Written and performed by Andy Jackson, puppet design and direction by Rachael Guy, animation by Leonie Van Eyk
For the ill or disabled artist, the body is often a place of exploration. It’s a recurring theme of experimental metaphor in which views of becoming and possibility shift with each new work. ‘Over the long course of chronic disorder,’ writes Arthur Kleinman, ‘these model texts shape and even create experience’ [i] so that the artist is not only telling their story in a meaningful way, but also dealing with their relationship to the problematic body in a meaningful way. Without sounding trite: art heals. So while this ill or disabled artist is prying into corporeality to make sense of the whole – body, disorder, self – and create something of value to themselves, if the artist is a serious one, there will be an aim to affect an audience. Each Map of Scars found its audience at this year’s Queensland Poetry Festival (August 2017) in Brisbane. And the audience was affected: tears, gasps, the works.
- Ambiguous Mirrors
I worked with Andy Jackson and Rachael Guy through the editing of an anthology, Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of chronic illness and pain (UWAP, 2017) and through that process know them to be two fiercely intelligent writers – bold, creative and passionate. I knew Rachael was a visual artist, knew Andy enjoyed performing his poetry – in fact it was performing his poetry in front of an audience that pushed him toward the realisation that he had a gift to move others toward empathy:
Almost fifteen years ago I found myself in the men’s toilet of a Brunswick pub, shaking, almost weeping with relief and with the weight of years of otherness. I’d just read out the words of a new poem at the open mic – ‘I have a hunch / that curvature / can be aperture / given that light, like water / does not travel in a straight line…’ – and something in me had, painfully, and beautifully, broken open. I had not only reclaimed a word that had been used against me, but I had suggested that ‘deformity’, rather than being a curse or a problem, is in fact the pre-eminent source of insight. Slowly, but surely, shame had begun to erode. [i]
I also knew they were partners, so two people living with their own physical conditions and also living with each other’s. Their collaboration on the body was at the top of my list at the festival.
Andy Jackson sits on a chair placed on a dark stage. There is a screen behind him, depicting a graveyard. He’s reciting his poem, ‘Ambiguous Mirrors’, a meditation on his father who died of Marfan syndrome when Andy was only two. Rachael joins him onstage, carrying a box. She opens the box, gently takes a puppet from it, and that puppet looks like Andy, who looks like his dad, so what we see is a voiced body coming to terms with body through the voiceless body. It’s not lost on me that there’s artistic layering in Rachael’s practice as both poet and now maker of the puppet, moving from words to the pure visual in an attempt at embodiment.
Everything about Andy seems meditative. There is loss. As he speaks about looking at a photo of him and his father, we hear it in the poetry, see it in the inherent abstract quality of the puppet (the nature of a puppet, after all, is its symbolism). What we are viewing at the Queensland Poetry Festival is the present (the imagining of Andy’s father’s body) and the past (the fleshy practicality of that body) coming together (in Andy’s interrogation of his own body):
I rest on your lap, gazing away, my child-face
vague and adrift as if already swimming
within this thirsty search for someone to join me
in this skin. Are you in here? Your big hands
and slim fingers close around us like unsaid things.
In this first triptych of three-dimensional poetry, the puppet floats, mimics and touches, and there is a moment when it looks at the audience, a lengthy look, suggestion a point of connection that is further reaching than father and son. In this instance, the audience has been outed as witness. I hadn’t expected the shock of the call to recognition.
When Andy first came to my home and met my family, I felt I had to prepare my children for his body. My husband walks with a stick, and in the summertime the deformed musculature of his leg and the dazzling long scar that accompanies it are so on display that children stare, look up at him in a frightened curiosity, ask, ‘What happened to you?’ Why did I fear this sort of reaction to Andy? He has a severe curvature of the spine, doesn’t look ‘normal’.
My children, prepped for what to expect, were charming and kind. I’m embarrassed I hadn’t thought they’d be that way without my warning. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t give Andy the chance to tell them about his condition and, hence, silenced his story. I stole his words. I spoke about his body, which I don’t understand.
