Anne Elvey reviews Brink by Jill Jones

Jill Jones, Brink. Parkville: Five Islands Press, 2017. ISBN 978-0-7340-5364-0

 

Anne Elvey

 

Brink opens with an imperative or invocation to self and reader, ‘Tremble’, a poem that summons what only a few years ago might have been an unfashionable presence, suggesting a poetic stance of contemplation or attentiveness, but within a kind of negation of its own material presentation: ‘This isn’t a book / This isn’t a map’. This ‘not being’ calls forth a kind of grounding that will recur in the collection, in reference to ground, grounds, bodies and sex. Here in a poem that evokes the notion of being grounded / or ‘centred’, ‘Tremble’ is centred on the page and calls:

Don’t look up in haste

Hold yourself’s self

To selves     to grounds …

(11)

The present to which the poet beckons the reader ‘present your lips’ is ‘cracked’. Presence is not the problematic presence of metaphysics but the fissured presence in which not only self / selves but also ground / grounds are multiple, weedy places, of situatedness, perhaps sites of ecological reason, such as Val Plumwood (2002) espouses, but also after-things (remains / leavings), and moreover evidence against us (‘The House is Full’, 30; ‘Weed Grounds’, 34). In ‘Data, Twigs, Memory Lapses’, the poet invites a meditation on this complicated presence through ‘divination of the present,  … the psychopathology of everyday life’ where ‘sky is always opaque as reality’, but ‘bears clues and trajectories’ that become paths on and of skin (21–22).

Situated in skin, language and sex are inter-implicated and in excess one of the other:

I come in with language

I come out of

And my hand that allows

me to come

in with language

then without.

(‘In My Shifts’, 12)

The interest with language continues in ‘The Lagoon’ but in the direction of complex emergences: of selves, gods, cultures: from ancient religion to individual identity – ‘The names of gods are in the clouds / and on each numberplate’ – bringing us to the detritus that might end up in a body of water:

Lists extend from scraps

and packages waterlogged with the moon.

The car tyre is without companions.

Here’s a track and some old crime tape.

(‘The Lagoon’, 13)

In this ‘lake’, the poet says, ‘My consonants drown.’ Are only vowels left? David Abram (1997) writes of vowels as the spoken breath. As it closes, the poem juxtaposes birds of prey (possibly attracted by the detritus), with air (breath):

… the harriers drift. Wings in relation to air.

Air by the wayside, in the trees.

Watery watery air.

(‘The Lagoon’, 13)

The dissolution and survival of self / selves in situations of personal, cultural, ecological undoing, and their relation to language, surface again in the next poems, ‘Self and Nothingness’, ‘They Are About Love’, ‘To Utter’, as the poets writes:

… I’m looking for ways

to write back the damage

(15)

 

Wing lines argue with extinction as survival changes tack.

(16)

 

Stories you try to sing

in an age of spit

(17)

The repetition of images such as ‘wings’ and ‘grounds’, the music and tone of the writing, hold hope in these complex social, ecological sites and experiences of injury where ‘Loss / spreads like highway, wings, disease, excuses’, and where

One day I shall already be gone. But the tree

still breaths, kerchak kerchak—bats

feeding their god in the guttural dark.

(‘Fruit’, 18)

Hope has foundation in the shared vulnerability of a more-than-human kinship – ‘The leaves are my sisters. / We fall.’ (‘Big Apple Leaf Summer’, 19) – where the human being is ‘another animal listening into the air’ (‘Scrawl’, 23). Ecological damage and mortality resurface in ‘The Shifts’ when the poet ponders the (im)possibility of adequate response ‘as ground smells of poison or bright hurt’ and asks ‘Will I die well as air falls in my crust?’ and answers ‘Nothing dies well’. This is not where the poem closes; rather the poet says:

Don’t delete everything, call me.

Sing me a tender scale. I need to come home.

(‘The Shifts’, 32).

Language, death, a materiality simultaneously ongoing and abandoned, decay and persistence continue the complex thematics of embodied weedy and uncanny grounds (‘Edge Against Sign’, 33;  ‘Weed Grounds’, 34).

In ‘Speak Which’, the collection inserts a change of pace with a turn to a series of haiku / senryu-like stanzas, and earlier themes recur:

the shifting

ground

of the body

(28).

‘Afternoon Grey In’ offers a playfully unsettling change of tone (29). Then ‘Atmosphere (36) with its ‘species of weather’ and ‘While It Seems’ (37) with its ‘spider season’ give a broken form to the interplay and disjunctions of climate, gravity, loam and humankind.

Part I closes with ‘Phrases and Birds’ opening spaces for the unexplainable incursion of something that might be called grace:

… why some days

the welcome swallow arrives

with rusty breast and that story

of movement

where nothing      or no-one

is a stranger.

(38)

The epigraph to Part II signals a continuation of the theme of ground, as ‘torn’ and ‘dearest’. ‘Accounting’ indicates a desire for life and deliberate, generous living, ‘without all the modest accounting’ where ‘ground / is dangerous’ (41). The vastness of want takes on an apocalyptic tone where love has disappeared or been unsettled, elided between things in what might be a post-disaster world (‘Our Epic Want’). Or is it that the gaze has become fixed on disaster?

