Jill Jones, Viva the Real. St Lucia, QLD: UQP, 2018. ISBN 978-0-7022-6010-0
Viva the Real, Jill Jones’s eleventh full-length collection, is a poetic and visceral tribute to the real. While it contains many subjects, its abiding interests are the phenomenology of reality, the place of the human among the non-human, and the wildlife and vegetation that exist in our urban environments. The poems are crafted in such a way that they simultaneously resist neat comprehension (‘this means this’) and feel accessible; they held my attention easily. The former effect is created through sound – through rhythmic intricacies that complicate semantic ones – while the latter may owe to an ethos of inclusiveness in the poet: she rarely gets so esoteric that you hesitate to follow where she leads.
Jazz is mentioned through the collection (‘big fat jazz blowing blossom’ in the poem ‘Swoop’ (4), Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters album in ‘The Soul of Things … ’, the title ‘Round Midnight’ a reference to the jazz film), and it certainly feels present as an influence on the writing, shaping its spirit of improvisation, play, and the testing of form against sense. Poems such as ‘Rituals in Ultrasound and Gardens’ (8) and ‘Wrack’ (59) are preoccupied with the musical possibilities of the word and the line, the subject being led along behind; in mid-flow the former poses the question, ‘How does form work?’, and then stages a demonstration (8). Language here is not only musical but textural – it feels physical, tactile. A good example is the arresting opening poem ‘The Make-Do’:
The day drops voices
on my tongue, all the burnt dust,
garbage, tenderness. Duties waste time.
I am stupid among crisp brown leaves.
I lick salt fresh from the window
and wait for the big moon.
These images and sounds are delectable, fresh. The word ‘get’ in the following line, ‘I get more curious than you think,’ made me pause and appreciate. This simple substitution (‘get’ for ‘am’) has the effect of putting the poet outside herself, next to the reader in perspective. Such verbal dexterity, seemingly easy or ‘no big deal’ – but highly effective – is the mark of a poet who is accomplished in her art and knows the ins and outs of her medium. The penultimate stanza of this poem, which adorns the back cover, is almost filmic in its visual capture: ‘The main road is a dream hatched, / a tremendous streaking / in the fast fold of fret lines’ (1).
Jones has always been interested in sound, and it was pleasurable to encounter that again here. But there are many other aspects worth commenting on, such as the balancing of the serious with the comic, which, when manifested together in Viva, strikes a wry note. The political is often slipped into poems that are just doing their thing, snapping language over shifting frames of rhythm. In ‘Mouth Song’ the poet declares:
I ate the tax form
the guidelines and the injunction.
I swallowed the driveway
all the neighbourhood watch
pamphlets, I ate the periodic table
statutes, another postal survey.
Due to the timing of the collection, and the more transparent (in relation to its subject) ‘Same Love Goes Harder’ (55), it’s clear that the last line’s passing reference is to the same-sex marriage postal vote of 2017 in Australia. It’s not that Jones glosses over the subject, which is no doubt personal to her, as a gay poet – but that she is strategic in facing certain abominable phenomena (another in her work is the destructiveness of our resource-guzzling modernity). In this poem the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey is not given the privilege of a direct response, and is parcelled in with other objects – all to do with bureaucracy in an urban setting.
This strategy for dealing allusively with the thorns of reality is perhaps most evident in the poems on pain. Pain cracks through the book. Some poems are more explicit about this subject, such as ‘Recovery Ward’ (22), ‘The Variances’ (27), ‘A Pain Around My Shoulders, as Ritual’ (50), or ‘Things I Learned in Bay 13A’ (86), while in others it’s in the background as a possibility. Even in poems that are about pain, it is almost always encountered allusively, and this is another kind of realism in Viva the Real (pain often comes at you from the side, striking when you’re unprepared). Because of its presence, I started to read certain ambiguous lines in other poems as also about pain. For example, ‘It’s hard to lift your hand / but see, you do / & every child does’ in ‘As if You’d Break’ (46) could be read as a statement of wonder, but I thought whether it was more so a reference to suffering. This is again the case in ‘Cracks in Stars’. The poem is a list of memories (‘I remember crackers and stars / I wanted foghorns / I wanted to be alone …’), but towards its end are the lines, ‘I was ill under the trees, as though / I’d always been there’, which cast the whole poem in a different light (89).
The book’s other themes include the natural world and its agents; the value of the non-human; the costs of technological progress; the simultaneous strangeness and ordinariness of existence; and love. The non-human is often treated with deep respect:
Glass is composed by heat and sand
soda ash and limestone.
It’s only so far flexible. It’s cold. There’s a mark
where the bird struck. It dies
and your hands tremble with stupidity.
The tragedy of human ‘progress’ encroaching on the non-human reoccurs in the excellent ‘Poem Diesel Butterfly’ (25), while ‘Rituals in Ultrasound and Gardens’ (8) expresses a desire to go beyond the anthropological: ‘To escape the human for a / moment like being a rock or / a leaf, a mist, a serpent … ’ (9). In ‘Brought Into Morning’ the poet is drawn to the thought that:
when being human is
not the point, the world
fills with water or
darker materials, doubles
In Viva the Real there is a deep-seated wonder at reality in its fleshy and vegetable fullness. As I noted earlier, phenomenology and the non-human world are abiding themes, and through these Jones presents an ethos of relating to the non-human, of striving always to sympathise with it. If my review seems hardly critical, that’s because I feel the collection ‘realises’ this very well.
The poems here seem both embodied and disembodied, both personal and impersonal, with poetic forms constantly shifting as well, never just one thing. There is a restless energy to Viva the Real, and it’s tempting to guess at a cause (such as that acute or recurring pain makes you feel both inside and outside your body, both inside and outside experience). Whatever the motivating force for this restlessness, it forms an engaging and wide-ranging collection – through it, an array of subjects and aesthetics are harmonised by the poet.
Prithvi Varatharajan is a writer, literary audio producer, and commissioning editor at Cordite Poetry Review. His writing has appeared widely in Australian and overseas journals, and he has a book of poetry and prose, Entries, forthcoming with Cordite Books in 2019. He holds a PhD from the University of Queensland on ABC RN’s Poetica (1997–2014).