A review of My Arthritic Heart by Liz Hall-Downs

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

My Arthritic Heart
By Liz Hall-Downs
Post Pressed, Teneriff QLD
2006, ISBN 1921215007, 82pages, 19.50

About 1 in 50 people develop Rheumatoid Arthritis at some stage in their life. It is 3 times more likely to affect women as men. In My Arthritic Heart poet Liz Hall-Downs sets the reader directly in the path of the emotional and physical freight train of this debilitating condition in particular, and of chronic illness in general. There are no soft sighs or gentle exits here. Hall-Downs is angry, and her anger extends past the confines of her own suffering into a broader and more powerful critique of how society deals with the ill. These easy to read but not so easy to accept poems move in the tight margin of space between fused joints; between a handout and sympathy; between love and criticism; between compassion and mercenary ideology.

While My Arthritic Heart reads as a kind of narrative, in which the reader watches the protagonist’s progress from abused girl to abused woman. There are so many antagonists that fear and rage seems to pervade. Starting with the absent father: “father, if you had stayed, what poem would i have been?” (27 years) and moving into a chilling mother, Hall-Downs shows the reader no more mercy than we deserve:
continually punished
my sin was
that of becoming

hitting and hitting
and hitting
me (becoming, 17)

Hall-Downs’ disease creates vulnerability which provides a catalyst for a range of callous men and women. The ignorant ‘well’ provide hurtful and absurd advice: “the red-headed/private schoolgirl told me/I should take up driving taxis” (losing it, 25), while the opportunistic, from drug dealers to new age peddlers of psychic hoopla, to needy parasites, all hook onto the protagonist as she struggles uphill, proud and painfully:
if pride is a sin
call me sinner
– this, or open my legs
to the monster.(poverty, 33)

But it isn’t all bleak. Though the poetry in My Arthritic Heart is never light or fluffy, it nevertheless reaches moments of transcendence. There is a sense of life continuing, from the laughing children playing with their dying dad to the carefree galahs being silly:
the galahs hang from the wires,
stretch out wings in a sprinkling of rain,
tumble-turn, mad acrobats, they seem
to laugh at my serious gaze
– like my friend, who has no fear
of last breaths, who is resigned
yet reticent. (easter in Cabarita, 80)

Australian flora and fauna forms a dense and permanent backdrop which lightens the transitory pain that pervades the human world. Not only do galahs hang, but currawongs come for breakfast, cockatoos scream, “blue wrens and finches/and cheeky cranky fans” sing on regardless, and above all, the heart remains “fluid and open to love.” That said, the poetry never whitewashes the pain, which works in conjunction with continuing life. The reader often finds him/herself in the uncomfortable position of being placed in the role of both victim and criminal. While poetry which focuses on illness, anger and bureaucratic indifference may be hard to swallow, especially if you are well, placid, and a bureaucrat, Hall-Downs also makes the point that we are all delicate:
little fool, does she think she’s immune?
all of us are frail, and simply human,
just one accident, one viral infection
from total annihilation. (the poetry reading, 77)

The preface to My Arthritic Heart calls the book an autobiographical account of the poet’s struggles with Rheumatoid Arthritis, but the poetry, like all good poetry, transcends its subject. In the intense immediacy of the words, Rheumatoid Arthritis becomes every chronic disease; every feeling of marginalisation; every expression of poverty; the sense of being not good enough, not pretty enough, not fit enough. This is work that those struggling with chronic disease will find powerful and familiar, but the familiarity is not limited to those struggling with disease. The marginalisation it explores is one which is common to many, women certainly, men often, the poor and sick always—all those who find themselves judged in materialistic terms like “poor investment.” My Arthritic Heart is an important work which deserves as wide an audience as possible.