J V Birch reviews Glass Life by Jo Langdon

Jo Langdon, Glass Life. Parkville, VIC: Five Islands Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780734054272

 

J V Birch

 

The image on Jo Langdon’s second collection is indicative of its content – a dreamscape, an ethereal world, in which nothing is simply what it appears to be. Through some forty-five poems, Jo shares fragments of a constantly building, shifting and falling world, with quiet reminders of our smallness within it. There are recurring themes of winter, fragility, edges and orbs, and the plethora of light time brings in the loop of life. There are juxtapositions too – domesticity is coupled with travel, the city with animalistic space, and the power of the body is both intimate and strange.

‘Schneekugel’, the title of one of the poems, is snow globe in German, an influence evident in other titles – ‘Gösser Straße 79’, ‘Hauptbahnhof’ and ‘Stadtpark’. In ‘Gösser Straße 79’, we’re given a broken moon:

Snow crowns the letterbox,

remakes every part of the street;

 

by day the sky is uncoloured,

skaters pattern the lake.

 

In the bluish-mauve dusk

children whisper

by the window—

 

in the glass, a globe of light

beside their small faces—

 

‘We’ve got to tell Mama

the moon is half broken’

 

& when you look, it is.

(14)

This is an excellent example of the elements at work in these poems – climate, colour, meaning and mood, ordinary events plucked and viewed through the slant of someone, or something, else. Take a prism. Examine its myriad of facets. You will find different perspectives, so too in these pages. The magic of childhood continues in ‘Schneekugel’ where:

A mimicry of snow

falls over

 

the blue glass grotto

cupped

 

in the palm.

 

and you’re asked to:

 

Breathe it out

quietly:

 

air thick as milk

(21)

These are places you want to be, return to, discovering the world with wonder and innocence, never thinking for a moment it could change, disappear as you know it. And time is palpable in these poems. In ‘Making love & omelettes’, there’s ‘a yellowing of day taking shape across the floor’ eventuating into ‘a blueness of sky to signal cloudless and little much else’ (16). Such movement makes you want to dig your heels in to this continually turning earth, try your hand at mindfulness.

Winter leaves its weather in other places too, as if it’s stepped out of season. Cockatoos have ‘snowy bodies’ to ‘fill & shape the branches at a distance’ (‘Prelude’, 48) and in ‘Tree kit (for Zoe)’, there’s an exclamation of ‘”Look! The tree is snowing”‘ when a sister’s swinging from a bough produces a shower of cherry blossoms (53). It even pervades the subconscious when ‘Falling back to sleep’:

A hallucination of snow

against the glass pane.

 

This dream fills your mouth

like a sentence.

(24)

But amidst this freeze, we’re given the promise of heat as the seasons still do what they do, seeking and reaching new extremes. A sunset in ‘Blues of summer’ slips in:

Pretend beauty, and hope

it shows. All around us the world

 

is stripping light away, acting

 

out last colours across

the pulled-back shoreline, sand grey

in the dusk & strewn

 

with stones and concrete pieces, broken

edges of pier

& pathway.

(31)

And ‘Unbecoming’ plants us:

In the summer of bruises never

accounted for; the summer of holding

 

my hair from my neck, strands

sticky down blades of bone &

 

skin shown bright—

(32)

This collection has been carefully ordered to connect, to compare, to contrast, creating a constellation of earthbound and heavenly bodies in seasonal spin. On the opposite page, youth is stripped down further in ‘Tide’ :

How it felt held under

the pier then released

like trash—

 

the words that came

after—‘at least

he’s getting some.’

(33)

Notably, this poem is preceded with a quote by Emily O’Neill – ‘I just want to remember / in full, ugly colour’ – an apt description for those mistakes or humiliations growing up often bestows. This, in turn, ignites gender, real and wanted, imagined and not. In ‘Apropos’, stereotypes come into play deftly paired with humour, a certain flippancy:

At the wedding he says,

‘I took my wife off the pill, it wasn’t

easy’. I say, ‘Oh

 

that’s terrible.’ (Imagine being a wife,

being taken, taking

off somehow, what

 

kind of weight

I don’t know—          The men at work

said: ‘We’re talking

 

about you, not to you.’

