Book Review: Structuring the Fractured Self (Heather Taylor Johnson, ed.)

Reviewed by Olivia Mammone

In an interview, I once heard a Vietnam veteran say, "war is just long periods of boredom punctuated by terrifying seconds." I think about this quote a lot during the winter months when the cold immobilizes me. It's a strange thing to be reviewing an anthology about illness and chronic pain while in the throes of one's own symptoms. For the last three months, I have been unable to access pain management treatments that keep my symptoms just south of under control. The weeks surrounding the deadline for this review have been blur of swimming through syrup; bone crushing fatigue interspersed with muscle spasms. The night before it was due, I was still reading. I was hopped up on caffeine and trying to mellow it with marijuana, scratching my skin with anxiety and staving off intrusive, repetitive thoughts about being a failure for not being able to better manage my time for this simple task. I was and am, in short, a messy vessel for everything Shaping the Fractured Self (UWA Publishing) had to offer.

In this digestible yet grippingly necessary anthology, editor Heather Taylor Johnson has brought together twenty eight Australian poets living with a wide variety of circumstances. There is tremendous care on the part of the editor as to how many types of illness were represented, from those with migraines to depression to things that don't yet have a name. Though a lifetime of being called "inspirational" has made me suspect of such feelings, I was deeply impressed by the directness with which contributors talked about difficulties far greater than mine. For example, Stuart Barnes offers a frank and forthright account of how deep emotional and physical trauma can become injury and chronic pain and speaks to his methods to lessen both. In one of his poems, Barnes gifts readers the line,"I apprehend firebirds." What a grandiose, hopeful phrase. I struggled with, and felt a yearning towards, the peace or compassion some contributors stated they have achieved as a result of their conditions. Anne M. Carson calls the process,"accepting powerlessness and in using whatever power is available to me." As I was calling myself a failure for several missed deadlines and cancelled events, that was an extremely powerful notion. David Brooks' "Cleaning the Gutters" called out to me, a joyful reflection on everyday tasks that become accomplishments. Poetry makes the ordinary revelatory. It has that in common with illness. I'm happy for the speaker of this poem; for anyone who is able to take pride in what they have achieved in a day rather than focus on what they haven't. I am not very good at putting this gratitude into practice.

Each author is given space over the course of several poems and a short biographical essay, a format borrowed from the sister anthology Beauty is a Verb. These essays sometimes have a slight tendency towards redundancy since the information is often repeated, sometimes verbatim, in the poems themselves, but they do foster a sense of community between the reader and each writer; of getting to know each person. Each contributor finds a different way in the work to reach out and connect. The sheer number of times I found myself nodding or exclaiming aloud with the situations in some of these poems could be their own review. "The paradox at the heart of an illness experience," contributor Rachel Robertson writes, "is that it is both highly intimate and profoundly estranging."

Most of the writers presented grapple with this dichotomy on some level. Motifs of uncaring or downright abusive doctors, darkened bedrooms, unsolicited advice from friends, these things appear and reappear and, with every repetition, reduce isolation. Authors call out and echo each other. Barnes' poem "Ari" opens with an epigraph from Sylvia Plath's "Tulips," a classic of sickness literature. Johnson references Virginia Woolf. Other authors use point of view, moving away from the confessional I such as Sophie Finlay's "Diary from a Sanatorium: 1940's" or Susan Hawthorne's use of ancient mythology in "descent."

"…my hair snake-wreathed
Etruscan Medusa
speaking with a hundred voices
the sibilant hiss of prophecy

seizure grasped
she flails at vanishing memory
bruised she rises from darkness
almost misses the plane"

Using smoky, puzzling diction and the setting of the ancient world, Hawthorne actually creates the seizure experience, the world of the brain against the world itself. The shift in diction to signify the "coming back" is very subtle and creates magic. Whether through speaking narratively of personal truths or shifting perspective, the authors are creating a necessary context that staves off fear and loneliness. People with illnesses and disabilities, all marginalized people, have to feel like we have a history, both literary and cultural. We have to believe we have always existed and have always deserved life. It's the only cure for our bodies rioting and our culture telling us we don't matter.

Poetic form is also used to great effect in this anthology. Formal structure can be used as a metaphor for, or to amplify the resonance of, how we are held by bodily experience and how illness forces deviation. Susan Hawthorne also includes a very effective ghazal about the well-meaning danger of calling an ambulance for someone with epilepsy, a nod and an eye roll to anyone in the know. The broken final couplet of Gretta Jade Mitchell's "Sonnet to Delete" uses the form as a metaphor for the unruliness of grief, how it comes before its time. It is one of the book's few formal poems and it does not go gentle or wasted.Heather Taylor Johnson's own contribution, "Trying to Talk About Meniere's Disease," is a haibun, an ancient Asian form combining haiku and prose that evolved into the modern lyric essay. This form feels nothing short of perfect to speak on what is both distressing and distressingly familiar. Sometimes, the experiences we face need the space of a non narrative that poetry can afford. Other times, we have to just detail the bizarre, terrifying truth because to heighten the language to something poetic or beautiful is too far beyond us.

Another truly shimmering example of the long form poem is Kristen Lang's detailing of her childhood anorexia, "the small house of her body." Lang makes tremendous use of the room she is given to showcase her range over several poems. Her shorter works create tension between structural brevity and extended metaphor as well as dreamlike landscapes to skirt around the information readers of her autobiographical essay are privy to. It feels like being welcomed. But in this long, sectioned poem, various metaphors stack like the subterfuges and mental gymnastics the young speaker has to use to continue on their path. This choice of diction walks a razor wire between making the information given in the essay new again and overbalancing the poem into total obscurity. Consider the complex emotions of this scene:

She does not die. In the children's ward,
two brothers drown slowly
in the efusions of their lungs.
A young girl spasms with a disease
of the old. Another has the skin of her legs
stretched across her arms to heal the burns
that went so close to taking all of her.
The thin girl is kept apart and as idle
as shelving, inert under the weight of being well.

The result is a harrowing, elegant success navigating the way people with illness feel at fault for what they must bear.

At this point in my life, most of my Reading this book, I found myself wondering what it would have looked like if all the authors dealt with illness but not every poem focused on it as a topic so directly. Very few do not reference illness in any way. I worked to understand why I was so hungry for that; found the same instinct that rears up in me as I try to put sets of poems together for publication or performance. There's a fear that I can only write about one thing when, in fact, the thing is all I am. Is every poem by an ill or disabled poet a poem about illness or disability even if the poem itself doesn't tackle the subject? I wonder if the walk through a hall of carnival mirrors that was reading this anthology, and my discomfort with that, indicates how vital it is. Would I still be working off my shame if more books existed like it? Shaping the Fractured Self is a thing forged in fire and strength, a deeply accessible work in a world where there is barely any accessibility for the disabled, the ill, the different.

Title: Structuring the Fractured Self
Editor: Heather Taylor Johnson
Publisher: UWA Press (University of Western Australia)
Publication Date: 2017


Olivia Mammone is an editor and poet from Long Island, New York; where she lives with her parents, brother, family of feral cats, and geriatric dachshund. Her poetry has appeared in monstering, Wicked Banshee, The Medical Journal of Australia, QDA: a Queer, Disabled Anthology. As part of Union Square Slam, she is the first disabled poet to compete on a New York national slam team.