"UNDER MY SKIN I HAVE A DIFFERENT NAME:"
Aidan Coleman, Antony Riddell and Mal McKimmie on the body, the mind and the world
If I have one preoccupation in poetry, it is the body — this thing that is continually changing in a dance of regeneration
and deterioration, this object that is in fact innumerable objects as well as subject, that generates our consciousness. These bodies
are often taken for granted or underplayed, but they always makes themselves known in one way or another in poetry.
I have gathered here three contemporary Australian writers who speak with unique and powerful voices reflecting on
embodiment and experience (sometimes directly, other times in enigmatic or convoluted ways). This essay is not an attempt to
analyse or categorise them from a theoretical, stylistic or rhetorical perspective. I'm not interested here (though believe me, I
could be elsewhere) in where they fit in the world of literature or the world of disability. None of these poets self-identify
as "disabled" (one, we'll see later, has attached a more provocative label to himself). Which I personally find more
interesting. The self that is evoked in these poems isn't straightforward or labeled, but slips between definitions, and in doing so,
seduces the reader into places of productive doubt about their own embodied position.
Here, I simply want to place two poems and one novella together, hold them up to my ear, and listen. Of course, how they
speak to me is very much shaped by my own experience and predilections, and I am fascinated by where the mind sits in the body
and how we reach out towards other bodies, other people — these "others" that are perhaps not so separable
Aidan Coleman's second book of poetry may not have ever happened. A few years ago, while in the
(mercifully slow) process of being discharged from hospital for mysterious headaches and vomiting, Coleman had a stroke, caused
by a tumour on his brain stem. His wife was told he had a 50:50 chance of returning to her. As it turns out, he returned, but the
journey was long, disorienting, halting and strange. "Asymmetry" is the story of that journey, told in two
sections — the struggle with movement, language and medical professionals; and the love which anchored him and drew him
Coleman is one of Australia's best imagists. His poems are precise, chiselled, full of space and air. Many of his poems
recuperate a kind of secular spirituality within the urban mundane. He uses surprising metaphors not for their own sake but
to bring the reader back to the world, in all its strangeness and beauty, with wit, gentleness and compassion. The poem entitled
Airship from his first collection Avenues and Runways reads in its single line The moon's speech bubble.
But what would happen to metaphor and meaning after a stroke? How do you write poems, that most intense and conscious
writing, when language has left you?
First I step
in and out of daze
The ghosts of nurses
check and go
as bland as hurricanes.
My shoulder hangs
an elephant's trunk
I've never owned.
When on, my voice
returns as whisper
shuffles out one corner
of a mouth gone awry.
with books and cards
like a broken leg
This is delicately intimate poetry. Each word is carefully chosen and placed, and surrounded by white space. The reader is
lead through the poem slowly, thoughtfully, with short irregular stanzas and uncanny shifts in word-meanings. Sleep-depraved not sleep-deprived. In and out of daze, suggesting days, the disorientation
that doesn't even allow for the clarity of which day is which. Coleman here ushers the reader into his experience, while making us
quietly uncomfortable within it. It is we who would have brought him books or cards.
Notice too how the metaphors fit the experience closely and modestly. My shoulder hangs / an elephant's trunk.
And nurses / check and go // their names / as bland as hurricanes. Coleman's metaphors rarely get carried away with
themselves they slip off from what they signify, retreat into the background to maintain the focus on the inner resonances
of the particular experience.
There is acute pain here — the pain of recovery, certainly, but most importantly the pain of isolation and uncertainty.
The speaker is isolated from friends who visit him (now merely "people"), the medical professionals attending him,
and from his own body. He speaks the shadow of the pleasurable ignorance we normally feel about our bodies — at any
moment, this untroubled embodiment can be pulled away from us. He has experienced that disruption and in reading the poem,
we feel it hover over us.
As powerful as Coleman's poems are, there is no doubt that they are recollections, reconstructions of events that at the time were
perhaps inaccessible to the clear expression Coleman usually employs. They are the survivor's backward glances rather than the
unselfconscious outburst. That pain is in there, but held in the centre of the poem, an exquisite word-craft built over it.
Antony Riddell's writing, on the other hand, takes great pleasure in wildness and excess. His 2002
novella Fingerprints on the surface of the brain begins:
Consider the little greyish skink. Observe how it writhes — how it has located the warmest
spot for, perhaps, hectares to lie in. This warmth is far more important to the skink than to you, gentle reader, as a drop in
temperature could result in a frozen skink. I am of course assuming that this will be read only by warm-blooded mammals
and not cold-blooded vertebrates (or even invertebrates).
