Phillip Hall reviews Breaking the Days and the leaves are my sisters by Jill Jones

Jill Jones. Breaking the Days: Geelong, Victoria: Whitmore Press, 2015. ISBN: 978 0 9873866 6 3

Jill Jones. the leaves are my sisters: Rundle Mall, South Australia: Little Windows Press, 2016.

 

Phillip Hall

 

The front cover of Jill Jones’ Breaking the Days features a wonderful photograph by Annette Willis called “Sunset Shore” which shows a late afternoon cloudy sky reflected in a crystal clear body of water. This is a beautiful image of clean, quiet fluidity. And the book title, Breaking the Days, is richly evocative in its suggestion of time lapsing, of dawn and dusk, and of transitory natural wonder. This is a book cover that seems resplendent in its lyrical imagism so it is surprising that the book’s blurb describes this as poetry that “explores a daily world of uneasy things”. And it is even more surprising that the poet’s technique is described as being a “powerful, stripped-down lyricism [that] is full of questions, disquiet and curious sightings that release days from their common assumptions and offers a bracing slant on this unsettling world”. This book cover is contemplative, balancing tension and juxtaposition, as it tempts engagement.

If this is poetry that is best described as “stripped-down lyricism”, what tricks of poetic technique and language survive the paring down process? Certainly, there is little obscurity, and a subtle directness can achieve extraordinary sophistication. So “Shiver”, responds with unsentimental delicacy, to the condition of suffering in public and personal spheres:

The cool ether

encourages movement.

You even shiver,

that’s unusual now.

 

Remember to look at

the galaxy

remember to be kind

to leaves, they can’t

always be green

and fragrant.

 

Growing

is hard, there’s pain

in all cells.

(Breaking the Days, 3)

Jones writes with such a clever concertina-ing of perspective, the effect of which is to surprise and hold in balance such finely observed fragility. So in “Blossom” she writes:

Smell the sky like a hurt

blossom gone to ground.

 

The displacements make a song

of wrenching.

It’s angry, air in the trees.

 

Even stars dither in the faraway.

The difficulties go on for hours.

The place quivers.

 

And harm in all its nuances

sings.

(Breaking the Days, 7)

The line divisions and punctuation serve to interrupt the flow of these simple forty-five words, thus replicating those fraught and fragmentary emotional states to which the poem is responding. And that final stanza is devastating in its chorused juxtaposition.

Some of the poetry in Breaking the Days also hums with irony and sly humour. So “Happy Families” reads:

You’ve come from afar

a little beam

into a small warm room.

 

People are waiting.

You don’t know how to say it

the thing they wait for.

 

You don’t even know

you’re supposed to say something.

It’s not even a decision.

 

Your own genius spooks

it runs to the cupboard

and breaks all the plates.

 

You stare at the old yard

and ignore all that poetry

in the kitchen.

 

Even the fridge sings.

(Breaking the Days, 17)

That image of the sunbeam entering our interpersonal relations is not the only occasion of personification in Breaking the Days. “The growling horizon” makes use of the pathetic fallacy, not as a decorative device, but as an exploration of the “daily world of uneasy things”. Here a sense of foreboding, of machine presences, scraps and dreams, enter the poem to question the efficacy of our communion with the natural world. Here, even in the hope for renewal offered by “forecast rain”, there are doubts and a “growling power”:

Wind in a window touches your skin

what you remember.

Windows are cold as night outside

as trees heave with sounding elsewhere

and bringing into

the morning, the yard, the laundry space

pushing and pulling

your hair, to unadjust or scare up collections

sheets or stances, another room

whatever is draining.

 

There’s always something

to clean or renew.

This cold is another touch.

And smells of branches, the stars

behind them, an unnamed carbon

lifting wings, the almost endless

eucalypt of gone coasts and slopes

feral and rotting ground.

 

You even wish to be alive

in the dying dark

walk into the song dust of early morning

with its machines on the edge

of a low, growling horizon

alive with tin, power

and forecast rain.

(Breaking the Days, 36)

This is poetry that “line by line” shows us how:

Paradise or necropolis are only a moment away

like raindrops on whiskers, roses on kittens

or anything no fun in the morning.

 

It’s all gone in the wash, where a new coast is forming

in your thinking – yes, those decisions!

(Breaking the Days, 43)

At times the poetry in Breaking the Days is so pared down it can appear a little prosaic and over-reaching in seeking profundity. In “Discords”, for example, we are told: “A tooth is wishing itself away, bones eventually / dissolve without thinking” (19). Well, this seems pretty obvious to me. And the book concludes with:

I understand anxiety is normal.

