Reviewed by Michael Northen
Andy Jackson is a poet who has been on my radar since the publication of his first book Among the Regulars was published over a decade ago. His work in poetry to highlight the lives of others with Marfan’s Syndrome in Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold was an important contribution to disability poetry. None of his previous work, however, quite prepared me for Human Looking. It is flat-out one of the best books of disability poetry that I have read in years.
Human Looking is divided into four parts, beginning with a section called “Opening.” Because of how effective this introduction is, I want to dwell on it in some detail by describing the first four poems.
The first poem, also called “Opening,” begins with Jackson’s birth. Not only does the poem open the book, it is also an invitation to explore the way that the author is literally and metaphorically stitched together. The opening of these stitches is the opening of a wound; Jackson encourages readers to become part of the unstitching.
The second poem, “Operations,” catalogues/samples the various operations that the poet has gone through, providing the reader with background. Just as implied in the first poem, this section of the book is a history of being physically stitched together, and this stitching is reflected in the poem’s structure. It is a compendium of referrals, nurses’ notes, and medical letters, all pointing to the idea that his life is a construction. It also sets the reader up for the third poem, “Separation.”
“Separation” is an incredibly poignant poem in which the poet describes the surgical separation from his brother, a conjoined twin. It is a separation that only one of them can survive.
When I wake, a nurse
and my father place a mirror
along the length of the bed. You are just you now – you are one,
said like a chant or a mass.
But the operation leaves the poet with an indelible debt to his brother: “You are the price of my existence from now on.”
The structure of the poem is particularly effective in formally conveying this separation: the first long stanza displays a series of unified lines, but after the operation, a caesura rifts each line in two. In the poem following, “Venus with BIID,” Jackson reveals how, incredibly, the doctors provide him with a cover story about an accident to explain to friends and neighbors how his disability and the need for constant surgeries came about.
This wrenching quartet of poems lays the foundation for the remainder of the book’s first section, where the poet describes the various medical, social, and emotional repercussions that follow. Building on the image of reconstruction and the creation of something Human Looking, he commandeers some of the final lines of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and reshapes them into the poem “Borne away by distance.” This theme continues into “Aesthetic surgery,” a pantoum-like poem in which lines are repurposed and reused.
Having established his own personal background, section two of the book—called “Human Looking,” like the book’s title—finds the author looking at photographs from Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, the United states’ oldest and most well-known museum of medical oddities, thinking “So much can go wrong.” Each poem in this section is a reclamation of sorts culled from a previous writing or work of art in which images of disability have been objectified; in turn, these poems attempt to humanize what had been objectified. In that sense, the work continues the reconstructive processes that Jackson brought to the fore in the first section. There is also a gradual procession away from exposing the outright exploitation of disability as in “light which acts as a mask”, the section’s second poem. For me, the pivotal poem is “No lament,” an answer to Judith Beveridge’s “Quasimodo’s Lament.” This is certainly not the first time a disabled poet has identified with Quasimodo (see Steve Parker’s “Quasimodo’s Eyes”) or even Jackson’s first use of this trope, but his “respectful reply” (p. 106) to Beveridge may be the most masterly. He turns her poem on its head and challenges even her attempt at trying to encapsulate him. He takes the first word of each line of Beveridge’s poem as his own starting point. While in Beveridge’s poem suggestion of sonnet form comes across as mockery, Jackson turns it to a poem that reclaims the possibility of love. It is worth citing the second half of the poem:
Outside, the cobblestones echo with myths convinced
your modest and erotic heart will always be alone.
The one who desires you, though, enters with care
into the charged field around your shape. What is this
love but a deep ringing? These bodies but their secrets?
Be quiet, then, as the deft poets approach, let
them dream of capturing you. You’ll be elsewhere. (p.42)
In the tradition of Shakespeare, these final two stanzas twist the poem back upon itself.