Soon after we are introduced to three mysterious and threatening individuals with "identical sickly-yellow skin"
who arrive by helicopter at the house of the central character Jack Ox. These individuals, we are told, "walked uneasily,
hesitantly— the ground certainly did not easily come into agreement with their legs". Ox is given a challenging,
enigmatic task to complete. On his long and convoluted journey, he encounters a goat with blue teeth, has a conversation with
a giant spoon and a carp with human ears, and even transforms momentarily into custard (!).
Fingerprints could be described as surrealist spy-thriller. There is the familiar tropes of the hero, the journey
and its hurdles, but all suffused with a knowingly conspicuous surrealism. Events consistently have the flavour of dreams or
hallucinations, bizarre occurrences interrupt the narrative only to have no further relevance, causation is often reversed or made
confusing, sentences break down into fragments, and the reader is often addressed directly, even questioned. Riddell's aim is to
disorient, to call into question our common assumptions about meaning and literature, and to entertain.
I first came into contact with Riddell through the Melbourne poetry readings scene. He would put his name up to read at open mic
events, and always had a profound impact. His name would be barely legible on the blackboard of readers. With obvious great
effort, wearing padded headgear, he would stagger from his chair to the lectern, leaning on it for support while he read in a forceful
and strained voice, sometimes inadvertently drooling onto the page. The audience rarely understood every single word, but these
short bursts of surreal and humorous prose were always exhilarating and jarring.
Riddell has never written what people often expect from someone who had a brain injury in early adulthood. He never makes
himself the heroic or tragic subject, an object of pity or admiration. He writes what he has always been interested in —
absurd and provocative alternate realities. Consider these extracts from Fingerprints:
Inga looked up. The sky was green. Why was this fact not previously known? She gazed oddly. Into
her gaze flapped three objects. From afar she could tell that they were transparent spheres with wings. She could not determine
the nature of the objects that each one bore. Jack Ox paled visibly. Had he seen something disturbing? Everything seemed
disturbing anyway. (p.28)
As Meateiu strode across the twisted terrain, beings with human heads, tortoise bodies and 4 (four) blue legs were seen. For no
good reason, Meateiu called these creatures Puppoi. Puppoi did not appear unduly disgusting but seemed contented merely to
exist. Perhaps this in itself was disgusting, mused Meateiu. (p.81)
Jack Ox pressed something that he held. Closer inspection would have revealed a button hidden on a ping-pong ball. But nobody
wished to look. The depression of said button lead to an interesting chattering sound, produced by a variety of noisy devices.
This wacky symphony kept expanding in realisation and organisation until... I would like to have told you more about the
peculiar symphony initiated by Jack Ox, but at this instant the background became a sun-drenched, apparently infinite and
perfectly flat grassy plain. (p.84)
Reading Fingerprints is a continual encounter with discomforting and hilarious frustration. The story goes
nowhere, yet it goes everywhere. There is a disturbing recurrence of wounds, teeth and violence; but there also is a lot of
ice-cream, ducks, rissoles and bananas. Who is acting in each scenario, or being acted upon, is regularly called into question.
All along you feel the author winking at you, poking you, sometimes even turning away.
A year or two before the publication of Fingerprints on the surface of the brain, Riddell wrote a short essay for
the members magazine of the (then) Victorian Writers Centre, where he referred to himself as "maimed". This caused
great controversy. Letters to the editor printed in the next issue expressed great dismay over this word, one writer feeling that it
must be evidence of self-loathing, and was certainly not a word that should ever be attached to someone with a disability. What
Riddell had revealed through this was the tenuous sense of agency that our societies allow people with a disability, and how
language can be a weapon in both directions.
There is, I believe, a longer essay to be written about Riddell's writing and his provocations, about how his physical
presence unnerves an audience in a very different but somehow harmonious way that his writing unnerves them. Here,
what I want to highlight is the fundamental power of his writing— how it generates a pleasurable, visceral disorientation.
A very different pleasure and disorientation circulates through Mal McKimmie's poetry. With the
publication of his second book of poetry, McKimmie is proving himself to be one of Australia's most adept confrontationalists.
Rather than the invention of a surreal, alternate world, he burrows deeply into this world – not so much its
surfaces (though these are present) but its structures of truth, myth and normalisation.
