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 …
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
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.
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
‘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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 …
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.
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.
Jill Jones, Brink. Parkville: Five Islands Press, 2017. ISBN:9780734053640
Abram, David. 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage.
Plumwood, Val. 2002. Environmental Culture: The Ecological Crisis of Reason. London: Routledge.