Jessica Wilkinson Reviews Lisa Jacobson

11 February 2013

Lisa Jacobson’s latest book The Sunlit Zone (Five Islands Press, 2012) certainly achieves this accessibility, and yet, as her everyday characters confront both the mythical and the scientific implications of a futuristic lifestyle, the poet extends the verse novel into interesting new territory.

The story opens in 2050 with thirty-year-old North (the narrator) witnessing yet another rescue operation for a whale beached outside her home in Angler’s Bay:

The whale’s eye, dark as a lake
and sorrowful. Everything stops.
Even the waves cease muttering
and all is still. The eye empties
as if a plug’s been pulled.

The death of this whale triggers a series of recollections for North, of her childhood, including memories of her twin sister Finn, who disappeared at sea as a teenager. North’s first ‘flashback’ tells the story of their conception in 2020, the details offered as if now part of family folklore:

Flora and Richard were pissed,
stumbling out of the Wharf Hotel
on a warm night in October.
Euphoric with wine and the stars,
she drew him up beside her
and slowly let him in.

Flora’s unusual craving for kelp during her pregnancy is described with subtle poignancy:

Salt drove my mother from the house
and out along the tensile wall
that held the sea’s hard logic back.

The regular iambic rhythms provide a musical, fairytale impression, reminiscent of early Yeats, which is not surprising considering the mythical air that pervades Jacobson’s narrative. Presentiments of an unusual, ‘oceanic’ offspring persist:

In the new year, Flora sensed
inside a fish-like quickening.
By April she felt rapid kicks.
Her belly swelled into a globe,
perfect as a near-full moon.

When Finn is finally born, she is wrapped in a ‘furry caul/ with a sleek seal shine’ (21), and also has webbed feet, gills and a rapid heartbeat. North is born shortly afterwards, without any of her sister’s curious features. As the story progresses we see Finn grow into a strange and simple-minded adolescent, and North attempting to negotiate life beside her peculiar sister.

Through Finn, Jacobson alludes to the mythical selkie – the part-human, part-seal who figured in Irish, Scottish and Icelandic mythology. The myth tells that the selkie would shed his or her seal skin in order to become human. However, as we see with Finn, the ocean beckons constantly for their return.

But the explanation for Finn’s abnormalities could be unsettlingly closer to a real possibility, as The Sunlit Zone presents a more than plausible future world. Futuristic devices abound – skinfones, Laser Waves, Pedal Flutes and robotic house cleaners demonstrate a rampant progression in technological gadgetry. Also, designer embryos make it possible for people to select their child’s features and their future talents. But any benefits these innovations may have are offset by escalated environmental issues: this future world is reliant upon desalination plants, Water Police arrest those who use more water than their quota, and carbon counters restrict household use of fossil fuels. Animal species have become extinct, replaced by GM replicas. So, while we like to turn to the mysterious and magical to explain unusual phenomena, Finn could very likely be suffering the effects of such an artificially enhanced environment.

Indeed, the success of The Sunlit Zone resides in the way that the poet meets this pull – between the mythical past and the scientifically adapted future – with the writing itself. That is, Jacobson collides traditional poetic techniques (rhyme – as slant or occasional rhyme; metrical patterns) with colloquial expressions and futuristic slang (e.g. characters ‘cybe’ each other on skinfones). It is a deliberate and unsettling clash that concurrently harks back to the bardic tradition and signals toward the language of a believable future, besieged by the technological and the artificial. This work holds the magical and the scientific in a constant state of tension, and we oscillate between both possibilities.

In fact, the poetry of The Sunlit Zone is so lucid and evocative that the epigraphs preceding each section seem unnecessary. These quotes, lifted from a wide range of sources including The Bible, Arnold, Wordsworth, Rilke, T.S. Eliot and Mary Oliver, tend to force the emotion of the narrative. It is as if there are too many voices in the broth, each offering their two cents on the themes of loss, longing and belonging, suggesting an anxiety that we must acknowledge our literary forebears. Nevertheless, Jacobson’s narrative grips us as North guides the reader through her most vivid experiences of loss:

The boat’s rim dug into
my arm. Metal cut through skin.
Finn’s gills flapped inconsolably,
her lips were bloodless, unmoving,
but her eyes were lit up from within. (93)

Such visceral imagery identifies a physical pain that foreshadows North’s psychological suffering over this loss, and her guilt at being unable to keep her sister safe. But Finn’s eyes, enlivened by the ocean, leave us hopeful that those we lose may live on in some other, non-human form. Through storytelling, North learns to let go of the past, proving the resilience of the human spirit and that all grief must eventually give way to acceptance: ‘Everything flows. The world is fluid/ and sunlit’ (163).

The Sunlit Zone is an engaging and enjoyable read; with a language as lively as the pounding waves that figure so prominently throughout the story, this is a book that appreciates the complexity of human emotions and the difficulties encountered when we try to express and understand them. Jacobson elegantly attests to the power of verse to move us to unexpected depths as she illuminates the rhythmic undercurrents shifting beneath mere communication of story.

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About Jessica L Wilkinson

Jessica L Wilkinson has published three poetic biographies, Marionette: A Biography of Miss Marion Davies (Vagabond 2012), Suite for Percy Grainger (Vagabond 2014) and Music Made Visible: A Biography of George Balanchine (Vagabond, 2019), highly commended for the Wesley Michel Wright Award. In collaboration with composer Simon Charles, Marionette was developed into a performance work of voice, music and sound; they released an album in 2018. Jessica is the founding editor of Rabbit: a journal for nonfiction poetry and the offshoot Rabbit Poets Series of single-author collections by emerging Australian poets. With Bonny Cassidy, she co-edited the anthology Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry (Hunter, 2016); and with Cassandra Atherton, Memory Book: Portraits of Older Australians in Poetry and Watercolours (Hunter, 2021). She is an associate professor in Creative Writing at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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