Wordplay and Image

Review by Angela Gardner



Jill Jones
Great Wilbraham, Cambridge UK: Salt Publishing, 2005.
ISBN 1 84471 041 6 147pp


I approached Jill Jones’s latest book remembering, from encounters with her previous work, her ability to marry both abstract and concrete elements in wordplay and image. Broken/Open is arranged in sections each of which is interspersed with short poems originally from a sequence entitled ‘My Dreamy Epic’ first published together in the online journal Gut Cult . This interspersing arrangement seemed made for Broken/Open, tying it together in a particularly satisfying way, which made its previous life surprising. It was hard to imagine it anywhere but perfectly placed within the wider work.

In Broken/Open Jones again scans a landscape that is recognisably Australian. Sometimes the arrangements rest so lightly they appear almost inchoate yet it is a language that shimmers quietly over the explored landscape. Jones works across different scales – from the close-up of “the winking fishnet / insectorama” [‘Struggle and Radiance: Ten Commentaries’ p.17] – to the big issues, “Nothing knows / of the how / that ticks / that counts / on human mistakes” [p.24] so that these commentaries seem more like interior meditations. The poems are not driven by chance but by a concentrated knowledge that comes with steady absorption of the subject; an interaction that allows the subject to enter whether it concerns visits to the footy or the cricket, the Sydney Harbour or the bars on Oxford Street.

In ‘Driving Night Out’ Jones finds that the barbarians have much to be admired for and that they’ve been given a bad rap. Against a description of our angst-ridden society, ‘their verse / their surety of wild horses’ that contrasts believably and tellingly with ‘Dealers and bouffant guys’. In this poem she creates an inner Sydney street scene without distortion or cleverness. The poem is filled with a restless energy yet she is effortlessly able to offer insight.

The phrase ‘glance of the hand’ [‘The Dissolve’ p.7] revealed a subtlety of meaning – and this was by no means an isolated event. As I read, a phrase would glow and I would return to it. The ‘Commentaries’ give a kind of emptied space in the quiet of night to recognise ‘a spittle of faith / in love letters / vowels and kisses / of subtle dogmas’. Again a word stood out – vowel, provoking questions. Was this a sound,  an avowal or an IOU to a creditor? All of these meanings worked in the poem and worked on me.

The poems have the ability to feel entirely resolved while remaining full of possibilities. Words or phrases are, they require attention because of both their resolve and their uncertainty; their ability to provide alternative readings and change the direction or add deeper texture to a poem.

Maybe this all sounds too cerebral – it doesn’t have to be. In ‘Long’[p.94] Jones writes:

following a stir of dusk

Love long
   float    ribbons

a fleeting scroll
pining crimson

into nothingness and a thousand years

Three of the poems in the book came out of a project to write from artworks, others from this series are found in the chapbook FoldUnfold a beautifully produced limited edition published by Vagabond Press in 2005 as part of their Rare Object series. Jones’s ability to construct a very visual world suits her to this imaginative project.

These are not poems of flat endless horizons but of a more intimate often urban setting, reflecting the reality of much of Australian society. They are capable of contemplating both humanity and inhumanity.  In ‘Refrains on Sand’ [p.46] we are given a list of excuses and apologies that, taken as a whole, is disturbing in the picture they create of some form of absence. It starts with a feeling of fluster which becomes more sinister as the poem unfolds. Reading it I feel complicit in the journey of disappearance that is intimated in the poem, a disappearance either of fact, or of self-effacement.  Is this describing abduction or abandonment? Either can be read but neither is made clear. However the poem is clear in one aspect that either outcome is only possible if we allow it to be so by looking away. As the title of the poem suggests, relinquishment of responsibility allows repeating mistakes. Maybe an alternative reading of the poem’s title recognises the weak and transient foundation of the apologist. Through the familiarity of the words the reader is uncomfortably aware that the timeframe of the poem is here and now.

The violence of ‘Fractures’[p.52] comes from its assured use of language. It starts ‘I have eaten words all night for years’. You know immediately that these are not wishy washy works but hard hitting front-line reports of a life explored, ‘holes made by language’ [‘Displacements – a week of conversations’ p.61], apertures created so that we can see beyond the immediate or see the immediate clearly.  There is simultaneously an awareness of the interconnectedness of life and the needs of language, a poetry where emotion is integrated with the quiet power of the intelligence behind them.

This is a wonderful book full of cadence and meaning, rich and complex. I enjoyed it immensely and continue to enjoy it. Buy it and don’t leave it on your bookshelf. Broken/Open is about the struggle and radiance of living a life. Take it to the beach or to a café and watch the street life fold and unfold.