We switch to three screens now, each with the same image of a polymer clay puppet resembling Andy Jackson, only slimy-like, looking as if he’d come from the depths of some dark earth. He’s double-headed, connected at the torso, and then he’s not, tendrils squirming and reaching to be reconnected, like a horror story, but a beautiful one. The puppet’s eyes dart wildly because they’re glass and moveable – and there’s Leonie Van Eyk’s stopanimation, adding to the WTF-effect. Andy’s words and the music playing are calm yet terrifying, as a gothic fairy-tale would suggest:
When I wake, a nurse
and my father place a mirror
along the length of the bed.
You are just you now – you are one,
said like a chant or a mass.
But I know it is they who have made me.
And you’re gone – collapsed
lung, too many infections, the trauma
of separation. You are the price
of my existence from now on.
One has to do harm to do good.
There are many more surgeries ahead.
What is this push to normalise? What is normal? How does one weigh loss when what makes us unique is butchered so that we may live a normal life?
At this second chapter of the triptych, the audience itself has seceded from the body, our focus on screens something we’re so accustomed to that we’re always aware we’re watching that which has been created. Besides, the surgically separated half-body-made-whole on screen is so bizarre that it’s right that we sit back for a bit of unreality, settle in for some entertainment, but we don’t rest comfortably. Still, there’s the echo of the puppet’s eyes staring into our own at the end of the last chapter, when we connected with Andy’s body, with our own bodies. How can we forget? It’s why we ask ourselves these questions: ‘What is this push to normalise?’; ‘What is normal?’; ‘How does one weigh loss when what makes us unique is butchered so that we may live a normal life?’
I, like Rachael Guy, have an invisible disease, often consider it frustrating that people can’t see my struggle and therefore assume I have a ‘normal’ body. She mirrors my experience when she writes:
If you met me you wouldn’t know that I live with a debilitating condition. I belong to
a category of individuals who…often fail to fulfil preconceptions about what ‘chronic illness’ looks like. [iii]
But then there’s the obvious disability – my husband’s, Andy’s – and I can’t imagine dealing with the stares on such a regular basis, the ubiquitous ‘what happened to you?’. And so I’m caught between an association and a disassociation with othered bodies. I am like the abnormal; I am like the normal.
Projected on the screens is a black and white collage of imperfect bodies, bodies full of scars, belly bulges, deep wrinkles, back fat, a large nose or Adam’s apple. There is Rachael’s recurring song mixing with a haunting background soundtrack, and the interplay of Andy’s voice reciting ‘Unfinished’, repeating, repeating certain words, repeating: ‘each map of scars leads back to the world’. Still distanced from the body through screen in a Marshall McLuhan sort of way, we’re almost in a trance. Then spotlight on Andy Jackson, among us in the crowd, walking through the audience, finishing his poem, declaring:
you are disabled
whether you admit it or not
did you know that?
your body is a failing
upsetting and wilful
you leak when you least
expect it, can’t speak
your mind without your body
being twisted into some other
you are gazed at or desired
more often ignored
We’re back. The puppet’s not on stage, safely locked away in its box, but there is the lingering of his eyes, still. Once again we’re finding a point of connection between Andy’s body and our own through the press of his body into our protected QPF theatre space. In the making of the collage, Andy and Rachael reached out to their Castlemaine community (in regional Victoria, Australia) and asked for people who were willing to be photographed nude. They wanted naked bodies that hold shame within their skin and flesh and here we are, now relating their bodies to our own. As we move through the theatre door at the end of the show, we relate our bodies to everyone else’s body trying to exit.
There is always singularity found within a body, and universality, too, but we forget the collective as we exoticise the body, see it as something grotesque, place it in a category of ‘othered’. Reminding us of that universality, or maybe teaching us for the first time, is what successful embodied art does: affect an audience, change the world in some small way, one voice or puppet at a time.
