Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold by Andy Jackson
Hunter Publishers, 2017
Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold’s premise is unique: 54 poems for the 46 chromosomes in the human body. Each poem is distinctive in typography and voice, gleaned from a primary source interview of a public or private figure believed to have Marfan syndrome. Often very tall, slender and gifted, those with Marfan syndrome are aesthetically, artistically, intellectually, athletically extraordinary. As the collection’s poet, Andy Jackson puts it: ‘Marfan troubles the boundaries between “disability” and “extraordinary ability”’; much anguish is caused by this illness, and there is a sense of being ‘dumb with pain / suffused with light’, ‘when the genetic stars align’’.
Marfan emerges as a kind of magical affliction with a sense of tragic inevitability. It represents being touched by something great and terrible, evident from the selection of historical individuals represented in this volume: Akhenaten, Mary Queen of Scots, Abraham Lincoln, Osama Bin Laden. These figures appear in the volume along with lay people with Marfan, and in keeping with the musical theme, there is a prelude, interlude and postlude that operates as the book’s connective structure. Here is a chance for Marfan to justify its genetic mischief. And mischief it is, because Marfan can potentially devastate the body and cause premature death and great physical suffering in the process.
It is Jackson’s refusal of reductive sentimentality and cliché when representing his subjects that imbues the volume with power. The dialect in which the subjects speak, their rhetorical inclusions and exclusions, and the attendant typographical experiments all indicate the integrity and ingenuity of the project. Jackson’s curation of disparate voices creates sometimes ironic, sometimes poignant portraits of a broad historical and cultural spectrum of individuals, from pharaohs to teens on MSN. Each poem expresses pathos without pity, where unexpected humour collides with trauma such as in ‘Charlotte’:
(There) are always corridors, classrooms, chewing gum, scissors, a hammer. And at home, the classroom, MSN. Go kill yourself, you lanky bitch … Really, I’ll keep studying footwear design. It’s so hard when you’re tall, to find fashionable shoes
A sense of ongoing off-stage dialogue between the poet, the subject and the reader develops, as in ‘Bradford,’ as Jackson includes non-verbal cues from the invisible narrator (interviewer / curator / God voice):
On the solo album cover you thought would be your last bare-chested pectus excavatum your halo burns a hole in the sky so, should we start now?
In another poem, ‘Krystal,’ a series of italicised interjections paint a picture of a very young subject who has had a series of open heart operations and the removal of glaucoma:
She holds five pink balloons, smiles for the camera … I want to meet Elsa the Snow Queen and go on all the rides. Her pale floral dress. Her thick glasses. b. 2008
The date of birth (and for some subjects, the date of death), adds another element of graveness; with adult and infant subjects alike, lives are defined by multiple medical interventions and some are horribly truncated like ‘Micthell’:
Wedding night my temperature Was a hundred and seven, An axe stuck mid-arc in my chest …. I’m on one end of the see-saw, our baby girl in my lap A smile on my face. Is it mine? 1987–2014
As this ‘disorder of the connective tissue’ itself asserts, ‘names are critical’. The naming of subjects, and the naming of the parts that hurt and might give out, humanise diagnostic criteria and reclaim subjectivity from surgeons’ reports. The naming of things as the practice of poetry: for Jackson, this is music that lives in us, that saves and elevates us. As in ‘Geoff,’ he skilfully delivers a sense of transcendence of visceral limitation with a sense of imminent physical consequence:
Guitar amniotic with sweat, drops of blood, I feel the room tilt, pixelate Tinnitus screams, my heart thumps Pain’s shadow looming over my joints- I’ve thrown myself around the stage Like an evangelist for oblivion, again But this is the last time I swear …
It is alchemy, this melding of words and worlds, this colliding of systems of language. Medical, vernacular, medico-vernacular, at times mundane and at others, celestial, its expert polyphony makes Music our Bodies Can’t Hold extraordinary. Each poem is a portal to a unique perspective, a soul spilling over with desires for their life, some furious, some shattered, some philosophical, but all touched by the same collective destiny.