A review of My Arthritic Heart by Liz Hall Downs

But this is just the beginning of what most of us don’t want to hear. A good part of this collection is about the poet’s struggle with debilitating rheumatoid arthritis that when coupled with poverty and inhumanity is a hard call. Liz learnt young, that the society turns upon the body as the body turns upon the soul. 

Reviewed by Coral Hull 

My Arthritic Heart
by Liz Hall Downs

The poetry of Liz Hall-Downs is a window into the world of physical disability and psychic vulnerability. Her latest book, “My Arthritic Heart” is as much about courage and awareness, as it is about rage and suffering. It is a collection in which a city will eventually become a waterfall. Written in first person, the poet narrator is the bare stone of human existence being washed over by the first poetic trickles of the healing sorrow, as the poems make their way along the crevice of the suffering soul, towards the precipice of love. But it is far more than just the human spirit that suffers on this journey. If you find the subject matter of physical illness and moral depravity challenging, then give a thought to the poet narrator, who has lived the life. These lines on birds are amongst my favourites in the book, offering a brilliant and unapologetic insight into self portrait – harsh, defiant and yet softening into the backdrop of the natural world:

“sometimes I’m these cockatoos
slashing my sulphur crest and screaming

sometimes these unripe olives
bitter and small amongst silvered leaves

sometimes I’m that raven, too much to say
and saying too loudly, caw in the naked tree

and sometimes I’m currawong, defiant song
chasing everyone else away”

(sometimes I’m)

Liz teaches us that it all begins with child abuse and quickly moves on from there. Yet there is no time to linger in the lost playgrounds of childhood violence and neglect, since the bigger carnival of tragedy awaits this poet (and others like her) and this is called; the lack of love within her fellow human beings. The poet’s disturbed mother is merely the starting point, the precursor to adult life, as she hits her daughter around the head, so that the young poet; “learned/ to hold elbows in/ close to my belly/ head bowed and hands/ clawed in like talons/” (becoming) until she finally makes her great escape, into the clutches of her own internal torment and life as we know it; “the twisted words, the years of beating/ the poor girl down with a stick/ of her unloveability. She ran, unhinged/ into the future, into the jaws of pain.” (she ran)

The poetry captures this odd and yet oddly fashionable inner city culture of squats, punks, open fires and poetry readings in Melbourne, where sexual predation is rampant, with young and often homeless female poets, providing rich hunting grounds for the usual suspects; married psychopathic predators. Even when ‘new love’ is found amongst the rubble of human kind, we have to deal with the disapproval of an uncaring society, but this time on the cold psychic pavement of a mother who despises her offspring, in a way that is both chilling and underhandedly malevolent.

“she smiles sweetly
as she tells him
you know, my daughter’s
slept with half of melbourne”

(lover, meet mother)

But this is just the beginning of what most of us don’t want to hear. A good part of this collection is about the poet’s struggle with debilitating rheumatoid arthritis that when coupled with poverty and inhumanity is a hard call. Liz learnt young, that the society turns upon the body as the body turns upon the soul. It’s enough to make you weep and I did, openly, so that I had to stop reading. Then came the poets heartbreaking empathy for her fellow sufferers;

“on the third day he stops vomiting,
keeps some food down, a convalescent diet
of apple juice and oatmeal, and sleeps
thin and light as this winter sun. There is no
point in doing the hospital run.”

(Easter in Cabarita)

Why haven’t I read a lot more poetry like this coming out of Australian cities? Philip Hodgins wedded his leukemia to his verse from out at Maryborough. Like Liz, his eyes were opened to the fragility and brutality of life around him – I will always remember Philip reading his poetry sipping his glass of chemotherapy at the microphone at The Melbourne Writers Festival. He was already pale and between the worlds. Liz Hall-Downs approaches the physical frailty of others with the same grim sense of acceptance, and a calling of the harsh realities of life to our attention. She walks between the worlds as well, but she uses a walking stick and her poetic voice to find her way along the streets and tracks.

“I am the one with no stomach for change
(on the bathroom wall, spattered bloodstains;)
it’s parrot joy I’m wanting to see, not this
sad decimation, brother. You know I expect
you to stay for much longer,
am not done with you yet,
you will not recover..”

(Easter in Cabarita)

Liz Hall-Downs faces the world of physical pain and the psychic mauling that she was served as a result of her vulnerability head-on, and like any other sufferer in her position, she turned to alternative medicine as a method of healing. The New Age gets a serving for all of its obvious bullshit in; 2. Psychic healer “lie on table while/ she massages my aura/ …soundtrack of waterfalls and storms/ air thick with incense, tibetan gongs/….on my body does not lay a finger/ I weep for one hour then/ that’ll be fifty dollars.” (‘alternatives) As do men (and married men in particular), and other such predators who enjoy ‘hunting’ in these arenas of the vulnerable and suffering;

“’i worry about you’
he says; he has
a mansion, swanky
job, pretty wife
he cheats on
with girls like me
who inspire his ‘worry’

while i ‘live’
in filthy squats
cook my soup
over open fire

i worry for
my seizing legs
and drugs that don’t
address the pain”

(why worry?)

