Jill Jones, The Beautiful Anxiety. Glebe, New South Wales: Puncher and Wattmann, 2014. ISBN 9781922186430
Jill Jones is not a poet of easy answers. Writing about her last full-length book, Dark Bright Doors, reviewers used words like “unsettling”, “commanding”, “elusive” and even “haunted”. All these could also be used to describe The Beautiful Anxiety, along with confounding, delicate and, in Jones’ own words, “a poetry of remarkable absences”.
Introducing her work on her website, Jones says her poetry is “perhaps an abstract or ruined lyric, where ‘I’ has shifted from the centre”. Even in describing this approach Jones holds herself at arm’s length, but there’s no denying the skill and humility required to budge the speaker from their all too familiar place as a poem’s top dog.
Another of Jones’ strengths is her ability to create surprising, original images with simple, direct language. It’s not that The Beautiful Anxiety doesn’t cover familiar territory – loss, death, change and love are all here – but Jones draws a new map, through the freshness of her words.
“Misinterpretations / or The Dark Grey Outline”, from the first part of the book “O tasted and gone”, is just one example of this clarity and unpredictability. It begins:
I move through a slanting,
footpaths erupting roots through bricks
near the mad old bus stop.
I used to know what I was thinking,
now it’s a field, inside,
is it green, or grey water, horsing,
through the fleck.
Reading a poem like this, there’s no room to glaze over and let the words slide by. Why “horsing”? And why follow that with “gridding” – a word that should be a noun but here seems to act like a verb? The poem is unsettled, unruly, and definitely anxious.
While anxiety is a constant throughout the book, this is not an anxiety of the hand-wringing, pearl-clutching type. It’s more accepting – an anxiety that realises how strange it would be to live without some level of worry in the world as it is now. “I’ve always been flaky, lost and shaky”, the poem continues, “but never ‘ponderous’ over my territory, / that takes planning”. Is there a note of self-deprecation here? Or perhaps a sly swipe at those who get bogged down in their own concerns? Either way, it’s this refusal to apologise for anxiety that gives the book its conviction and charm.
So where does the anxiety that runs through these poems come from? Much of the time, Jones is drawing on a sense of how small we are on an environmental scale, and at the same time, how huge. Nature is always hovering at the periphery of the poems, threatening to burst through and either cause havoc or remind the speaker of the havoc they’ve already caused. Lines like “the blue bag fills with supermarket krill” (from “The Weight”) or “Our staggering stuff in nested containers” (“Impermanent Tenses”) reference the routine environmental damage involved in simply going about daily human activities. In other poems, like “Whale Songs”, Jones addresses this explicitly (with a wry nod to the triviality of sport in this context):
All those blustering gentlemen, shining
balls on their whites, still can’t play
it straight in an uncomfortable clime
at the end of ages, as the whales approach,
now on foot and inconsolable, unable
to digest the folderol of the high seas.
The ice slides into disrepair and the acid city
finally measures the alarm.
This is one of the most direct poems in the collection (although no less wonderful for it – what could be more shocking than a whale that can’t be consoled, or a city so polluted it’s turned acidic?). More often, Jones relies on those “remarkable absences” to create meaning, proving that the words outside the poem are just as important as those on the inside.
In the second part of the book, “Wandering breath”, Jones takes this approach to the extreme by carving away all but the most necessary words, leaving behind poems of just a few lines. In fact, in some cases she forgoes using her own words at all: two poems are made entirely of words and phrases from Shakespeare’s plays, while another – “I Am, I” – is constructed of phrases from poets across history including John Donne, Amy Lowell and Marianne Moore. Even though this quiet poem deals directly with the first person, its use of found language again shows Jones’ unwillingness to place the author at the centre:
I saw the spiders, I struck
the board, I that have been
I, too, I wrote in
The third part of the book, “Which is being too”, shows Jones stretching into longer pieces and playing with closure without ever going so far as it achieve it. Again, nature is ever-present, watching and reflecting each move the speaker makes. In “The Spare Winter” cold weather is a kind of “balm” through a period of convalescence:
Each week the weather spirals
cold on the rails. The blue falls.
I’ve pinned hopes on a ticket away
closed my door on the Snowy winds.
The camellia gave up two flowers, alone
I write myself into mystery at the window.
I gather simpler things on the plate
and count the birds I’ve missed in the strife.
As Jones moves between first person and description here, she again reins in the speaker’s authority. The weather’s spiralling and the camellia’s giving up of those two flowers is at least as important as the writer at the window.
This levelling of the speaker and their surroundings is at its height in “Collect”, a longer poem that praises a part of our environment we rarely notice – dust:
Dust the everpresent
If you are heavier than dust
it does not mean more
The Beautiful Anxiety begins with an epigraph from Spanish writer Javier Marías: “You forget whole years, and not necessarily the least important ones.” This sums up Jones’ acceptance of the fact that any individual concern, event or memory is at best fragile, at worst destined to disappear. But the anxiety this impermanence causes does have a kind of beauty to it. We may be no more meaningful than dust, but we are no less meaningful either. We are partners with our environment – not the ones in charge.
Alice Allan is a writer and editor living in Melbourne. Her poetry has appeared in previous editions of Plumwood Mountain along with Rabbit, Cordite and Southerly.