A. Frances Johnson Reviews Jill Jones

20 May 2013

Jones is a seemingly confessional writer who endlessly twins romantic joy and emotional excess with a keen eye for the anti-romantic moment: ‘Clouds reveal me against traffic / the ash state dissolves my mouth’ (‘Ash’) and love becomes ‘bitter tender’ on closed roads and in backyards. (‘Bitter Tender’). Thus banality and mystery are conjoined and constantly placed in the ‘ring’ of each poem to wrestle one another. Happily, the poet does not seek a victor in such readable fights, and contradiction and counterpoint richly underpin each poem. One might think that Jones’ depictions of mystery might therefore avoid aesthetic enumerations of stars and ash and light, but she does the reverse. She is a contemporary painter of clouds, yet always the ironist. And, historically and culturally savvy, she situates her poems in the heart of a kind of renovated metaphysical language only to challenge this with images of banality and/or abjection. Thus the epic scale of beauty is constantly returned to the micro – to a human, domestic scale in which the stars, ultimately, will not save.

Language is placed under greatest pressure in more elliptical poems like ‘Bitter Tender’, where possessives become pronouns before roads (‘your road’ becomes ‘you road’ for instance), lines run on and punctuation is done away with entirely. ‘The News That Is The News’ and ‘A Key In Your Throat’ exploit burlesque volleys of images but can seem a little arcane. A brilliant poem is the metafictional ‘Whose Words Did These Things?’ where the poet is summarily ordered (perhaps by an inner critic) to ‘lug down words’, rather than ‘pussyfoot round the sidelines’, as if to ward off deceptive nostalgias as she charts a poetic passage from girlhood to adulthood. Here it is as if adulthood, like girlhood, were simply forced upon one by words and constructions of language rather than bodily changes and other processes of maturation. Elsewhere, ‘All Blues’ is an impossibly lyrical synaesthesia that deals with an interview at a police station on a ‘dirty lilac seat’, grey walls featuring ‘a hint of blue, watery and insubstantial’. It is quite an achievement to turn such a grim subject into a visual étude, while an excoriating wit adds its own wry shades:

here all the young officers look like dykes /
even the women, it’s that blue again /
all blues, and people sniffing the desk /
hello darkness, but that’s crap, the light / 
is generous and mean at once

                                                (‘All Blues’)

Jones’ meshed, disjunctive ‘constellations’ speak to both universal and Australian settings, to the aspirations and dashed hopes of love and longing, to life and death and human navigation of these themes. Sometimes the sunset is beautiful; sometimes it is a sickly, orange drink: ‘I swing orange sun ahead of rain,’ the poet tells us as night time flâneur and witness to gay beat culture in ‘Give Yourself Up’. This title, drawing on a graffito seen by the poet on a wall in Sydney in the mid 2000s, suggests both a homophobic, moralising admonishment from decades past and an equal injunction to ‘give oneself up’ to pleasure: ‘If I could make it happen light it / up my hand breathe smoke back its direction / I could discuss theme tunes to my beating hands on skin’.

This ‘beating’, the poet observes, pulling back suddenly to an ironising omniscient distance, is ‘… the behind trade / mustering its dirty love / a steep roof leans on night / dusk, drifts and haloes lane smells of toilet slow brakes’ (4).

Love, sex and longing for love are shown as lyrical and acidic, abject and transcendent, violent and tender. These are poems of brilliant complexity. In ‘A Time to Refrain from Embracing’ clichés of filmic love may be evoked in the midst of an assault (‘take me in your arms’), but the woman who longs for such words is summarily knocked to the ground:

his steel line, your cotton square shoulders 
gutter is not excited by the stars 
you fold onto world floor 
and, yes, it’s grit, your drift, now
he’ll open your arms, your legs, now 
attempt, extract your sky blue pocket

A pessimistic deformation of Oscar Wilde’s starry sky is the only possibility for this violent subject, which is rightly portrayed as a local/universal crime in the marvellously spatial line: ‘you fold onto world floor’. In powerful poems such as this, Jones’ metaphysical imagery is duly ‘broken’, like plates hurled across a room. The reader voyages into dark, starless territory, clearly conjoined with the second-person voice to become the interpellated you-victim in this visceral, violent portrait.

Second-person voices are often counterpointed by first-person narrations in Jones’ collection, as if a dialogical pattern between self and a more universal subject (the ‘you’) has been set up across the whole.

I set up the shot yesterday
but fell into the hole
in my mouth
yes, where the stories leak to my throat ...

... this is the wide city
it has accumulated me 
                                                (Bone Walk)

I do not want to make the mistake of reading the constellated ‘I’ in these poems as necessarily standing in for the poet herself, though so many of these poems appear to marshal confessional traces to superb effect. The proliferation of ‘throats’, ‘black holes’, ‘wounds’ and ‘mouths’ across these poems suggest the poet’s self-reflexive struggle for speech and writing. Such metafictional imagery alerts the reader that the poet is constantly speaking to the silence of stars, moons and smoke and water, ever hopeful of dialogue. Listening in to the elemental silence, returning chastened to earth, but to the always communal and communing self – a self capable of love at least, (troubled and/or glorious) before this questing dialogue with time and mortality seems to begin all over again.

Jones’ polyphonic, visual, ‘broken’ language draws fierce attention to the way language constructs meaning: life’s stages, love, death, past, future, culture, place. But there is a driving emotional core at the heart of this fine collection that anchors formalism to universal human desires for narrative and insight. The beauty is in the lack of resolution between these two impulses.

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About A. Frances Johnson

A. Frances Johnson lives on the Bellarine Peninsula. She lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne and is associate editor at Whitmore Press. Her poetry has appeared in Motherlode: Australian Women’s Poetry 1986–2008 and Best Australian Poems (2009, 2010, 2011). The Pallbearer’s Garden (Whitmore Press) was published in 2008 and The Wind-up Birdman of Moorabool Street (Puncher and Wattmann) received the 2012 Michel Wesley Wright Prize.

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