Michelangelo's Prisoners : Jennifer Harrison

Book Description

Book Sample

...an impressive first collection - technically assured and intellectual in the best sense..

Jennifer Strauss, Australian Book Review
...an exhilarating collection from start to finish
a fabulous, wise, superbly crafted book. May it prosper...
Alan Gould, Quadrant
...This is an impressive first collection of poetry and one which demands re-reading...

Catherine Bateson and Barbara Giles

Book Description

In the title poem of her first collection Jennifer Harrison re-imagines art history as a mastectomised aesthetic. Her poetry is of a kind to be found nowhere else. She uses her scientific and medical training to give her poems a sinuous intellectual backbone. It allows her feminist and humanist concerns to affect us with unusual force.

She presses into controlled intensity a lyrical response to typical late 20th century displacement.

I once saw a baby catching sunlight in his hands -
    everywhere the child touched
he laughed at what he could not touch

until language wheeled his pram away
    and he learned that silhouettes and sun
were called chair and where.

Part One: The Body is a celebration and critique of medical and scientific achievement made poignant by her own particular experience.

Part Two: The Sea broadens out to examine love, childhood, the family, other societies and friendship.

Michelangelo’s Prisoners announces the arrival of a significant new poetic voice. Black Pepper’s second title, and its first book of poetry, it won the 1995 Anne Elder Award.

"Jennifer Harrison’s Michelangelo’s Prisoners was immediately engaging and stood out from the rest of the entries. Harrison posseses a mature poetic sensibility and which allows her to tackle a wide range of subjects, reflecting her own personal and professional experiences. Her scientific and medical reflections are accesible to the general reader because Harrison draws on a disciplined and intellectual lyricism to illustrate her subjects. This is an impressive first collection of poetry and one which demands re-reading".

Catherine Bateson and Barbara Giles, 
Judges - Anne Elder Award 1995

ISBN 1875606203
Published 1995
56 pgs

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Book Sample

Imaging the Brain

Insubstantial as a skeleton?
As the X-ray a doctor holds to the light?
Celluloid strips down the flesh
To black and white, bones and air?

The minimal carcass. The functional tree.
Carpal to metacarpal pushing
Across a page, words fumbling down
To fingers from skull and cartilage...

the scan declares a brain is free
Of tumour or haemorrhage
But doesn’t comment on the mind’s possibility.

Idle, industrious, the faint white streamers
Which streak the filmy cortex
Must be sentences.

The Wheel

Under the tongue, after meals
the little pill melts. A mongrel dog
infects an embryo with its indolent lick.

We can bear it, we say. Look now
at the human genome, a shiny new ship
emerging from the dock.

Ambitious, on schedule. A precise faith
that might yet fall apart
like a soft clay pot failing to centre.

But see the wheel still spinning
splattering muc. Hippocrates wants
a perfect pot. The potter is patient.

Oliver Sacks
Melbourne, 1992

Gilles de la Tourette ticks
through time’s returning minutes.
The nerve’s wire ineffable clock
sees no reason

to mourn shame’s stranded whale
ignominy, stigma
a beach washed up
among its own shells.

In the front rows of the auditorium
the deaf flicker. Their hands
shout for news of Martha's Vineyard
where sign’s grandmother rocks

on the porch, in mute twilight.
She daydreams on a piano of air.
She signs in her sleep, the mnemonic
pull of oars over water.

This vagabond of afflictions;
this Rumplestiltskin wets our appetite
for spinning gold from straw.
Umbilical words

flow almost too brightly.
We comphrehend
the fable’s vicissitudes
the pseudonym’s narrative

and the brute wave which comes
steamrolling in from out there
spilling calamitous tons of fairyland
across our sticks.

His Awakenings are resurrections.
They will make an opera to celebrate
...fragments of music
to synthesize the right and left mind.

He flares the sulci’s dark crannies
the brain’s fallow plains
game continents
stretched between cells

the quivering jungles of Africa
ladled into skull bones.
Itis, osis - no - not the right name
for the neuromélange, the mystery.

What is normal shuffles to the bottom.
What is new ascends.
More than compassion
more than categories

more than aluminium wedges of literature
more than the tissue wrapped
around a tray of china cups
there is more we want

and more to ask for
more beyond the imminent wave
the body map of sand.
Perhaps we only want to want.

Substantia nigra.
Encephalitis lethargia.
The caconym stinks of starfish rations
the clinical sea washing over pebbles
washes cold as nostalgia would have it.