A comparison is made between a missed opportunity for ejaculation and paralysis. A number of poetry books by males have addressed the former; referred to as his ‘worry’, so I can say with certainty that the theme is not a new one. In almost complete contrast to the poetic concerns of the ‘The Poetry Boys Club of Australia and its affiliated Associates’, the poetry in My Arthritic Heart deals with a more serious subject matter; physical illness and physical suffering. The endurance by this poet, makes all other themes, including male ejaculation, irrelevant.

There is no escape into the creative mind in the poetry of Liz Hall-Downs. She knows from the start that her body has betrayed her and her hardest journey is yet to occur and that is primarily because the world betrays itself through its lack of compassion for the helpless, and its abandonment of the frail to predators and you guessed correctly; this young poet who is crippled by arthritis at an early age, even gets her walking stick stolen but makes light of the situation;

one day
the stick got
stolen from a squat
and I would have mourned
much more for its loss
had it not been
a pain-free day
had i not walked
unaided all the way
(My Arthritic Heart)

The poetic voice of Liz Hall-Downs has you right there with her, almost in her bones, until you stand back and stop feeling sorry for yourself. This is one angry disabled person who tells the truth and good for her. Why should people who suffer in this way have to remain the silent wounded and put on a consistently pleasant social face to hide the pain, so that we can allow them to vanish from our thoughts, even further than they already have? Not to forget that there is a battle weary sense of renewal in this collection, again showing us, that despite the odds we are faced with regarding our physical frailties in an often heartless and therefore suffering world, that there will always be hope and as we so often do, the poet finds her strength both within herself and with her growing relationship to the natural world;

“so i’m limping away down this old bush track
turning over wet leaves with my walking stick
seeking a sane patch of life-giving earth to dig.
i wipe the sweat with my sleeve
and look around to see
the greens and browns of a quiet land,
unproblematic beauty.”

(other people’s problems)

“I will wear red socks until you return
And speak only the language of lorikeets.
My heart hurts and I cannot sprout
The wings to fly to your side.”

(easter in cabirita)

I got tired and depressed reading this book and it hurt. I felt ashamed of the way psychopathic and predatory human beings are and how they treat others who are in need of nurturing and assistance. It starts with the child abuse and ends up in the no-man’s land of mental and physical illness. Yet Liz Hall-Downs does not teach us that cruelty is a fact of life. Her poetry continues to plead and be shocked by cruelty, and so long as that continues to occur through the hearts and minds of poets, then we are all in with a chance for self transformation and the healing of the broken world.

Mental illness often seems to be a hard-call for many poets, writers and artists, but if you think you have it hard, try a life threatening physical illness on for size and see how well you wear it. Just when you thought you had been through everything there was to go through, read this book and your own concerns might become just that little bit prettier;

“ms beautiful ex-model
hair colour of bleach
red talon fingers
leather pants

thirty dollars
for a short ‘consultation’
bags of megavitamins
cost whole income for a week

her husband is my boss
takes it personally when I don’t improve
shoves me back into the welfare cue.”

(alternatives)

Yet far from leaving me down about the human race, this book had the opposite affect by giving me the will to continue, to go on, despite of everything, to stare physical suffering and human predators in the eye, even when the predator is both internal and external, as the disease of the body and the disease of society that perpetuates the suffering and when there is a; “volume of years/ reduced to diagnosis/ tears” (diagnosis) and the poet’s only option, at least for now, is to “plaster on a braver face/ be ‘nice’ inside this iron maiden/ take my hopes, abandon them” (diagnosis)

Just when we thought that we were all worn out, Liz kept going and then suddenly as compassionate and consciously evolving beings, we all felt this overwhelming sense of empathy and purpose. Pretty soon we dedicated our lives to the sick and disabled, whom we looked after and took good care of. As spiritually evolving and aware beings, we were all to clearly understand that those who are helpless must come first; before our poetry and our art and all of our trivial day to day concerns, and the fact that one of them, has managed to write poetry against the odds is inspiring. Liz Hall-Downs was always an important Australian poet, before she was “’that poor girl with the terrible disease’.” (sleaze)

The father is finally the one to represent love; the very love that flew out the window into the day, that the poet was to somehow re-find within herself and life in the poem (27 years) ; “your leaving was childhood’s/ death knell, an the world since has never been so kind,/ so loving. Father, if you had stayed, what poem would I have been?”

The books of Liz Hall-Downs are available by contacting the author at her website http://www.uq.net.au/~zzlhalld/main.html

About the reviewer: Dr. Coral Hull is an established Australian writer, artist and photographer and the author of over 50 books including; poetry, fiction, artwork, digital photography and non-fiction. Her books are now published through her own label Artesian Productions. Coral is the Director of The Thylazine Foundation Pty Ltd: Arts, Ethics and Literature. She is the Executive Editor and Publisher of Thylazine; an annual online zine featuring articles, interviews, poetry, book reviews, photography, visual arts and the recent work of Australian writers and artists. She is based in Darwin, The Northern Territory, Australia.

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