Jacobson, Anna. Amnesia Findings. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2019. RRP: $24.95, 112pp. ISBN: 9780702262586
Awarded every year at the Queensland Poetry Festival, Arts Queensland’s Thomas Shapcott Prize is renowned for launching the career of many an unpublished poet into not only Queensland’s literary scene, but that of the nation. Krissy Kneen, David Stavanger, Stuart Barnes, Felicity Plunkett and Shastra Deo are just a few of the poets who have received this honour, and all have gone onto conquer even greater heights. So, it comes as no surprise that 2018’s winner, Anna Jacobson and her debut collection Amnesia Findings is a revelation.
But it hasn’t come without hard work on Jacobson’s part. While this is the first of what one can assume will be a long list of poetry collections, her work has appeared in numerous Australian literary journals for several years, including Cordite, Meanjin and Rabbit Journal. Amnesia Findings is a culmination of her work to date, while also featuring poems especially written for this new collection.
When I reviewed Rae White’s debut collection Milk Teeth for this very publication, I was taken aback by how different it was from anything else I had read before. It made me question everything I thought I knew about poetry, but it also highlighted how the folks behind the Thomas Shapcott Prize aren’t afraid to push the boundaries when it comes to choosing their winner.
Amnesia Findings is, essentially, divided into four parts, all of which tackle their own themes including mental illness and identity, faith and self-discovery as well as familial relationships and how they relate to memory.
Such topics aren’t really anything new when it comes to poetry, but the way in which Jacobson approaches them in this book is, particularly when it comes to mental illness. Even though mental health awareness something that is becoming a little less stigmatised in today’s society, there is, nonetheless, still a bit of a barrier when it comes to how willing writers are to share their own experiences. Modern US poets such as Neil Hilborn, Sabrina Benhaim and even Rupi Kaur have been working to break down this barrier, but until now I’ve yet to see an Australian poet do it quite so well.
With Jacobson, however, the barrier has already been broken. Even though she has obviously had quite a battle with mental illness (as referenced in the book’s notes on page 95), she doesn’t shy away from sharing those experiences, no matter how confronting they may be. ‘Nurses’ Observations’ is just one example of this.
No coherent speech in response to questions – asks upon greeting
if the doctor can cut her hair. Plan: admit
too agitated to manage.
Continues to lie in foetal position. Mute.
Curled up with face pressed
to pillow. (32)
What makes this poem stand out from others that speak of mental illness is, in my opinion, its starkness. By flipping the script and using a nurse’s notes to narrate the scene, we get not only a better insight into how impersonal the treatment of mental illness can be, but also how isolating it can be for one who suffers with it. One of the elements of poetry that really appeals to me is the way it provides insight into what the poet was thinking and feeling at the time of writing it. This was never truer than when it comes to ‘Nurses’ Observations’—it’s not just Jacobson’s imagination that creates the rawness and honesty of the poem. This is as personal as it gets, with Jacobson stating in the Notes section (95) “’Nurses’ Observations and ‘Missing Limbs are found poems recreated from my hospital file”. There’s nothing necessarily poetic or lyrical about it—yet the way that it affects the reader is just as strong.
That’s not to say Jacobson hasn’t been creative when it comes to talking about mental illness. In fact, it’s when she plays with imagery in her poems about mental illness that the finished product is at its best. This snippet is from the closing paragraphs of ‘How to Knit A Human’, dealing with Jacobson’s recovery process. One thing that really drew me to this piece was its imagery, how putting oneself back together—be it after heartbreak, mental illness, a death in the family or something else entirely—could be compared to the seemingly simple hobby of knitting. It’s not perfect, but it’s not easy either.
Now I knit myself back into a human.
It’s hard work relearning the steps—
slip-stitch, drop-stitch, pick-up stitch, loop.
I get into a rhythm. The pattern is complex—
I drop a few stitches.
The holes form gaps in my memory. (38)
While Jacobson’s poetry may lean towards the more traditional than experimental in terms of style, Amnesia Findings is not without its playfulness. The collection is enhanced by the inclusion of Jacobson’s sketches, providing visual inspiration to the inner workings of her mind. And, just as Rae White experimented with form in their debut collection, Milk Teeth, Jacobson experiments with length.
Some poems, such as the aforementioned ‘How to Knit a Human’ and ‘Today I Feel Like Remembering’ (68-69) are a few pages and several stanzas long. Others, like ‘Heal’ (94)— which was commissioned by QPF especially for International Women’s Day—is only a few words long. Similarly, ‘Allspice’ is barely a stanza long and yet it tugs at the heart strings more than any other. A sample is below.
Mum discovers the green tin,
‘Allspice’ written down its side […]
into the room, breathe the scent on days
when memory isn’t enough. (79)
With a collection such as this, it’s hard to pick a favourite, but if I had to, I would say this is the one. In only a few sentences, Jacobson has so deftly created a scene that is all-encompassing. It’s vivid and real, heartbreaking and loving all at once. ‘Allspice’ speaks to anyone who has ever had a deep bond with a family member, and even more so if they’ve lost someone special. It’s the epitome of grief, love and family all rolled into one, with such brevity. You might even say it’s perfection.
Amnesia Findings is an amazing collection of poetry, traversing a wide array of topics to explore and expose elements of human emotion. Jacobson is a talented poet and a rare find. If this is only just the beginning of Jacobson’s career, we’re in for a treat.
Jackie Smith is a freelance journalist, editor and proof-reader and marketing graduate based in Brisbane. Her work has been published through a variety of local and national media outlets. Follow her via her blog, Jackie Smith Writes, or Twitter (@jasmith_89) for regular updates.