessors, is given a poem that flows down the page. In the case of poems by largely unknown people, Jackson finds something within the poem that serves as a source for generating its form. The poem "Kacey," for instance, includes the phrase "let out a gigantic crack" and, reminiscent of the style of Laurie Clements Lambeth's work on physical rupture, the poem has a huge crack zigzagging downward through the middle. At other times, a poem seems to draw its shape from the basic simplicity of the speaker's words, as in "Alice":

I can look the surgery up
on youtube and explain it to you
but I'm still nervous

With a book that is designed to and succeeds in showing the great diversity within what the medical profession tries to condense into a mere label, it is difficult to really convey the overall experience of reading the entire text. Nevertheless, a glance at a few of the poems – everyone will have their favorites – gives a sense of what Jackson has to offer.

Some, like "Kyle," appeal just for the images that they convey:

At age five, I'd watch cartoons, eat breakfast
without a bowl — I'd pour cereal and milk into
the caved in area between my chest and stomach.
Pedtus excavatum. As a kid that's pretty cool.
             Not so much for my parents.

On the page opposite "Kyle" is "Jonathan," a poem on Jonathan Larson, the creator of Rent, who died without ever having seen the literal dramatic success of his work.

                           The point of Rent
is that it's not how many years you live, but the songs
you write into other people's bodies. We don't end

where the skin is, we're liquid and air, we enter each other.

Because of the effect that Marfan's has on the heart, the image of the heart both as physical object and metaphor run through many of the book's poems. In Larson's case, he saw that in seeking the heart of Puccini's La Boheme, being faithful meant not imitation but understanding "the open relationship of art" — something that Jackson illustrates well in his own work.

One of my favorite poems in the volume is in the voice of another composer, John Taverner; it's the poem from which the book's title is taken. I quote it at some length here because although one characteristic of disability poetry is that it is deeply embedded in the body, Jackson makes the case that it need not be restricted to a litany of bodily parts, functions, or medical procedures and terminology.

What use is music your body can't hold,
that can't take you from this world?

I met a man who wouldn't play the drum
until he'd stroked it, given thanks to the doe –

We have lost this. All night, the freeway's racket,
its metallic breath. Any day now, I could leave.

O God, you do not exist –
but you are hidden in this tumour,

This slow-leaking valve of my heart – your gifts,
they have broken me into understanding.

Anyone who is trying to explore new territory, as Andy Jackson is in disability poetry , is likely to receive praise for their achievements when the work first appears and later on find criticism from others who, looking back in retrospect, feel they know what the shape of disability poetry should look like scholarly criticism and pronouncement often feels much like a physician's diagnosis. Even as Music Our Bodies Can't Hold breaks new ground, Jackson is aware of this and of the risks he takes. In "Interlude," he writes:

                                                      I admit I'm
not particularly interested in the medical terminology or
mindset – though so many of us are alive because of it. I
am trying my best to hold these things together. Language
has its own, flawed, connective tissue. Identification is a risky
manoeuvre. Have I deformed them, bringing them together
under my own name?

One of the beauties of Music Our Bodies Can't Hold is its wide range of appeal. One need not have been immersed in poetics or disability studies to find the book rewarding. It should also fascinate those with an interest in history or simply in other people. For American readers, the biggest drawback may be one of its inherent virtues, that it was published in Australia and is not as easily obtained as one might wish. However, this should not keep potential readers from trying to secure a copy. This book definitely belongs in the "must read" column.

Title: Music Our Bodies Can't Hold
Author: Andy Jackson
Publisher: Hunter Publishers
Publication Date: 2017


Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor of the recent anthology of disabiity short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).