Music can teach the lame to walk!
And now I am thinking
about what part of the brain applauds
what part doubts

what part defines the otherness of this man
whose humane fame will seize
a new palette and in the next book
paint eleven magic swans
somewhere else.

Australian sign language

My deaf friend said to me: our conversations
    are overheard, everywhere we speak.
He teaches me the sign for Sydney: the shape

of a harbour bridge, skin webbing blue water.
    I hear a quiet voice in my hands
in the silence when I am speaking

and foam, rubber, snow and glycerine
    seem softer in the fingering span
than spoken words falling short of what they name.

I once saw a baby catching sunlight in his hands -
    everywhere the child touched
he laughed at what he could not touch

until language wheeled his pram away
    and he learned that silhouettes and sun
were called chair and where.

Precisely, in mother tongue, we categorise
    the conch shells, sea hollows
the safety pins and taboos.

My friend said: I will teach you
    what you need to know...
other signs belong only to the deaf.

He teaches me the sign Forget
    it is a fist placed against the right temple
the hand opening, flicking sun away from the head.

L’après-midi d’un Faun

Nijinski’s velvet groin
    throbbed across a nymph’s scarf, and then
the foal’s soul was wrenched out

sanity itself another dream
    moving sideways across a darkening stage
(as though across the mind’s vase).

Nijinski leapt into the frieze, catatonia of stone
    where perplexed feet no longer know
how to find the earth.

A phenomenal forest rustles far away
    murmurs closer. Green tongues in a brain.
Conversations cannot be grasped.

Curtains open, close. Delusions
    perch ten claws in the wings.
There! Just then! Was it you Mallarme who spoke?

But did you see that filthy salivating war walking
    running dancing heel-to-toe?
Did you see Rome’s savage faun

saunter on, just to show himself
    as he once was, beyond the meaning of events
in the bold gold of a muscle’s ripple?

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 Michelangelo’s Prisoners
David McCooey
Southerly Review -  Summer 1995

A new poet also concerned with the troubling implications of the materialist view of existence engendered by medical science is Jennifer Harrison. Michelangelo’s Prisoners is no doubt partly achieved through Harrison’s experience as a psychiatrist, but it is not clear whether this is the ‘particular experience’ alluded to in the book’s blurb which makes the first section regarding the body ‘poignant’. It does not really matter if Harrison’s experience is from either or both sides of the medical fence; her writing is acute, sharply observed and her musicality is sinuous and muscular. For instance, in ‘Aus-lan’, a poem about the Australian sign language of that name, Harrison makes the kinds of connections, at once precise and mysterious, which are required for such a poem. She writes of

a baby catching sunlight in his hands -
everywhere the child touched
he laughed at what he could not touch

until language wheeled his pram away
and he learned that silhouettes and sun
were called chair and where

The last line gives a rigour which saves the image from the cloying, but at the end she returns to the image and the subject of the poem with extraordinary effect: her friend

teaches me the sign Forget
it is a fist placed against the right temple
the hand opening, flicking sun away from the head

Again, the pastorals are piscatorial, even when (as in the New Guinea poems) subterranean rumbles can be heard. Part two is ‘The Sea’ and even the brain, that site of fascination for Harrison, can be described in such terms: ‘in sea-grey cells, memory stirs, flows back / across a sandy ti-tree shore’ (‘St George’s Basin’). This poem doesn’t really go anywhere, but where in such a landscape (or seascape) is there to go? A number of the poems in the first half of the book work by associating scientific (in particular neurological) language with poetry. For me, however. Harrison’s best poems work often through the suggestiveness and indirection of the sea.

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Michelangelo’s Prisoners

Silvana Gardner
Imago, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 1996

Jennifer Harrison’s first collection, Michelangelo’s Prisoners, is unusual in its free-range use of medical or scientific terms, which, mercifully, are explained in the Notes. While I was intrigued by the mystique of a new tongue, the charisma of the foreign, I became impatient when I had to stop regularly to consult a dictionary. On the one hand, I believe new language is educational and widens one’s knowledge but if there’s too much, especially in poetry, it becomes a burden of non-understanding and the work risks abandonment. But from Harrison’s point of view, these terms are not new at all. ‘Caconym’, ‘encaphalitis lethargica’, ‘null-hypothesis’, ‘Schwann Cell’, ‘astroglia’, ‘Tourette’s Disorder’ would be commonly heard in her everyday work as a psychiatrist. To intrigue further, the second section -of her poems contains pidgin English. This, too, I needed to clarify on the back page.

