Review: INCARNATION IS NO BURDEN – Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold, Andy Jackson



Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold – by Andy Jackson (Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets)

Review by Carmen Leigh Keates


In my early twenties, I moved, for a short time, around the peripheries of the local conservatorium’s social circles, where my friend was dating a concert pianist who was attracting excited attention. He had huge hands, predictably, but how huge was the thing, and the refrain in many discussions was that although he had an impressive ten-key hand span, this was of course not as much as the extraordinary twelve-key span of the great Rachmaninov. Next time you find yourself at a piano, I encourage you to see how many white keys you can cover with your one hand, then count out to twelve, and you will see what we’re dealing with when we invoke Rachmaninov’s physical figure. Speaking of the extraordinary naturally involves the inclusion of biographical specifics:


I lower my head to enter most rooms,

drive with great speed around Beverley Hills. Success,


apparently, awaits me everywhere.

An unforged bronze-like sonority and an accuracy

bordering on the infallible. They attribute this to my long fingers

and extremely large hands. No – I am


like a ghost wandering forever in the world,

burdened with the harvest of sorrow.



Andy Jackson’s Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold comprises a collection of “portraits” of people who have Marfan’s Syndrome. Some of the portraits derive from interviews Jackson undertook himself, and some address historical and public figures and are creative extrapolations of available biographical and autobiographical data. The latter include poems on Abraham Lincoln, the already-mentioned Sergei Rachmaninov, Mary Queen of Scots, and Osama Bin Laden. Although in many cases there is no actual diagnosis available for these historical portraits, Marfan’s range of distinct physical symptoms including extremely elongated limbs, large hands and other markers, in combination with Jackson’s intimate knowledge of the condition, make these pieces far more than someone just drawing a long bow.

In the context of Jackson’s work, things seem slightly in reverse here; this might well have been a book in which Jackson began his poetic exploration of Marfan’s Syndrome rather than being well along in his poetic career. It seems like a more broadly foundational work – looking outwardly and connecting to a community, instead of an individual speaking inwardly – than 2013’s The Thin Bridge (Whitmore Press). But in combination with Jackson’s collaborative theatrical production, Each Map of Scars, this new book signals the development of a larger body of work which, though it has at its heart an effort towards raising awareness, mostly does this within the significant framework of first-person testimony.

While the book is divided into two twenty-three sections, “23 Chromosomes”, together with a Prelude, Interlude and Postlude to round out the secondary musical theme, it is interesting that the book mixes its public figures with its everyday people. Arrangements such as this do tend to trigger my tertiary creative writing nerves (as I know the administration of these projects regularly imposes the need for clear structural plans that grow a bit stale as the true work evolves) but then again this has turned out to be a very clear and pleasurable structure to move through as a reader.

At the same time that the testimonials focus so much on physical symptoms, there is a common type of voice that comes through in many of the poems, a common manner situated as something like a non-physical being, floating, either in pain or deep inside the watchful frustration of one who is being medically treated, and sometimes the location of this voice is really more spiritual or at least otherworldly, the body being lit up and very directly related to in its literal ‘incarnation’:


My throat wrapped in bandages.


Feeding tubes. Malfunctions.

Vomit in the lung. I am drowning


in the water of my own body.


A third time, they pull me back out into agony

and I wish to God they wouldn’t.



This voice is most exalted, I think, in the Interlude, where presumably Marfan’s Syndrome itself speaks, and in many ways similar to its hosts when they are expressing their inner selves:


Incarnation is no burden. I arrive when the genetic stars align, optimistic every time. At first, their lives are mostly short, broken sentences. I love each one, dumb with pain or suffused with light or both.

(“i) for themselves (substance)” )


I love this eerie personification, which in theory could be regarded as a noticeably contrived idea, but Jackson brings it across with real, dramatic poise and it is especially impressive in a work of poetry that switches characters every couple of pages and is based on real people. To have this imagined persona speak with such authority and tenderness is to then highlight how the spirit of this voice infuses, to varying extents, the bearings of those with Marfan’s Syndrome, the voice truly portraying the condition and its residence and vigilance within it hosts’ bodies.

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