I hear the night – it’s night already.

I don’t know what to say about night.

Is my anxiety insanely adorable?

I get up and go home.

(Breaking the Days, 57)

I think these moments could do with more self-referential sly humour and subtlety. The final poem has, to my ear, a terribly ponderous title (“The plover in the poem and what meaning does not mean”) but also has such unforgettable moments as:

Maybe it leaks, maybe you swim in the air.

It’s a form of contact, rainy days

ground and air.

(Breaking the Days, 47)

The poetry in Jill Jones’ chapbook, the leaves are me sisters, is very different to the “stripped-down lyricism” of Breaking the Days. Here she is wonderfully detailed in her descriptive language of the natural world. And while Jones is often writing hymns of praise she remains acutely aware of those fractured and fragile states of being that are to be glimpsed amidst great beauty. So this book opens with “the shifts”:

I wonder if there’s time to be even

or scrupulous when everything burns out

as ground smells of poison or bright hurt.

 

Day shadow moves fast and thick

as though I could shuffle and jump

among gist, as leaves jam at the trash.

 

There’s brilliant green dust under my skin

and each second presses the ground, a creaking twig

uneven molecular scatter, the psychedelic earth.

I’m calling up birds in my cloudy throat.

 

I stand up in a spin which I treat like a rehearsal.

I nose sapped wood and bitter bricks.

Will I die well as air falls in my crust?

Nothing dies well.

 

Don’t delete everything, call me

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

(the leaves are my sisters, 5)

In its subtle exploration of a poetics of dwelling which move us towards ideas of accountability, and the personal costs of our colluding with the corporate degradation of our environment, this poem works as a splinter in our complacency. Jones reminds us that if we are “to come home” there must be a private and public “shift” in our values. In her poem “the end of may” Jones richly evokes the renewal that comes when: “The courtyard sounds sloppy with rain. / The sun is there always, but behind darkening clouds. / There’s a mess of green and yellow on trees and paving” (10). This poem concludes with the lyrically unforgettable:

That the leaves are also shining today.

That there’s still a golden sense in greying stonework

of the early twentieth century building

in one corner of the courtyard.

That there’s still dust on the plate glass windows opposite

and they never seem to change in any light.

That birds in all this time will sing longer than

the courtyard and the desk, the buildings and the squares.

That this doesn’t matter, that it does.

(the leaves are my sisters, 11)

In the hymn of praise Jones can bask in warmth while also conceding to the inevitability of summer storms because “the sun is there always, but behind darkening clouds”. As she says in “the wall, the door, the rain”:

I am made of asteroids and numbers, of shining cold water

or, no, I’m not bright like that

 

though I’m almost like rain

and everywhere I am in chains.

(the leaves are my sisters, 13)

These lines so cleverly reference scientific calculations for understanding the origins of life while also alluding to the insights of psychology in treating contradiction and tension. In “big apple leaf summer” Jones continues these investigations in a way that is resonant with the issues of gender:

I am to swing, opening gates

a child bearing summer to its end

with the kindness of leaves.

I am to be diamonds, pick-me-ups

queer riddles you do not know.

Not an English evergreen

breaking

but empress of milk

the blood I leave for the ages.

 

I am to proliferate.

I am roseate and frequent.

I am a sextant. I am full of sky.

 

I once walked across the playground.

My confusion was greater than the hills.

There was too much bread

and circumstances were not

looking great.

 

The leaves are my sisters.

We fall.

(the leaves are my sisters, 17)

There is an arresting directness to this communication that expresses such an empathetic appreciation for the natural world while also challenging understanding. What does Jones mean by “I am to proliferate. / I am roseate and frequent. / I am a sextant. I am full of sky”? I really like Jones’ word associations and her open-ended nuanced use of language. And the startling final image that so cleverly alludes to gender is a compelling resolution.

So much is gained by spending time with new poetry by Jill Jones as she confidently moves across styles, balancing tension and juxtaposition amidst such sophistication in clear communication. She evokes a world of great splendour, but also fragility, in an unsentimental and interrogative way. Jones looks into a world of broken beauty and “growling power” and knows that even “harm sings”.

 

Phillip Hall lives in Melbourne’s Sunshine where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. He is a poet and essayist who writes for such publications as Cordite Poetry Review, Southerly, Plumwood Mountain, Verity La and Westerly. He loves to cheer.

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