Liam Ferney reviews Billy Jones

1 July 2008

Wren Lines: Selected Poems and Drawings Volume 1 by Billy Jones
papertiger media, 2006

Billy Jones is, by his own admission, 'a recluse in the forest/ with a hardon blissfully alone/ and alive to the fire of cosmic joy' (from 'Riverbank… Extracts'). This is perhaps why, despite seven collections stretched across four decades, Jones has often been ignored by anthologists. The publication of Wren Lines: Selected Poems and Drawings provides an appropriate time for the reconsideration of the work of this atypical, hermetic bard.

Born in 1935 in New Jersey his early wanderings took him to South Korea with the US Army, on to Europe where he paused in Stockholm before eventually arriving in Australia in 1966. Settling near Kilcoy he began keeping a daily journal on the banks of Mary Smokes Creek on 28 June, 1975, five weeks after the death of his partner Diane Kelly in a car crash. These journals, and the response to Kelly's tragic death, are at the heart of Jones's corpus.

Jones is an autobiographical poet. His partner's death, his solitary experiences with wildlife on his Sunshine Coast property, his adulation of Vincent van Gogh and his career as a visual artist, are all oft repeated subjects. The autobiographical element of his work contains an echo of the Charles Bukowski confessional with its tales of sex, drugs and Caboolture beer gardens. In 'Back in the Beer Garden', for example:

Every second could be your last
I feel as I piss
in the urinal staring
through decorative cement-block spaces
at trees mixed with bits of sky

Jones's freewheeling biography suggests something of the raconteur and it is certainly a raconteur's gift of the gab that sets him apart from the bland majority of Bukowski acolytes slumped across the public bars of Australia. 'Wanted Dead or Alive', for instance, weaves the curious tale of a letter the poet wrote to actor Edward G. Robinson. Leafing through a book of Van Gogh prints, Jones learns that the actor owns the 'Portrait of Pere Tangay'. Addressing a letter 'c/o the Beverly Hills Post Office', he requests an audience with the painting. After all his place is 'less/ than an hour on the freeway from/ [his] small ex-coach-house Pasadena flat', rather than halfway across the world in Europe. Sadly the actor had sold the painting, lamenting in his reply that '…if Tangay was still with me/ I would have been glad/ to introduce you…' The poem ends with the poet, unsure whether Robinson is dead or alive, reaching for an encyclopaedia. It turns out:

he's been dead
fifteen years
as Van Gogh said:
'It takes death to reach a star'.

But reducing Jones to a Bukowski-with-billy tea figure is limiting. The day-to-day drudgery in Jones's poetry is simply the wallpaper to the epiphanies that he locates in the world around him. Whereas, as Jones notes in this collection, Bukowski 'just writes about the rotten things in life & it seems/ there's no way out', in Jones's own poetry everything can trigger an epiphany and 'a way out'. Here Wordsworth's definition of poetry as the 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' holds true. Jones certainly fulfils the Romantic's criteria of a poet as one who is 'possessed of more than usual organic sensibility.'

In Jones's poetics the 'spontaneous overflow' is often represented as a 'holocaust', a word he takes back to its Greek roots: 'wholos whole/ kaustos burnt/ a burnt offering to be burnt entirely'. For Jones, this wholesome burning is a 'creative force' repeatedly ignited by his interaction with the ecosystem of his property at Mary Stokes. It is something that's shared 'between [him] & that fiery kingfisher/ leaving [him] dazed & helpless/ caked with mud on creekbank/ dazzled by the intensity'. This annihilation is simultaneously joyous and catastrophic in its power. In 'The Origin and Evolution of the Solar System', it is a bliss so powerful that it renders the poet silent.

There is also a redemptive aspect to this idea of holocaust. 'Beerwah and Tibrogargan', a reflection on those two mighty Sunshine Coast monoliths, describes Beerwah as a 'distant hazy skyline pyramid' while Tibrogargan:

…. looms huge and mysterious
monolithic Aboriginal mountainside face
craggy sky-slung brow
volcanic core eyes staring
deep into Dreamtime space

Looking at these mountains from out the window of a speeding car on the highway, leaves him 'strangely purified'. This idea of poetry and aesthetic interaction as purifying can also be seen in the long meditations of the death of the poet's partner Diane Kelly that pepper the collection.

It is also worth making mention of the beautiful line drawings spread throughout the collection. Pictures like 'Dandelion' combine an array of pointillist-like dots with hundreds of carefully drawn leaves to produce a picture of dazzling complexity. Elsewhere, in 'Di's Underpants', his lover's leopard skin print panties are strewn on a tile floor. Each tile is made up of carefully drawn amoeba shaped decorations of various sizes. The throwaway and mundane is again rendered mystical. With their complementary themes of nature and sex, the pictures inform the poems and vice versa. They also help to recreate the feel of the journals in which the poems originally appeared.

While Wren Lines won't establish Jones amongst the first rank of 1970s and 1980s Australian poets – his poetics are, at times, too crude for that – it will ensure his legacy as an original, irrepressible and important voice. But then Jones's has never bent his voice or altered his vision to reach new readers. In 'Aftermath' he quotes Martin (surely critic Martin Duwell), who tells the poet:

… one of the otherwise
conservative members of the
Literature Board said 'what
I like about Billy Jones' poetry
is most poets write to please
others but he writes to please himself
naturally I didn't get the grant

Billy Jones continually places himself at the centre of his work. The redemptive power of poetry that Jones so earnestly believes in is further proof that he writes only for himself. But while this spells disaster for so many pseudo-confessional, Bukowski wannabes, Jones's voice has an intellect strong enough to demand attention. Papertiger media must be praised for this valuable volume that allows a continued appreciation of Jones's work, without which the longevity of this poetry would undoubtedly be in danger.

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Liam Ferney

About Liam Ferney


Liam Ferney's most recent collection Content (Hunter Publishing) was shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Literary Awards and the Judith Wright Calanthe Award. His previous collections are Boom and Popular Mechanics. He is a media manager, poet and aspiring left-back living in Brisbane.

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