Andy Jackson. Immune Systems. Melbourne: Transit Lounge. RP: $22.99, 61pp, ISBN: 9781921924828
The idea of poetry as anthropology is, it could be argued, the task Andy Jackson has set himself through his latest collection, Immune Systems. The epigram by Jean M. Langford sets the scene for us, and the opportunity to ‘detach from deeply ingrained ways of knowing’ (7) through these excellent poems is certainly achieved.
Jackson wrote many of these poems during two visits to India, one in the north of the country the other in the south. Whilst he is intensely aware of his status as an outsider, the ‘other’ observing Indian culture, he is also confronted by the contradiction of being a detached observer, an anthropologist and a poet, an emotional and self-reflective recorder of experiences. This is further complicated by the intensely personal connection revealed in some of the poems.
The book is structured into three sections. The first consists of poems that are mostly one page long and in free verse. They are acutely observational and create the sights, sounds and smells of India. They also extend into the more elusive states of mind experienced when confronted with a culture far from the poet’s own.
Although Jackson notes at the end of the book that the poems are both ‘fictional and true’ (59), it is not unreasonable to assume that some poems were written as Jackson himself underwent surgery in India. The close observations reveal a lived experience with their personal tone, such as those of the interior of a hospital:
‘there is a clear sign – International patients – above the door to a separate room’
(‘Apollo Hospital’ 11).
There is also the post-operative haze of waking up from anaesthetic described very effectively in ‘Everything went very well’ or the close attention of nurses in ‘Newsprint’.
Whilst the question of autobiography through the use of the lyric ‘I’ is interesting, it should not distract from these well-crafted and lean poems. They are universal to anyone who has travelled to an unfamiliar place and tried to understand it. But this is always challenging with only one’s own culture as a reference point. Jackson does not shy away from contemporary social issues, such as female foeticide. In ‘Government Hospital for Women and Children’ (23) a casual observation of pregnant women waiting to be seen by doctors gently shifts through the metaphor of an unravelling thread from a sari into a contemplation of the tragedy behind the unspoken pressure on women to bear sons.
The final poem of the first section is, at five pages, also the longest. This is a multi-layered, impressionistic journaling of observed moments, quotes that could be from brochures or newspapers, confusions and questions about such a culturally rich, complex but confronting nation.
The dense texture of the first section is starkly contrasted by the series of nine haiku that follow. These short poems are set out four to a page, and the white space on the page is as much an interruption as the poetic form itself. In contrast to the previous poems these initially appear light-hearted, focusing on a mosquito. However, as they accumulate in the reader’s imagination, they build to refer back to one another and to frame a deep contemplation upon life and death, and the nature of being.
The final section consists of sixteen ghazals. This traditional form of Arabic poetry is hundreds of years old and mainly associated with Persia, although it is also common in Northern India. A ghazal consists of a collection of two lines of poetry, or a ‘sher’. These shers (amongst other things) have a traditional rhyming sequence and metre, along with a structured repetition of words. Jackson follows this form at times, but just as many modern poets have done since Gerard Manly Hopkins revisited the sonnet, he is not constrained by the form. (See http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/article/246410 for more information on contemporary sonnets).
When confined to a two-line stanza Jackson uses more metaphor and imagery. It is as if he wants to pack as much meaning as he can into them. Each sher is a poem in its own right and the cumulative affect builds across many topics. These contemplations range from literal and metaphorical reflections of self:
‘Clipping his nose hair, trimming his brows is a man already
dead, unaware of the slow subcutaneous caress of mirrors.’
(‘Ghazal of mirrors’ 43)
To the relentless sounds of a city’s streetscape in Australia:
‘Streets away, the grinding wheels of turning tram. Near,
insect-hum, a neighbour hammering a nail into a mortgage.’
(‘Ghazal, Melbourne’ 55)
Each ghazal is a small monument, and as such should be walked around and viewed from many angles. Unlike the first two sections, which could each be read as a whole, in this final section the poems are linked by their form, but not by their subject matter. I found myself reading a single ghazal and then putting down the book, allowing the rich language and deep, resonating nuances to find their place in my imagination before continuing.
Immune Systems is a fine collection and, like the experience of travel itself, it will broaden horizons but also provoke self-reflection.
Vivienne Glance is an academic and a creative writer. She holds a BSc (Hons) from Imperial College, London, and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia (UWA). Her interests are the intersection of science and culture, particularly aspects of science in performance. Vivienne is currently an Honorary Research Fellow at UWA.