Alex Kostas Reviews Peter Goldsworthy, Jill Jones and Heather Taylor Johnson

By | 18 April 2018

To think of our hands as the farthest extremity of our bodily selves sparks a kind of bodily revelation, that we are each singular entities floating through space. To understand the act of making contact with another body as a probe making contact with an alien planet is a metaphor at once so striking and yet so perfectly acceptable, I have carried the idea with me since reading.

Jill Jones’s The Quality of Light (and other poems) contains fifteen poems that hang together in a kind of thematic constellation. Jones often writes about the natural world and the world moving past us, and these motifs are the building blocks of her overarching themes of human impermanence and our concepts of time and existence. The last few lines of her titular poem read like a statement for the entire chapbook:

Luminosity perhaps is a dream,
like travel, building, or words. It all
comes and goes, it is
as if it’s happening, at least
that’s the impression, like light
as so much fails.

Jones writes with a true ear for the music of each word she selects, while also maintaining a unique style of punctuation and rhythm. She sometimes uses line breaks as a means to signify a new idea, but other times simply follows on with an enjambment. This deliberate inconsistency reflects the subjects of her poems and also gives the result of a closer, more careful reading. Should you skim through line breaks as if they do not exist, her poems cease to find their true meaning.

The specific order of the poems in Jones’ chapbook is also important, as it allows ideas to dawn slowly. Jones is not simply writing about a living nature that will survive each of us, she is attempting to explore the stranger, inanimate side to the universe we live in. Indeed, she is writing about ‘the quality of light’. There is nature as we think of it in her poems – birds and bees and the like – but there is much more about the forces of the world around us that are strangely not alive, like gravity and light. In ‘Wrack’ she writes:

which way are you facing as the street falls
trees burst, windows crack
the rust has no consciousness but it attacks
a load of pipes crashes from the roof rack

Rust, electricity, the wind, the rain, the sky – none of these are alive, and yet they exist around us and are permanent where we are not. How do we determine what is alive and what is not? What do we mean when we speak of ‘nature’ or ‘time’? These questions sneak up on you the further you delve into Jones’ chapbook, contemplations on the quality of light. In ‘The Abandoned Truck’, Jones takes a clear-eyed look at the frailty of human existence in a kind of resolution to the questions she has raised earlier in the chapbook:

The air outside moves because it moves.
We all die and we all die.
Neither truths nor tricks change that.
The truck has been abandoned.

Jones does inject personal elements into these poems, such as her memories of how the world used to look. In the final poem of the book, Jones writes a kind of epilogue, an internal address that she is sharing with us about the nature of writing poetry and living as a puny human in this strange world:

Of course I’m like everyone writing poems
thinking my way from the light
and taking my socks off after
walking so far.

Heather Taylor Johnson’s Thump (and other poems) is a chapbook for the age of Donald Trump. Each of the nine poems starts with a famous / infamous quote from the current POTUS, but then Johnson zooms in on her own personal experiences in reflection to Trump’s statements. It makes for interesting reading, as while initially jarring, the smaller scale of Johnson’s poems are a weighty response to Trump’s hyperbolic ramblings. When she refers to her children, her loved ones, and the wider circle of friends/writers/singers that she admires, the effect of Trump and ‘trumpism’ is made palpable. For example, in the chapbook’s titular poem ‘Thump’, written in response to Trump’s promise to appoint ‘pro-life judges’, Johnson writes:

My children know your name
because I’ve said it
a catch-phrase hurled against the red wall-
‘Children, if there was ever a time to swear – ’
I look to my own mother
her fight wasn’t planned or talked about
feminism hung around her neck
like an iron sling
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