Julie-Ann Rowell’s ‘Inside Out’ by Liz McSkeane

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Julie-Ann Rowell’s Inside Out  ISBN print: 9781913598433   Format:  Paperback  92 pages  Price: €13/£12

When I first read a selection of new poems from Julie-Ann which, she explained, dealt with her experience of living with a chronic illness, FND, I was both greatly impressed by the power and resonance of the poems, and intrigued, as this was a condition I had never heard of. I learned that Functional Neurological Disorder (FND) is a disorder of the nervous system which manifests through a variety of physical, sensory and cognitive symptoms such as seizures, dizziness, chronic pain, speech impairment, paralysis.  

A New Collection       

I immediately found those first few poems to be compelling, both in the subtle craft which straightaway engaged and sustained this reader’s unwavering attention, and in their poignant descriptions of navigating life while grappling with symptoms of an illness that is often little understood.             Julie-Ann Rowell's Inside Out

Even so, when Julie-Ann told me that she had almost completed a full collection dedicated to her experience of being diagnosed with FND, followed by hospitalisation, treatment and discharge, I admit that I was a little unsure. Would readers warm to an entire collection that dealt with such a daunting subject?  And could a poet produce a sustained and varied body of work about living with chronic illness that would reach out beyond her own, very specific, experiences?  

But that was before I had read Inside Out in its entirety, when I finally understood the nuanced, multi-layered, sometimes wry, wisdom which the poet brings to this challenging topic.

The poems in the first, longest of three sections, called IN, describe a period of hospitalisation, and the many ways in which individual identity is stripped away: handing over personal belongings, taking meals in an institutional setting, the ritual of medication administered at regular times, group activities under the watchful eye of a supervisor.          

Within this clinical environment, the narrator’s world is people by a cast of characters ‒ staff and other patients ‒ who variously enhance or diminish her well-being. One fellow patient provides a sense of solidarity:                             

                                A new patient arrives, Gina,
                                first admitted twenty years ago to this same hospital.
                               ‘We were called fakers then,’ she says. 

Others, such as the man who roams naked through the corridors during the night, are unpredictable or frightening. The cold dismissiveness of the Unit Manager reminds her of Nurse Rached, the cruel nurse in the novel and the film ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.

Social Impact of Living with Illness

Through these and many other accounts of interactions, the poems of Julie-Ann Rowell’s Inside Out grapple not only with the physical challenges of chronic illness, but the emotional and social struggles as well. This comes to the fore most starkly in a distressing episode described in the short second section, OUT, after she has been discharged:

                              I venture into town on my own, 
                              a short way in among the shoppers 
                              when Woman stops and turns,her eyes dark pith, ‘You’re drunk!’

as the narrator struggles in vain to find her leaflet that explains the symptoms of FND, to show that she is not drunk, but recovering from a serious illness.            

Although the poems in Inside Out recount an intense reflection on navigating a world which does not always respond with understanding or kindness to people who do not conform to normative social expectations, this is not a purely individual experience.  Most of us, if not all, are confronted at some time in our lives with illness, our own or that of other people, with the frustrations and, if we are lucky, compassion, from other people or institutions that ensue.            

Yet despite the seriousness of the subject matter, this is a collection that uplifts the spirits. This is due in part to the nuggets of sly humour which pepper the text, the narrator very far from being a passive onlooker, but rather an insightful commentator on the behaviour and motivations of those around her. The beautifully crafted poems of Julie-Ann Rowell’s Inside Out tell a story ‒ of illness, yes. But also of resilience and the survival of the spirit in difficult times. It is a joy to read.             

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