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Melbourne poet Andy Jackson has won the 2022 Australian Literature Society (ALS) Gold Medal for Human Looking, a visceral yet compassionate collection which speaks on the diverse experiences of disability, and gives a voice to those often treated as ‘Other’. The prize is Australia’s longest-running literary award, and recognises the best contribution to literature in Australia in the preceding calendar year.
In their citation, the award judges described Human Looking as a ‘sharp and brilliant collection…with powerful poetic skill and infinite compassion, this book illuminates the world differently and gives us a new way to see.’
Jackson, who lives with the rare genetic disorder Marfan Syndrome, used the announcement as an opportunity call for the government to fix the NDIS.
‘When I first started writing poetry I wasn’t aware of a single poet who wrote openly about disability,’ he said. ‘I try to write poems that stare back… in shapes and forms that are themselves disformed.’
Read the judges’ citation in full below.
The poems in this sharp and brilliant collection pay sustained and loving attention to the human form. Opening out of disabled/disfigured experience, they reckon with the history and iconography of deformity: using medical documents, news reports, trial transcripts, literary texts and visual artworks, Jackson inhabits, transforms, and speaks back to a deeply rooted way of looking that casts the disabled or disfigured body as deficient, repulsive, or the object of prurient fascination. His poems provide a more capacious account of the aesthetics and experience of the human body, displacing the ‘normal’ body from the centre of our attention and expanding the possibilities for human looking. Measured and dispassionate in tone, the poems nonetheless burst with anger and joy.
Each poem has exceptional merit individually, but they are also carefully sequenced, and their cumulative effect is considerable. The sequence opens with the deceptive simplicity of an apparently autobiographical lyric ‘I’ in the first poem, which describes a body altered by surgical intervention. Next, the reader is moved through a series of poems that contextualise the speaker’s experience, relating it to mainstream discourses about disability; the ongoing history of violence against disabled people; and the voices of other disabled, disfigured or deformed figures from art, myth, and history, including Frankenstein’s monster and Sisyphus. In the final, enormously affirmative poem of the sequence, we return to an autobiographical ‘I’ with new eyes, and inhabit the speaker’s universal body: like all human bodies it is vulnerable, imperfect, and in need of care. Our interdependent bodies are the basis of our connection to one another, to our loved ones, and to the more-than-human world.
With powerful poetic skill and infinite compassion, this book illuminates the world differently and gives us a new way to see.
Human Looking was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2022. Order the book here.