I SAID yes straight away when Wonthaggi poet Heather Murray Tobias asked me to read a poem at the launch of her latest book of poetry. For me, performance – that collective breath, sweat-glistening-on-the-performer’s face kind – is one of the best ways of communicating meaning and emotion, and Heather’s a gifted poet.
The poem she sent me to read, called Outdoors Ink, describes the activities run by an adventure organisation for people with a disability. I rehearsed carefully and at the launch, took my turn, reading with gravitas and due respect for the absence of commas and dots.
Then I bought the book. And, as they say in the literature, that made all the difference.
The Glass Staircase is a mother’s account of a beloved daughter’s mental breakdown and recovery. It’s about chaos: the anguish, bewilderment and exhaustion of their shared journey and the writer’s dogged struggle to understand the source and nature of the illness.
But the great achievement of the book is the way it opens out from that central experience of fragmentation – the “labyrinth’s broken thread” – in a search for meaning and coherence that extends back into the past and forward into an uncertain future. It’s a very personal story peopled with many lives, a story not complete but satisfyingly whole.
The book emerged slowly, over years. It began as snippets, the words on bits of paper written in the depths of the worst of that experience.
Later, as her daughter, “Lara”, began to recover, Heather was inspired by psychiatrist Professor Patrick McGorry’s urging of his patients to speak out. Speaking out would break down the barriers of stigma and fear, he said. They would find something liberating about the courage it takes to put your head in the lion’s mouth and roar back. “Lara” stood up and spoke in front of a capacity audience at the Melbourne Town Hall. Heather decided to put the experience out there, to write for publication.
The idea grew. Around 2004, she read a prose version at an Ibis Writers meeting. Someone said: “It’s so poetic. Why don’t you turn it into poetry?” So she went back to her snippets. The poems that emerged needed a beginning ... “but beginnings rarely start at the point we elect,” she writes. “They begin in the mists before we are born ... are drawn together by strands of beliefs, cultural traditions,” like those of her grandmother who worked with a Chinese herbalist and used home remedies. In 2006 a 12-month poetry workshop helped hone her work. Dr Brian Edwards read an early draft and encouraged her at an important time. Her publisher, Trevor Code, whom she also knew from Deakin, made invaluable observations over many hours. “It was a long time in the making,” Heather says.
The book charts the struggle to reconcile opposing realities. She fears drugs but must learn to trust in the doctors who prescribe them. “It is hot in the wards where, like spiders’ swags, drugged minds wait for the self to die.” She wonders at the links between psychosis and telepathy, schizophrenia and creativity. “You stand in quicksand,” she writes. Nothing is solid. There is just dislocation.
And you must search the empty rooms
Among the litter on the floor, or in the festooned web of dread
For love and laughter’s scattered thread
Before they are no more
Away from the hospital, she walks the streets, searching libraries, finding places to stay. Respite comes in observing birds and animals. They give her unaffected joy:
A pair of dogs bounds free and felonious
ears and tails scrawl joy upon the air
Elsewhere in a busy arcade coffee shop, unnoticed by his audience, “a sparrow sits and sings a complicated song ... then seeks their fallen crumbs, as payment for his gig.”
Because of her own sense of dislocation, she feels a particular kinship with the homeless people she meets. “In my wanderings, I became aware of the demographics of homelessness ... young people sleeping in doorways. It was absolutely heart breaking.” Her path crisscrossed with one particular woman’s ... Natalie, the homeless musician found one day playing her own brilliant compositions in the Galleria. Human links forged over tenuous bridges. “She never forgot my name.”
In the later sections of the book, the poems lighten as ”Lara” makes her slow recovery. Heather pays tribute to the work of EPPIC, the Early Psychosis Prevention and Intervention Centre and Orygen Youth Health. She’s intensely grateful for the skilled intervention of all those people, grateful that “Lara” was able to go to that particular hospital, that service. She details the activities offered by young professionals: “... a canoe to paddle upstream/a tent to offer shelter/ a horse to harness freedom ...” and I see now how faithfully the simplicity of this poem called Outdoors Ink reflects the slow and cautious return to health and trust, the wonder and the miracle of it.
“It was quite a journey,” Heather says.
We smile. What was the best thing you learnt about yourself,” I ask.
She thinks for a while and then she says: “I am a survivor, a warrior. I fight.”