The speaker in The Brokennness Sonnets I — III and Other Poems is a self (or really many selves)
negotiating the determining structures of biomedicine, war, religion, madness and pain. If that sounds imposing, it is,
deliberately so. It is a dense and dizzying collection, but not without liberal doses of wit and black humour, at the expense
of numerous certainties. And The Brokenness Sonnets is more than the sum of its (almost entirely brilliant)
parts — as the book proceeds, the reader accumulates a palpable existential unease through the poetry's ruthless
affirmative pessimism, each poem expanding and enlightening the others. Where else can I start but the beginning?, the
[from "The Brokennness Sonnets I"]
My head is atomic with unspoken thought.
My heart a river that strains its banks until
released by seizure. Nothing changes — I wet
myself, I grow older. And while I pace
behind my body's bars like Rilke's panther,
hands soothe me, hold me, wipe from my face
my failed speech — I am loved. But still,
like a tree trapped in eternal winter,
I am time-twisted, rain falling inward,
with never a spring, not one flowering word.
Not even love will free a single finger
for my poems blue as the sky, blue as the rain,
to spread wings and fly from an alphabet board.
Under my skin I have a different name.
Each line here is multi-layered and compressed. There is a muscularity to the language, a rhythm of great
energy, both defiant and resigned. Many of the phrases are folded over on themselves, containing their own
questions and riddles ( rain falling inward... failed speech wipe[d] from my face...). The poem points
beyond itself to negativity — to what it cannot name, to what does not yet exist in the world — unspoken thought and the different name which is left unnamed.
In the intense compression of language and the foregrounding of loaded words and images (head, heart, tree,
flower, love, rain, wings), the poem flirts with a knowing irony. Yet this is always interrupted by the real —
"I wet myself", "wipe from my face", "an alphabet board". The sincere physical
caring of others is not denied — it is just not enough, for a person trapped inside their own body. What is
captured here is the unspeakable isolation of suffering, and how that suffering is compounded by a failure of language,
whether caused by physiology, neurology or life itself. At the same time, this "failure" of language is
expressed through a brilliantly successful sonnet. It is this sort of paradox — of mirrors facing mirrors —
that makes The Brokenness Sonnets so pleasurably confounding.
McKimmie is well aware of the autobiographical assumption of the reader of poetry, and exploits and subverts
it from the start. His bio states that "he has also worked in welfare, with people labelled as having a 'disability'
and people diagnosed as having a 'mental illness'". In part, his first collection Poetileptic springboarded
out from epilepsy into myth, meaning and language. The Brokenness Sonnets goes far deeper. While there is
no doubt in my mind that the poet's own personal embodied experience is part of the raw material here, the sonnets
explore the multiplicity and the fictions of the self in a profound and provocative way. They fully inhabit the subjective
perspective, at the same time critiquing it, and shifting position from poem to poem.
This happens intriguingly in the three "Homunculi" poems in the final section of the book, as the language
and lineation opens out into aphorism, paradox and retort, addressed alternately to the self, the other, the reader and to
You say everything with the confidence of other people's wisdom,
such as, God is the illness I would most like to die from.
You are a fool.
Curse the prosaic who reduce the aim from loving to living,
from O! to I. (Diminishing even punctuation.)
His and Hers Homunculi
Doctor: Who told you to go off your antidepressants?
Patient: My body told my brain, my brain told my mind, my mind
told my soul, my soul told me.
Doctor: For how long have you been hearing these voices?
In the grip of the death-cure I plead for normal.
The world is imperilled because men were once children.
The world will continue because women were once children.
His and Hers Homunculi
In referencing homunculi, McKimmie wryly alludes to how our philosophies and defenses collapse on examination — or can be turned inside out, the effect something akin to a zen koan. If the sperm contains little men, does each of them contain even tinier men? If I observe myself suffering, who is doing the observation and who the suffering? The answers we instinctively provide are as a matter of course interrupted and exploited by medical and religious authority. Yet I would contend that poetry such as this offers other, more oblique answers, which point to a way out of the maze.
And it's this that the writings of Mal McKimmie, Antony Riddell and Aidan Coleman have in common. In terms of their aesthetics, language strategies and experience, they could hardly be more divergent. Yet my sense is that each confronts (and comforts) us with the possibility that there is no self inside the body, but rather the body is the self — in all its contingency and multiplicity. And this vulnerability, which we expend so much energy in ignoring or trying to avoid, is the opening onto the world.
Asymmetry, Aidan Coleman (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2012)
Fingerprints on the Surface of the Brain, Antony Riddell (Miniscus 137, 2002)
The Brokenness Sonnets I-III and Other Poems, Mal McKimmie (Five Islands Press, 2011)