Caitlin Wilson Reviews Rebecca Jessen’s Ask Me About the Future

By | 8 December 2020

This reverence for queer knowing and loving runs through the collection as one of its central themes; Jessen began writing Ask Me About the Future after reading José Esteban Muñoz’s 2009 book Cruising Utopia, crediting Muñoz’s ‘hopeful, radical vision of a queer future’ with fuelling her writing here. Muñoz’s work repudiates the queer politics of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, challenging its focus on pragmatic, quotidian goals like equal marriage. Cruising Utopia, and in turn, Jessen’s collection, advocate for a future-focused queer imagination. Both works look backwards to look forward, seeking inspiration and harbinger alike from pop culture and queer history.

Jessen’s work reflects the credo laid down by Muñoz. Her work embraces the fullness of being while queer – beauty and joy amidst hurt and loneliness, all experienced to their full extent. Recollections of the pain and ridiculousness caused by the same-sex marriage plebiscite are spotted throughout Ask Me About the Future. Vote Yes, a found poem, recycles phrases from that time into a time capsule of the absurdity and hurt wrought by the no campaign. Jessen’s adept use of queer pop-culture references make her poems feel sprung from a mind living and consuming alongside my own, lending her poems a fresh realism. Film and television are mined for reverent imagery – ‘after Brokeback’ is a particularly lively jewel. It takes the final scene from 2004’s iconic entry into the queer cinema canon, Brokeback Mountain, and recasts the image of the lost lover’s shirt hanging in the wardrobe as the beginning of a musing on trying and failing to move on after a breakup. She queers straight pop-culture, too; ‘The Lesbian Bachelorette’ is a fun punch upwards at the pillar of heterosexual television that is The Bachelor franchise. While some of the pop-cultural references feel a bit like a pulled punch – ‘The Good Wife’s Guide’ felt like it had more to tease out about archaic standards of womanhood — these zeitgeist-y missives feel especially poignant amidst attempts by conservative governments at home and abroad to sell the idea that the arts aren’t necessary. Jessen’s embrace of frivolity and creativity, while sending up contemporary culture, allows joy and respect to peek out from behind her critiques.

The final thematic concern in the collection confronts class dynamics. Class-driven culture shock rears its head in After Woolf Works, a suite of three poems which examines Australia’s self-consciousness around class mobility. They capture the awkwardness of travelling higher up the social strata than your family and looking around at the strangeness of that new world. The works which reflect a suburban Aussie childhood are dotted with allusions to Bruce Dawe-esque Australiana. Jessen’s highly contemporary voice lends itself to the sparing use of poetic devices make the collection feel casually poetic rather than overly crafted; ‘the grapefruit tang of Saturday night’ in ‘2.0’, the ‘blaze of sirens’ in ‘family domestic’. ‘Field officer no. 302’ begins by balding declaring ‘the Australian dream is a kookaburra perched on your wheelie bin’. A much darker edge of Aussie suburban cliché appears in ‘2168 or 63.7% Vote No’:

southern cross stickers
on rear windows
of V8 Commodores
are more common 
than rainbow flags

These words capture the physical ache of a hostile home, the feeling of unbelonging in the present. The juxtaposition of beauty and bleakness subtly reinforces the present as a churring tumult and makes a case for envisioning the future as a utopia into which to escape.

Reading the collection is an enjoyably embodied experience; Jessen has us turn the book 180 degrees, driving into several poems in landscape rather than portrait orientation. It wouldn’t be a poetry review if I didn’t mine this choice for significance, but I think layout changes are perhaps the most challenging feature to ascribe concrete meaning. For me, these horizontal pseudo-prose poems are almost Brechtian reminders that we are taking in a story, a constructed rendering of reality embedded with messages for us to absorb mindfully. Jessen’s horizontally oriented poems, as well as her index poem, list poems, and the horoscope that closes the collection, encourage an engagement with the page and poem as object. These new shapes offer a new way in, a conscious shifting of perspective that echoes the collections plea; ask about the unknown, look forward to the future, embrace unpredictability. Or maybe it just looks more elegant on the page in horizontal, and perhaps the index poem is intended as a break from the five-line stanza after five-line stanza shape of many of poems in the collection. Both are plausible motives in Jessen’s hands – she’s cool enough to do things like this for the sake of it, but crafty enough to have a reason up her sleeve.

This collection is a reminder that we are on our way somewhere. Hopefully progress, that achingly, frustrating slow walker, is striding along with us, but we can’t be sure. Jessen’s playful yet incisive exploration of time through the collection captures the strange miasma of hope, exhilaration and terror thoughts of the future conjure. Whether through its ruminations on love, family, class or queerness, Ask Me About the Future finds a use for past hurts, transmogrifying them into stepping-stones, rather than heavy baggage. Ask Me About the Future casts the past as a soft ache we carry with us, and the present as a strange intersection where before and soon mingle. It’s also funny, romantic and wise, a companion and comrade for the long journey forward.

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