Distilling Illness in ‘Shaping the Fractured Self’

Words || Katerina Bryant 

“Sometimes pus, sometimes a poem… but always pain.”

—Yehuda Amichai, as quoted in Shaping the Fractured Self

The first poem I loved was Sylvia Plath’s Tulips. I didn’t understand it; not at first. I was in the last year of high school and our teacher took us through the poem; line by line, stanza by stanza. I remember the way she would pace the room as she spoke during English and History, calling Rasputin a “weirdo” and Charles Manson “freaky”. Her hair was henna red and her excitement awoke an excitement in me, even though I was too buried within myself to show it then.

How odd, how life-like it feels to reread Tulips eight years later and understand living with illness. So many lines feel as though they are plucked from my life:

I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses 
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons. 

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched. 

And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow 

The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea, 
And comes from a country far away as health.

Time circles in strange loops.

I come back to Tulips (or maybe, I become Tulips) after reading the collection Shaping the Fractured Self, edited by Heather Taylor Johnson. The collection features 28 Australian poets living with a chronic illness, among them Fiona Wright, Quinn Eades and Leah Kaminsky. Each poet has written three poems conveying the fluctuations and stages of their illness alongside a short essay.

These essays provide context but also, the pairing often shows how poetry can be born from pain. As Andy Jackson writes in the collection, “I came to poetry for two reasons – to try to feel at home outside of the church, and to try to feel at home inside my own body.”

Jackson is not the only one who shows how communicating his body is freeing. For Editor Heather Taylor Johnson, “The aching need to communicate was as chronic as the illness itself”. Fiona Wright calls illness a “sibling to writing.” If I did not feel the same, I suppose I would not be here, writing this.

The collection is varied, not only in its poets’ styles but the illnesses shown (from MS to epilepsy to chronic fatigue syndrome to depression). Yet despite the diversity, I find myself being drawn to the commonalities between each experience of illness. And while the experience of inhabiting an ill body is discussed, the collection is not just limited to this. The poets string together the story of a life with illness from the financial pressures of being ill to coming to terms with losing time to pain.

I am surprised to see poems named after drugs, dedicated to articulating the foggy side effects. It’s a strange but welcome homecoming as I nod to Steve Evans’ Valproate where he writes, “Walking tipsy while playing sober / … I ride their waves but cannot swim.” Where in my experience, doctors tend to gloss over side effects, it is a reprieve to see my own experience with meds is universal. I am not alone in my pain; it’s both a joy and a deep sadness to learn this.

Similarly, dealing with costs of illness is also a recurring thought throughout the collection. Jessica Cohen in The Waiting Room evokes the specific experience of literally paying for your illness:

‘Happy birthday!’ says the receptionist.

I share it with her daughter, two years my junior.

She tells me that this year she will gift money

Daughter and fiancé have a fresh mortgage, you see.

It’s not easy for this generation to get ahead.

These concepts feel as far away as wellness.

The duality of losing time and money often means that living with an illness makes you feel as though you’re behind your peers. Cohen’s words hit me hard in a way perhaps an essay or novel could not.

What is it about poetry and its distillation of words that makes it so affecting?

As Taylor Johnson notes, there are not many collections of poetry about illness. But she goes on to show that what there is, is a comfort. She writes, “rhythm, spacing, enjambment and choice of or lack of punctuation, every metaphor and indentation and every move toward experimentation carries great weight when representing the fracturing of the body and the de(con)struction of the self.” Equally, this collection carries great weight in voicing the pain and triumph of the ill poet.

Is it strange that these poems, while often devastating, don’t fill me with sadness? Reading stories of illness, this is what it is to be (un)seen. The collection shows the duality of being cast out and cut free. As Peter Boyle writes in Paralysis, “Laid out flat / in the back of the station wagon my father borrowed / I look up: / the leaves are immense / …though I turn only my neck / I can see all of them / along this avenue that has no limits.” Being ill, like poetry perhaps, is limiting and limitless. My body cannot work as it once did, but never have I appreciated it more. I cannot live in the same way, but now I deeply consider how to fill my days. Living in a liminal space of being limited and limitless, it is a pleasure to learn I am not alone.

About the author 

Katerina Bryant is a nonfiction writer based in South Australia. Her work has appeared in Griffith Review, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Southerly, Island Magazine and Voiceworks, amongst others. She has also recently been anthologised in the collection ‘Balancing Acts:Women in Sport’ (Brow Books 2018). She tweets @katerina_bry.