Chloe Wilson Reviews Tracy Ryan and Jill Jones

By | 1 February 2016

Obsessive uncertainty is a theme which continues into Jill Jones’s Breaking the Days. The title indicates the collection’s overall mood of unease, and how such a mood can be produced by allowing something which is known – a thing, a phrase, an idea – to shift, and become detached from its usual meanings. Jones’s focus is on the everyday, with its recurrent images of familiar sights – rain, fridges, doors, roads, sunshine, trucks, gardens – which have become evasive, unreliable, even menacing.

In ‘Cars, those sirens’, for instance, the car becomes a source of profound anxiety:

There’s nothing calming in a car.
The decisions all go against you.
Timing doesn’t work either.
Like the year you never had spring
and nothing yellow happened 
until the wattle bloomed in winter
too early. Now a car waits, it’s white
and seemingly all-encompassing
with a lot of doors.

It smells as though something’s melting.

The car, not its driver, seems to have agency, its own (perhaps hostile) motives. Similar moments recur throughout Breaking the Days. Objects, and the built environment, are vivified – days have distinctive smells, the fridge sings, the sky ‘whistles, as if it’s falling’, buildings are ‘respiring in weather’s / chemical glow’, and this creates an atmosphere that is potentially threat-ening, but also, in a way, liberating, in that it removes the restrictions on how one might experi-ence those sights and sensations which are so familiar they often go unremarked.

It is not only the physical environment, however, in which one might become disoriented. The way in which one experiences ‘the crazy openness’ of time (and with it, memory) is also called into question. The ‘past isn’t even the past’; the past and the future and the present seem to col-lapse and scatter, until time, in these poems, is as difficult to grasp as space:

Those things that crack
or even sing, aren’t semblances.
They’re real appliances,
pieces of a house, uneasy things
clicking together
or folding away along moments
anyone makes of
the discontinuities you may refer to
as ‘my life’, as if that
was a continuity


Of course, the linguistic slips which occur in such poems add further layers of complexity. Even ‘real appliances’, when they appear in a poem, are indeed a type of semblance; this reminder of the split between language and what it tries to represent, and of how disrupting our expectations of language can increase this gap, adds to the collection’s overall sense of disquiet. Moreover, what is asserted is often immediately undermined: ‘The sun is unlike silence though it seems as white as silence’ (‘Dust and Ice’); ‘It’s not chaos, though it might be’ (‘Small print’). The only certainty that remains is a state of uncertainty: ‘You slip / and fail.’

Such an atmosphere could easily become claustrophobic, but this is not so in Breaking the Days, due, in part, to the humour which frequently accompanies the gnawing worry of these poems. ‘Give me / a break’, occurring over a line break; ‘You started morning as an alarm-ist’; or the collection’s second-last line, a rhetorical question: ‘Is my anxiety insanely adorable?’ Such moments of levity are welcome, as is the poems’ self-awareness, which becomes most ap-parent in ‘Art’:

No matter how far you stand back
or stroke or rock it about
when you turn round one last time
it’s another construct
brick by line by smear by accident.

The imagined work of art is unreliable, distorted, mismatched with memory; but the speaker seems aware, that in making another artefact (with words) they are committing the same act, at-tempting to represent something accurately, necessarily falling short, calling into question not only the ability for art to represent, but for memory to recreate in any reliable way. Nevertheless, acts of creation continue; it is worthwhile to create something that is ‘almost the high full moon’, if it is impossible to make the moon itself.

A brief work, ‘Milky Way Poem’, neatly encapsulates many of the collection’s qualities; in par-ticular, simple diction disguising complex ideas:

The stars are there.
We go out
to see them
and say they are out
until we grow cold
and go in.
The stars are there.

The ‘we’ of the poem, by going ‘out’ and becoming ‘cold’, seem almost to become the stars they gaze at; however, they go in, and disappear, rendering the poem’s final assertion – a repetition of the first line – less certain than it might otherwise have been.

Both Ryan’s and Jones’s collections remain ambivalent, in the way a piercing intelligence – which will reject any and all easy answers – is bound to communicate ambivalence. But the ap-peal and enjoyment of such an endlessly questioning strain of lyric poetry, is in the searching, the inconsolableness, the ongoing interrogation of those aspects of our lives, which have beguiled us with their promise of familiarity. ‘I need not the sight / but the heft of your beauty’, Ryan’s speaker says, articulating the desire for presence, solidity, certainty and connection that drives the speakers of these volumes as they move through worlds, both material and of the mind’s making, which guarantee nothing of the kind.

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