Review of My Arthritic Heart, by Liz Hall-Downs, Post Pressed, 324 / 50 Macquarie Street, Tenerife, Q 4005. Price: $19.50
Review by Ron Heard – Published in Social Alternatives, Vol.25, No.4, Fourth Quarter, 2006
These are strong poems.
Liz Hall-Downs has Rheumatoid Arthritis and on one level the poems address the condition, her responses to it and the way she has moved beyond these responses. However, they are much more than “poems as therapy” because they are well crafted and allusive and address universal problems such as society and identity.
When she was twenty, Liz was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, an auto-immune disease that causes extreme pain and muscular weakness. Until recently there was no known cure and the drugs to alleviate the symptoms were only partially successful and left her in a mental fog.
The poems succeed because Liz looks at her situation without flinching. In her best poems I was reminded of Wilfred Owen where the simple directness of statement allows suffering to be discussed without self-pity. For example, in chronic pain she writes
awake all night, full of pain
like an all-over tooth-ache,
like blame. i have become
no-one. pain is my only
companion, it has taken “me”
away, has taken over my brain
The collection as a whole works well. The poems have a unity and together create a story that gives the individual poems added depth. There is a journey from the inner to the outer world as the illness settles and allows the poet a wider horizon. The act of writing is an important part of that journey – as she states in one poem, she has been “writing myself into existence | writing myself alive”.
Some of the poems are angry. I usually find angry poems self-indulgent or superficial – however here Liz is angry with the right person in the right way for the right reason. The poems express her anger at people’s denial of her condition, indifference, manipulation or cruelty. For example, when a lover says “you’re just | a cripple | with no future”, she responds
i shift his furniture
his lovely clothes
his big ego
onto the verandah
and change the locks
bolt my poor heart
take the painkillers
and cry in the dark
Some of the poems deal with her childhood and the mental and physical abuse she suffered. I respond less to these perhaps because there is a greater distance between the poet and the subject matter. However, the bleak view of her childhood is all too vivid and shows what few resources she had when she began to write herself into existence.
There are lighter poems that deal with people in fringe medicine who feed on personal distress. Many readers will recognise the targets and respond to seeing pretension deflated with such accuracy. I particularly like her description of an encounter with a psychic healer who “on my body, does not lay a finger | I weep for the entire hour, then | that’ll be fifty dollars”.
I admire her lyrical self-creation in: “sometimes I’m these cockatoos | flashing my sulphur crest and screaming . . . but mostly I’m that old hills hoist | skewed and broken”. An illustration to these lines provides a fine cover for the volume.
Throughout, her language is simple and well crafted. The syntax is clear and gives the poems a strong forward drive. Imagery is powerful and evocative. The rhythms and word sounds carry the poems well and make them poems for the voice as well as for the page. For example, in the first quotation above note the way the line breaks add to the progression of ideas and note the power of the simile comparing pain to blame.
I strongly recommend the collection. These are strong poems because they are the poems of a woman who has made herself strong. The poet takes the reader with her on that journey.