They were talking

of how best

 

to tame a reckless body

(their daughters’ irregular,

bloodied, not abiding—)

(50)

The wit continues in a personal favourite of mine, ‘Wanting’, with a feline presence:

From the glass room there is a view

seen & heard—blue horizon beyond the ugly

speedboats, jet skis.

 

The cat clicks her eyes across window

and finds a language for birds,

for wanting.

(38)

Within these poems there’s a sense of looking in and looking out, both literally and metaphorically, a choice offered to seek clarity or shadow, better still, the space in between. Intimacies are shared and yet there’s a definitive distance, as if proximity will shatter the illusions gifted. Langdon entwines the animal world with the human and non-human seamlessly, resulting in a rich kaleidoscope of co-habitation, another example vividly depicted in ‘Pevensey Street’:

These north-facing windows frame

a weird architecture of slate & silver:

 

curvature of chimneys;

satellite skeletons

reptilian, flattened.

 

Below a green sling of hill

the shore of foam & shell

sunlicked, littered.

(43)

And landscape is a breathing being, mountains a silent yet dominant confidant. In ‘Sonnenfeld 17’, ‘mountains lean in on your sleep’ (22) and in ‘Sometimes you wake to know’, there’s an ‘ache put in you by mountains here and remembered’ (49).

Glass Life is said to be ‘deftly extending the visual sensibility of late modernists like Barbara Guest and Veronica Forrest-Thomson’ (Vickery 2018). Indeed, titles and epigraphs are taken from their work, and when comparing it to Guest’s described as embodying ‘a tension between two opposed impulses: a lyric, or purely musical, impulse; and a graphic impulse that emphasises the materiality and arrangement of words in the poem’ (Miller 2001), the similarities are clear. I would go as far as to say this collection tugs on all of the senses, what it is to be human and not.

The poems themselves are little windows left open to breathe, as Langdon works in couplets, tercets, indented and truncated lines, the white space as significant as the words across them, as if encased in weather. Em dashes leave open-endings, a feature in ‘Dusk street’ (23), ‘Blistering’ (36), ‘Felt’ (42) and ‘Trapeze’ (65), to name a few, as if there is more to say. This technique supports the view that a poem never ends, where ‘to negotiate this disrupted terrain, the reader (and I can say also the writer) must overleap the end stop’ for ‘what stays in the gaps remains crucial and informative’ because ‘part of the reading occurs as the recovery of that information’ (Hejinian 2000). And so, these poems are perfectly rendered to convey existence, which, in one form or another, is perpetual.

It could be argued these poems are too pared back. I don’t believe they are. To address the delicate balance of our place in a world still re/evolving, while at the same time reeling from our impact upon it, space is a requisite. These poems waltz you and leave you spinning, are their own tiny worlds – building, shifting, falling.

 

References

Hejinian, Lyn. 2000. ‘The Rejection of Closure’, in The Language of Inquiry, 40–58. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Miller, Tyrus. 2001. ‘Guest, Barbara’, in Contemporary Poets, Seventh Edition, ed. Thomas Riggs et al. 454–56. Farmington Hills, MI: St James Press.

Vickery, Ann. 2018. ‘Back cover recommendation for Jo Langdon, Glass Life (Parkville, VIC: Five Islands Press, University of Melbourne, 2018)’. https://fiveislandspress.com/catalogue/glass-life-jo-langdon

 

 

J V Birch lives in Adelaide. Her poems have appeared in anthologies, journals and magazines across Australia, the UK, Canada and the US. She has three chapbooks with Ginninderra Press – Smashed glass at midnight, What the water & moon gave me and A bellyful of roses – and blogs at www.jvbirch.com

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