Should the reader be elevated to the poet’s world or take what is useful in her life? Both, I suppose. What I take for myself in Harrison’s poems is some magical imagery as seen in ‘Aus-lan’:

‘I once saw a baby catching sunlight in his hands... he laughed at what he couldn’t touch... silhouettes and sun / were called chair and where.’ Sunlight, like a golden glow reappears in other poems, together with silvery lunar light. This gold and silver subtly shines in Harrison’s poems, foiled by the shine of hospital chrome or steel. Poetic warmth chills, sometimes, by the cool clinical eye and vice versa. The title poem shows art ‘mastectomised’. 500 years updated by late 20th century diction! The last three lines are very powerful: ‘...it is not the anguish of chiselled stone / which matters. / It is the standing still which kills.’

There’s a Yin-Yang, poet-scientist tuning ‘The Body’ section. ‘The Sen’ is lyrical, offers variety in travel and my favourites are those which are more sparse, such as ‘Rajistan’, a remarkably pared poem, almost etched in black/white: ‘...the killing silence / the returning bird where sky once was’ creates an unforgettable impression with its economy.

…I recommend Jordie Albiston’s Nervous Arcs for poetic bravura, Diane Fahey’s The Body in Time for lyrical flexibility, Jennifer Harrison for poetic difference and Kerry Scuffins [Laika’s Run] for contagious vitality.

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I Want Them Electric
Alan Gould
Quadrant, Vol. 40, No. 1-2 1996

I have no misgivings whatever about Jennifer Harrison’s book Michelangelo’s Prisoners. I found it an exhilarating collection from start to finish. Trained in medicine and psychiatry, this poet taps and eases the terms of medical science into her poems with the tact and flair of one for whom argument and illumination in poetry appear to come naturally. Here, for instance, is the speaker of one poem meditating upon the nature of the brain while engaged in catching prawns.

Shaped uncus of brain    grey cloud
we cannot see    or breathe
spiller of guilt    lust gape    a brave shape
complex lexicon-tripper
communes outside itself    folds back
on concave gyrus and deep fissure    on itself
prawns mating    rushing down river    I’ll
call you my thoughts    I’ll catch you
in the net and miss

I lack space to quote, as it demands, the entire poem, which would show how the speaker’s imaging of the brain and her attention to the business of prawning are integrated into the one meditative event, a meditation that manages to do both sensuous and intellectual justice to the experience described.

‘Prawning the Brain’ is the last poem in the first of the book’s two sections, perhaps more properly termed hemispheres. Deftly it unites the subject matter of a series of poems that ponder the human body, particularly the brain and neural system, with a series whose leit-motif is the sea. Indeed orchestration, both within and between the poems, is also a meta-subject of the book concerned, as so many poems are, with the orchestration of the body or the tides, the connections between physiology and language, medical science and magic, inside and outside. Thus, in the first half we find a tribute to the neurologist Oliver Sacks, in the second a vivid memory of an old Aboriginal seaside magician. With equal rigour of argument, and scintillance of imagery. Debussy, Michelangelo and Gilgamesh are used as reference points to explore the relations between art and catatonia, art and the effect of bodily disfigurement, art and the sense of an inarticulable Other. There is the same credibility and wholeness of realisation when the poet adopts a dramatic persona in ‘A Kalgoorie Prostitute Contemplates a Proposed Museum’. Above all, these poems are fresh. In common perhaps with the marble prisoners of the title, they give the sense of emerging out of an intractable element, language-experience, while being conscious of their emergence. They are not fashionable, they gesture nowhere; they are too deeply attentive to the strangeness they have found in the world. Take this short lyric, ‘The Wheel’:

Under the tongue, after meals
the little pill melts. A mongrel dog
mfects an embryo with its indolent lick.
    We can bear it, we say. Look now
at the human genome, a shiny new ship
emerging from the dock.
    Ambitious, on schedule. A precise faith
that might yet fall apart
like a soft clay pot failing to centre.
    But see the wheel still spinning
splattering mud. Hippocrates wants
a perfect pot. The potter is patient.

This is a fabulous, wise, superbly crafted book. May it prosper.

