Ella Jeffery’s debut poetry collection Dead Bolt is a wandering contemplation of home and the accompanying feelings of belonging or alienation. While the collection is divided into four parts, the poems seem arbitrarily grouped as the overall themes of travel, tense love, and language are shared across the sections. The poems vary greatly in form and mode as they move through conversations with or about literary and pop culture figures, ekphrastic responses to art, and rumination on the environmental role of the humble spider. The central concern that drives the collection, though, is the speakers’ sense of themselves as (un)settled, (un)loved, (un)safe.
The opening poem “In the former French Concession” immediately launches the reader into Jeffery’s sensual style, describing fish “big as tables, headless fish, fish curved and smooth as boat hulls” (11) which punctuate the Shanghai streets. The imagery, like in many of the poems set in Shanghai, evoke pungent smells and vibrant sights that are both enticing and novel to the speaker. At times the novelty of Shanghai slips into a familiar Australian exoticism which uses the aura of a foreign city as a backdrop to a protagonist’s self-discovery. For example, “scaffolding” describes Shanghai as hazy or unknowable:
shang hai means up river or up from the sea
or above sea level
Later the speaker passes her neighbour’s house under renovation before “all day I skim / from place to place” (40), summarising that
shang hai is a dream
I had I leftsome things there I might
not go back for them
Shanghai and its people and culture are minimised in the prioritisation of the speaker’s individual narrative.
The image of the renovated building, hollowed out, propped up by bamboo scaffolding, and infested with rats or ferrets is a recurring symbol in Dead Bolt to represent the speaker’s discomfort with her life. She feels unsettled, bouncing between moments of love and connection and moments of alienation and uncertainty. Amongst the visceral senses of sight, smell, touch, the speaker struggles with language. In “scaffolding” she remarks “I am not fluent” and “I have / no sense of tense” (39). In a way, the symbolic dead bolt is language, which keeps the speaker locked away from those around her.
in the same way that sitting alone in a busy park where everyone speaks a language you cannot understand is to touch the edge of silence and feel it seal perfectly around you.
This focus on language is telling, then, when it frequently overburdens the imagery, as though overcompensating for misunderstanding with metaphor. In “Monopoly” Jeffery cleverly captures the exhaustion and frail instability of house renting but the final metaphor “you were a thimble and I was a wheelbarrow” is undercut by half a dozen similes beforehand including “walls / like tiny gold animals”, “shirts hanging like colourful ghosts”, and the couple collecting furniture “like mafia bosses” (97). The desire to impress upon the reader a beautiful image becomes belaboured and creates sentences like potholes; “I love the way / rain’s called showers, which implies comfort” (“Meteorology”, 43). Too often the poetry in Dead Bolt offers generic conclusions or reaches for a forced, overwrought poetic voice.
Jeffery shines most in her witty poems like “Scott Cam helps me fix a few things around the house” or “R.S.V.P.” where the speaker challenges Gertrude Stein’s love of company like a true introvert. “Ways to suffer” is a particularly powerful piece about people’s penchant for making the wrong decision, turning the wrong corner, or being disappointed.
On a yacht, drinking bellinis in a yellow robe. By torchlight, in the garden, looking for your keys. By overstaying your welcome. By moving house in January. At night or in the day. Either will work.
It’s a delicate poem that could easily read as flippant but Jeffery has a fine control of the underlying forces in domestic scenes, the black humour thrown against joy. In the final lines she again centres the speaker in uncertainty but with the harsh reality of her own agency:
Like your father who checks every lock twice and twice again. Like your mother who helps him out of love and pity. Like you, watching them or turning away.
The tension in that moment, where the speaker can choose to turn towards imperfect love or away to the unknown, tremors throughout the collection. In another poem “Backyard occult”, Jeffery again balances pithiness with nonchalant flair when exploring the weight of life choices.
The problem is not how to decipher an omen, it’s how to choose one. Example: you see two crows on a wire, then a man who sneezes brutally on the footpath behind you. … And all night you ask yourself: which is it?
It’s in this self-awareness of meaning-making that Jeffery’s funny and fresh, original voice is most effective. The paradox of how Jeffery’s uncertain speakers in Dead Bolt ring with recognition reveals the clarity of her poetic vision and is promising for future work.
Ella Jeffery, Dead Bolt. Sydney: Puncher & Wattmann, 2020. ISBN: 9781925780710