[i] Kleinman, Arthur M.D. The Illness Narratives: Suffering, healing and the human condition. Basic Books, Inc. NewYork, 1988. (49)
[ii] Jackson, Andy. ‘World in a Grain of Flesh’. Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of chronic illness and pain. Ed Heather Taylor Johnson. UWAP. Crawley, WA. 2017 (32-33)
[iii] Guy, Rachael. ‘The Condition’. Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of chronic illness and pain. Ed Heather Taylor Johnson. UWAP. Crawley, WA. 2017 (186)
Heather Taylor Johnson is an American Australian writer living in Adelaide. Her second novel is Jean Harley was Here (UQP 2017), currently shortlisted for the Readings New Prize in Literature, and her fourth book of poetry is Meanwhile, the Oak (Five Islands Press, 2016). She is the editor of the anthology Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain (UWAP, 2017).
Andy Jackson’s poetry explores unusual embodiment and subjectivity. He has performed and discussed his work at literary events and arts festivals in Australia and overseas. He was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Prize for Poetry, and Highly Commended in the Anne Elder Award for Among the regulars (Papertiger 2010), and won the 2013 Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize for The thin bridge. His poems have been published in Meanjin, The Age, Medical Journal of Australia, Cordite, Unusual Work, numerous Best Australian Poems, and the recent anthology Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain. In 2011, Andy was an Asialink literature resident at the University of Madras, in Chennai, India. The resulting poems, exploring medical tourism, were published in Immune Systems (Transit Lounge 2015). His most recent collections are That knocking (Little Windows 2016), and Music our bodies can’t hold (Hunter Publishers 2017), which consists of portrait poems of people with Marfan Syndrome, the rare genetic condition he has. Andy and Rachael Guy’s poetry-puppetry collaboration Ambiguous Mirrors won the City of Yarra Award for Most Innovative Work at the 2009 Overload Poetry Festival, and subsequently toured Ireland in 2013. Their new performance work Each Map of Scars debuted at the 2017 Castlemaine State Festival. https://amongtheregulars.wordpress.com/
Rachael Wenona Guy is a multifaceted artist. As a performer and vocalist, she has featured in festivals around Australia and overseas. She currently creates puppet-based, visual theatre for adults. In 2008 she won the Sir Rupert Hamer scholarship to study puppetry at Victoria College of the Arts. After graduating, she collaborated with poet Andy Jackson on a poetry/puppetry work Ambiguous Mirrors which featured at Overload Festival 2009, then toured Ireland 2013 at Clifden Arts Week, Over the Edge, Galway, O’Bheal poetry reading, Cork. Her first solo work Hutch was created as part of a Masters Degree in Theatre Performance at Monash University 2013, examining anthropomorphism and psychological transgression. In 2017 Rachael collaborated with Andy Jackson and Leonie Van Eyk on Each Map of Scars, a theatre work of poetry, puppetry, stop motion animation and film, exploring bodily diversity and otherness. Each Map of Scars premiered at the Castlemaine State Festival. Rachael is also an emerging poet who has been published in journals such as Sleepers Almanac, Overland and Australian Poetry Journal. In 2016 she was shortlisted for the Whitmore Press manuscript prize.
Leonie Van Eyk is a Castlemaine based videographer, puppeteer, arts educator, animator and projectionist creating multifaceted visual artworks for collaborative events. She runs art and animating workshops with curious groups and has made short documentaries for people and their artistic processes. Her passion for collaboration fulfils a need to be around creative people as much as it is to impress upon people the notion of starting with nothing and discovering something beyond imagination. In 2014, Leonie was awarded top prize for Creative Excellence and consistent artistic professionalism after presenting ‘Set Yourself Free’ a multimedia installation piece as part of end of year show. She travelled her solo show Castaway to Adelaide Fringe Festival, Woodford Folk Festival and UNIMA puppetry Festival in 2008. Her recent collaboration was with Rachael Guy and Andy Jackson on film and animation for Each Map of Scars, 2017. Behind the camera and within the guts of the artistic process, Leonie has also worked with Black Hole Theatre, Splash Arts, Bombay Royale, Weave Movement Theatre, Arts Project Australia, Polyglot, Snuff Puppets and Ignition Theatre, Three’s a Crowd, Arts Access Australia, The Village Festival and too many other community arts projects to mention.