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Michelangelo’s Prisoners
Jennifer Strauss
Australian Book Review, No. 174, 1995

Michelangelo’s Prisoners is an impressive first collection - technically assured and intellectual in the best sense. That is, the gears of Harrison’s intelligence are as fully engaged with the facts and theories that we bring to box on our corporeal and emotional experience of the world as they are with the specifics of such experiences and with the language in which we can (and cannot) speak them. For Harrison, those facts and theories often come from her professional disciplines, medicine and psychiatry, and a set of notes indicates awareness that there is a certain transplanting of discourse going on. If the process results in occasional poetic strain, it is vindicated by fine poems like the one on Oliver Sacks (‘this vagabond of afflictions’). The notes, along with the title - pointing towards such more acclimatised references as Michelangelo, Nijinski, Auden, Herodotus - may indicate that we are in the realm of ‘high’ culture, but Harrison can also write forcefully and accessibly of matters that are the stuff of tabloid journalism: anorexia, chemotherapy, the anguish of being an ‘Amok-runner’s Mother’, the desire of a Kalgoorlie prostitute for ‘music like a pair of solid gold 24 carat dingoes... no pretty-arse dancing’. Indeed one unifying motif throughout this carefully ordered collection is the force of human desire: ‘there is more we want’ - more than ‘the body map of sand’(‘Oliver Sacks’); more than ‘Ideas, cheap umbrellas [that] blow inside out / when you need them most’ (‘Maturana Songs’); more than ‘spoken words falling short of what they name’ ‘Aus-lan’. The strikingly-evoked ‘one-breasted woman’ of ‘Michelangelo’s Prisoners’ has a ‘peasant rhyme in her eyes / which longs for a woman’s symmetry’. To know something of feminist theorising of the body will increase the resonance of this disturbing poem, but its imaginative strength is not dependent on such knowledge.

It should be clear that this is not apprentice work. The extent to which her poetic is formed in this initial mid-life publication recalls Gwen Harwood’s 1963 emergence and Harrison seems to me to have other affinities with that formidable talent - not leas an affection for fishing. In speaking earlier, I perhaps made Harrison sound unduly melancholy about unfulfilled and unfulfillable desires: in her themes and in the very process of her writing there are also robust celebrations of the fulfilled moment when the poet can say ‘I shout Fish! / dragging the tide towards me’ (‘Deep Sea’). The title of the concluding poem is ‘A Good Catch’: this reader agreed.

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Psychic Terror and Quiet Desperation
- "Michelangelo’s Prisoners"
Michael Dargaville
The Canberra Times, 16 September 1995

Jennifer Harrison’s Michelangelo’s Prisoners is much more formal in style than the work of Scuffins [Laika’s Run]. This is Harrison’s first book, and it is a very interesting debut. Born in 1955, she completed a medical degree in 1979 and training as a psychiatrist in 1990.

Harrison clearly has talent as a poet, and her training in science has helped her create poems which deal with cancer, chemotherapy, neuroscience, the brain, and biology.

She also has great intellectual breadth and is capable of writing on a range of subjects from Mallarme and Oliver Sacks to poems on location in Boston, Sydney, St Kilda, Kalgoorlie, Malaysia and India.

Her language is carefully structured and crafted and she has the ability to make some quirky social insights, as in the poem ‘Night and the News’:

Behind television glass exotic nerves twitch.
Prophets lean back, clean
and spare as lizards on polite chairs.
They say: we dread what’s coming next
this bad-rap, oil-smeary beach
this belly-eyed baby and
that mound of African clavicles
which grows as though it were alive.

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Explorations of mortality- "Michelangelos Prisoners"
Heather Cam (editor)
The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 August 1995

Exploration, discovery and communion are the engines which drive these four collections [Vera Newsom, Emily Bronte Re-Collects and Other Poems, Alec Choate, Mind in Need of Desert, Lawrence Bourke, Eating the Sun, Jennifer Harrison, Michelangelo’s Prisoners]. All are preoccupied with the big, imponderable questions: where do we come from, why are we here, and where are we going? The sites chosen to probe for meaning and some tentative answers reflect the idiosyncrasies of each poet’s personal history...

Jennifer Harrison’s explorations tend to be biological and medical (body, brain, breast and skin). In the second half of Michelangelo’s Prisoners she turns to that largest of bodies - the sea.

For both Newsom and Harrison the body is the chief focus. This private space extends outwards for Newsom to include the close, harmonious world of home, garden and the senses. For Harrison, a practising psychiatrist, the body’s pathology (cancer) and the inner workings and quirks of the brain provide poetic subject matter: hysterical blindness, deafness. Tourette’s disorder, Oliver Sacks’s sleeping subjects.

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