We’d dreamt of last things first, getting behind ourselves, like an urge, or a fault.

But there was plenty more, and we still had the air around our skin.

(‘Our Epic Want’, 43).

‘Blue’ begins ‘We are thinking the unthinkable today’, prompting the reader to consider what is ‘unthinkable’ – disaster, the Anthropocene, the end of Earth, our individual mortality, or that language is not absolute? –

We’ve found success in an obstacle

but what if nobody knew

there is nothing outside language

except this deep blue sky.

(‘Blue’, 45)

Many of the poems in Brink suggest a deconstruction beyond deconstruction, which is more than ‘as if’. Albeit mediated by the senses, soil, air and water exceed human interpretation. These materialities and their qualities (such as colour) propose a kind of hope in the midst of devastation, even when calamity is human-induced. Culture and artefact cross with so-called ‘nature’, and we read of ‘the machine of normal air’, an image in which the poet could be thought to revisit a mechanistic view of nature, except for context and irony:

… Well might you plead for transcendence, it looks

like a butterfly tattoo …

(‘Free Hand: A Kind of Thinking’, 50).

‘Wind Shadow’ is one of Brink’s more obviously ecopoetic pieces, describing a sensate engagement between body and more-than-human worlds, always where thought, reflection, consciousness, language and writing impinge upon each other and may themselves be more-than-human capabilities. These are not especially ‘climate change’ poems, but the spectre of climate change is the hovering context of the poems, and every now and then becomes explicit – ‘that trouble / with oxygen and carbon’. With climate change, the poet senses the escape of something that might be called sacred; this something is linked to the disappearance of creatures, through extinction or habitat relocation (‘Like Grains’, 53). ‘Bad news’ is like a host (‘If It Wasn’t For the Rumours’, 54) and the poet its guest. At the end of Section II, the poet asks ‘Is the solar system being hacked?’ and then shifts the gaze, so that

Now the magpie spies me

and I become another timorous animal

in the audacious, taunting air.

(60)

Part III brings a more experimental edge not only with form and playfulness, as well unconventional grammar and punctuation, but with formulae. In the sequence from which the collection takes its title, the poems are written in Oulipo mode without the vowels that appear in their titles (‘track plenty brink you much: AbsEnt, wIthOUt’, 78–82). The unsettling experience of contemporary contexts of rupture echoes in the style of unpicked language the poems perform. At the same time, a delight in the play of language restitches the fabric of a rent present. In an apocalyptic counter-apocalypse, titled ‘Everything is Beautiful, Finally’, where ‘Everything’s burned’, ‘The weather is our fiction’, the poet writes:

It’s getting worse      because it’s getting worse      becomes our lie

Here’s to the seething future      It’s no longer obtuse or ambient

In the silent howl        material spell breaks

Or it’s just fucking loud

(90)

But despite the complex destructiveness that makes speaking ruptures such as climate change difficult, the poem ends ‘The last monster     The beautiful drowning’. That the beautiful is being extinguished or will be drowned in some Anthropocene apocalypse is only one aspect, the other echoes the title of Jones’ earlier The Beautiful Anxiety. In the rupture, the poet sees tragically a kind of beauty. But this is not so as to affirm the rupture or even the poet’s testimony. The poet is self-critical, writing

The speed on the lake

is expected to exceed my vision.

 

I’m here for the wrong reasons.

(‘Arkaroola’, 85)

There is a postcolonial sensibility, too, concerning colonial theft – ‘Who stole the river …’ (‘Arkaroola’, 85) and earlier a quiet recognition of the problematics of ‘whiteness’ when in ‘Washing Cycles’, the poet writes:

… as if we slip off our garments and pretend

they disappear into a discursive region of whiteness, a place of

no shadow or despair, no link to the ground …

(55)

The final poem of Brink, ‘After Memoriams’ takes us back to the opening poem’s question concerning the book:

This book of night stings

over wrack into my mind

can set new travelling

thus hard true.

(94)

Brink is a strong collection that for me was a slow read, not because the poems are what some consider ‘difficult’, or on occasion experimental, but because on almost every page there was an image or idea the called me to recollection. Jill Jones’ Brink is a book to spend time with, to contemplate and in it to encounter a mature writing where the multiplicity of selves, grounds, and contemporary ruptures are faced courageously and with an affirmation that poetic language, not so much in what it says but in its saying, can perform hope.

 

References

Abram, David. 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage.

Plumwood, Val. 2002. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. London: Routledge.

 

Anne Elvey is managing editor of Plumwood Mountain: An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics. Her most recent poetry collection is White on White (Cordite Books, 2018). With Massimo D’Arcangelo and Helen Moore, she is coauthor of Intatto/Intact (La Vita Felice, 2017). She is editor of hope for whole: poets speak up to Adani (Rosslyn Avenue Productions, 2018).

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