Ashleigh Young, Can You Tolerate This? Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo, 2017. ISBN 9781925336443
The Body of Memory
Let us begin where Ashleigh Young’s Can You Tolerate This? begins. After a quote, the opening line reads: ‘Harry’s first skeleton was the one he was born with’ (1). What a killer way to start. It made me want to turn the pages. This first essay is an absolute ripper – bold, compelling, considered, compassionate, thrilling. It also has wonderful style at the sentence level, reading easily, and offering an entry point into the book as a whole. I will leave it to readers to find out what happens to Harry and his skeletons but, needless to say, it is rewarding.
This essay also invites us in to consider the recurrent themes of the book – body, memory, community, relationships, longing. These come through even as there are a number of topics covered from chiropractors to yogis, moustaches to breathing. The body is more commonly a source of question than one of pleasure, perhaps best summed up as being the source of asking: what is it? This is not the body of carnal desire, though there is mention of that; it is the body as an object of inquiry and a vehicle of experience – it is studied, lived in, experienced. We glimpse hair, we stop to see the rise and fall of lungs, we stretch, we touch others with healing powers, we walk through real places and imagined worlds.
Just as it narrates a view of the body, Young’s book is one where there is often a permeable barrier between reality and imagination, which is seen by Paul McCartney’s appearance as if in a vision (12) and shrine to various quotidian things (41). This mixing encourages the reader to apprehend the mundane with a sense of the profound, the spirit with the material, the uncommon with daily life itself, all of which is compounded by shifts in perspective and tone (see the ‘our’ and ‘we’ in ‘Witches’ and the second person ‘you’ in ‘Can You Tolerate This?’). Never sitting still is one of the stylistic strengths of Can You Tolerate This? and reinforces how capable Young is of keeping the work entertaining even as there is a thread of quality and assurance throughout. It is at once general and particular.
Although firmly situated in the present, Can You Tolerate This? also combines the individual with the historical, including reference to figures from the past like Ferdinand Cheval (28), and also in a type of memoir conscious of broader forces (‘Big Red’). This is not only the body in space (New Zealand and other locales), as well as in time, with references to commodities, social relations, and the occasional year and date as well. It is a portrait, a kaleidoscope and a mosaic, too.
Nevertheless, Young does present herself as being a contemporary writer in a literary community (117) and knows that people notice her ‘sometimes scribbling something in my notebook’ (223). This is the corporeality of a writer who lives in the world and notices music, film, television, and social relations in them, of them and with them. She is at once adept and focused, reading into our age a fractured idea of belonging that has organs, teeth, and dancing.
Can You Tolerate This? is a reflective, introspective collection voiced in a compelling and readable style conscious of its self and its place in the world. It seems fitting that it is part of Giramondo’s Southern Latitudes series and nowhere is this clearer than when Young states candidly, ‘I found it easier to look at the edges of things’ (130). In light of the Northern gaze, it might be worthwhile to consider this more deeply, to think about what edges there are in the marrow of belonging to a community, tradition, one’s self, like Young herself does.
Robert Wood is the author of History and the Poet. Find out more at: www.robertdwood.net