The sky is grey, Janet writes in her poem “Birds,” and still I sing.
For me this is the miracle of this book of poems: its hard-won, unsparing message of beauty and wonder amidst suffering and pain. There is nothing simple or sweet about the knowledge in this volume. On the contrary, it is about affirming life in the face of everything that would plunder and degrade it. The poems are about what can be salvaged from violence, in what little sunshine /this day allows. This is the phrase that for me most sums up the poems.
The volume, Janet says somewhere, is a “becoming of shards,” and both of these words, shards and becoming strike me as key. The sequence set in the ABC (Alexander Bayne Centre) Acute Psychiatric Ward that describes the wounding and scoring of the shards, and recurring histories of “torture,” suffering and trauma they produce – it is important to name these things -- are the perhaps most powerfully descriptive of of mental illness I have ever read; poems of the splinters and slivers of anguish that shred through flesh and spirit: In this place/we keep each other company/But not too much.
The becoming is that which has been determinedly and deliberately salvaged, scavenged, from the wreckage caused by the lacerations of these painful shards of history and experiences of pain and violence. Hence the title Re-membering, that makes clear to us both the terrible physicality and materiality of the anguish -- the sense of being mutilated, hacked and torn apart -- and the slow, deliberate work of putting back together, knitting, weaving, joining back, not the way things were before, but the re-making, remembering into something else, something other: it’s not the beginning that matters /it’s where I chose to start. A breathtakingly powerful line about refusing to be defined, or owned, by a painful past.
Re-membering is about starting somewhere different: re-making, re-forming a wounded, tortured, abused and traumatised self with new materials, new bodies, new families, new alliances, new combinations of things, places and creatures. A few months ago I came across the work of the Tjanpi Desert Weavers from the NPY (Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara) lands and sent Janet some images of their art because there seems to be a profound affinity in these poems with their work, the way they weave together the natural world and its processes with the bodies of non-human and human animals – entwined these together in a re-membered body of becoming. The deep respect and feeling for country and its Indigenous custodians that is integral to the Janet’s poems is very much of this re-membering and becoming and the profound healing and joy that can’t be separated from it. It seems to me also that the becoming, even as it is about the putting back together from mental illness as a personal experience, is one that is inescapably collective, a re-membering with others, becoming with others, human and non-human, and with country, against the sources of destructive violence.
You all know that Janet is the coordinator of the Castlemaine vigil for refugees something she has kept going doggedly for months now in the face of hostility and indifference. This vigil has slowly and imperceptibly, it seems to me, had transformative effects, both personally and in the community. So I wanted to end by speaking about something I experienced a few days ago in Washington Square, New York – my meeting with a group of activists who had held a vigil there every other week for those imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. They had been doing this regularly for ten years. On the day I was there they were handing out pieces of pink paper cut out in the shape of hearts, and carrying the words, Expand your heart.
Again it made me think of Janet. What links this to Janet’s work, both to her writing and her activism, is this commitment and determination to expanding the heart, to love-ing. Love-ing, she tells us is, “to act with courageous love; to love courageously.” The courageous love in this collection inspires and embraces us all.