In the book’s third section, “The Change Room,” Jackson pivots away from the ways in which disabled bodies are portrayed and made into representations of what is negative and toward the way that society depends upon that image. The opening poem has Hephaestus, a favorite touchstone for literary representations of disability, claim that though the other gods revile him:
They need to keep me at the forge,
shaping their breastplates and their helmets
from something formless. They need me
continually in some stage of recovery. (p. 59)
Not only is change inevitable, it is the natural state of things, but as many disability advocates have pointed out, the reminder the disabled body sends to the able-bodied public is that their bodies too will change and that they will die. This is the reason for the insistence on norms, for the “right way” for a body to be, and for the insistence that disability is an aberration, something to be fixed.
The poems in this section continue to reflect the notion of variety in form through varied stanza size and shape, justifications, and line-lengths. Importantly, though, there is nothing wildly experimental about Jackson’s poems. None project the sense that “anything goes.” As though under Hephaestus’s hammer, the poems are carefully shaped and forged. To me, this is an important commentary on disability poetry. Disabled poets are not simply “barbarians at the gates.” Rather, what they have to say is an art, one that involves craft, a hammering into shape.
The final section of Human Looking, “Warm and Dark,” follows human change to its inevitable conclusion: death and decomposition of the body. While this is the logical end of the process that Jackson has been describing, it also provides a counterpoint to the first and second sections of the book in which attempts were made to construct a human being. This fourth section about deconstruction, however, as the author says, is “a long way from post-modern.” (p. 100) It is the entropy created through the natural processes of the body. In “Microbiome,” Jackson reminds us that even though we think of ourselves as contained within our skins and resist the image that when we die we will be detritus for other organisms, we are from the moment of our births also inhabited by other life forms. We are “warm compost” in a body that is continuously breaking down and trying to renew itself.
There is nothing in the least either gothic or self-pitying in these poems. They are, in fact, a meditation on death, infused with humanity. Jackson’s poems in this section, including some dedicated to his own father, are a search for that vague something within us that wants us to become more than our corporeal beings will allow. While there is some hint that love and caring/being cared for provide a temporary mirage, in the end we strive for acceptance and the willingness to let go. This generosity of spirit is epitomized in the book’s final poem, “When a line of determined ants carries away my nail clippings,” where the poet bequeaths the various parts of his body to the natural world in lines that would have made Whitman proud.
There is so much to learn from and enjoy in Human Looking, it is tempting to want to do a deep dive into many of the poems. I’ll forebear in the interest of some more general comments about what is so valuable about this book. The first is the list of “Notes” in the back of the book. Because so many of Jackson’s poems are tied to very specific events, paintings, magazine articles, and work by other poets, I found these notes extremely valuable. True, the poems can be appreciated without these notes, especially since Jackson indicates the sources that generated the poems below most of the poems’ titles, but these notes deepen understanding by providing the chance for knowledge-hounds like me that do not have encyclopedic experience to learn more than the poems can contain. The value of notes should be axiomatic, especially in view of the importance of accessibility in the disability community, but recently I’ve come across the work of disabled poets who take the elitist view that if readers don’t understand something they should just get on their computers and look it up. In that context, Jackson’s notes are particularly welcome.
Another factor that makes Jackson’s work refreshing to read is that he is not American. While Australians certainly have their own legacy to deal with, they are not burdened with the past history of the United States where a newly published poet often finds themselves feeling like the protagonist in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Sometimes occurring in the name of intersectionality, much American poetry lately feels— to use Jackson’s phrase—like “words that come from others’ mouths,” a poetry of obligation rather than what the poet who views their poetry as truth-seeking would like to write. Despite its eclectic nature, Jackson’s poetry always comes across as authentic. One feels a poet always working toward understanding.
It is something of an irony that a book that springs from a need to defend disabled bodies as human is among the most unflinchingly human books of poetry that I have read. 2022 is still only a few months old, but if I had to be stuck with only one new book of poetry to read for the remainder of the year, I would unhesitatingly choose Human Looking.
Title: Human Looking
Author: Andy Jackson
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing Company
About the Reviewer
Michael Northen was the facilitator of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop from 1997-2010 and the editor of Wordgathering from 2007-2019. He was also a participant editor in the anthology, Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability and the anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both from Cinco Puntos Press).