An Introductory Note to the Poetry of Jill Jones
Since her first book, The Mask and the Jagged Star was released in 1993, Jill Jones has quietly developed a body of work which in many ways samples and masters the divergent poetics at play in contemporary Australian writing. One can hear resonances of the work of Gwen Harwood as much as of Peter Minter when reading through the seven volumes of work she has so swiftly produced. Far from being limited to a particular mode or model of poetry, Jones has efficiently and cleanly produced a poetry that is outstanding for its integrity while remaining unimpeded or impaired by the tropes and traps of poetic fashion.
This integrity stems from a clarity of nothing so grand as ‘vision’ and ‘voice’ but more simply and directly ‘sight’ and ‘saying’. A poem such as ‘Saturday morning in Ashfield’ speaks of an understated generosity of heart and spirit which is recognizably demotic ‘Australian’:
Fifteen minutes at the autobank, waiting for money,
and the nations stroll by with their children
and the new languages.
So many words for Saturday and shopping,
but only one word for money,
inscribed on plastic and the machine intones.
Your name’s numeric, pretending it’s the universal language,
but the footpaths show out the differences,
such as clothes and their colour, the number of children,
(oh, and eyes, hair and skin).
It’s a weekly celebration despite government green papers,
talkback radio and letters to the editor.
It’s inevitable like the violence,
and the bearing and raising of all these children
who are not getting back on any boats
because they were born just round the corner.
Jones work is not visionary but majestic. The majesty of her writing resides in her ability to weave a sophisticated, sometimes wry, commentary of the social world she inhabits without leaving that world, or distancing herself from it, so that there is a sense of shared experience in what she writes, a depth and warmth to the humour and insight in the poems. ‘Crowned with the beautiful hard antipodean blue’ provides a good example of this majesty – in its evocations of strength, clarity, warmth and expansion, as much as in the evident mingling of undercurrents of joy and despair that coalesce in a love of “all that ordinary, forgotten suburban ritual”. One of her key strengths is to be able to give definition to a uniquely Australian sensibility without the slightest tremor or false note between the optimism and easy-going openness, and the hard-headed pragmatism and abrupt, sometimes brutal directness which are characteristics of the Australian demotic.
Her poetry is crystalline because of its lack of pretension and its humility, because of its subtle often self-deprecating humour (“They're restructuring reality again/ but you have to sit and wait your turn”). Jones has the great gift of accepting the limits of understanding, of giving herself and her poetry over to fully-realisable moments of social awareness, and to those moments when awareness and knowledge falter and are replaced by the quiet contemplation of what is simply present:
a head operates in its clay
and thinks about the wings
it cannot elevate to understanding
here against the fickle light
to be based on what is left
as though still unwritten
a statement that suddenly swerves
She does not sample poetics as a fashion, nor posture in any way, but develops a poetry that befits the moment of experience, aware of and attuned to the evolution of the self through language while not ready simply to abandon the world to language. Jones’ poems are never linguistic constructs, they never surrender the possibility of spirit to the architectonics of language. Her poems test the borders of language through the immediate moment, the shaping of the human and specific encounters and events that make up daily life as it is lived not thought. Hers is a poetry of presence grounded in the everyday, the social and the personal, open to the constant evolution of presence as negation. This can be seen as much in her more recent poetry, which focusses on language, as in her earlier work, such as ‘Transformations in a city block’:
They're pulling apart the old Commonwealth Centre,
surrounding it with heavy green netting.
It shivers in the wind, bulging
and rippling, as if there were animals clinging
to the concrete sides, dirty open-weave curtains billow
in surrender from empty windows, the scaffolding
a slow virus, inching up further each day.
There is a huge pit where the carpark,
with its pock-marked bitumen and fading white arrows,
once stretched out flat, the work sheds huddle round
the side and pedestrians stare on the bright days
when they bring in the cranes and the cherry-pickers
and danger, machines like sci-fi film extras growl
and worry at the rubble and detritus.
But on windy days the dust rises, carrying ghosts
in the grains and particles, joining the scattered
infinitesimal waste that wisps trance-like
through the streets and the city parks and plazas.
There's a harsh washing accompaniment not unlike
the rush of air-conditioning, not unlike a sigh
at the breaking apart of time.
There is a quietness to her poetry, a tact to her development of the written world she inhabits that holds the reader’s attention gently, and allows for a closeness or a proximity to the moment of the eye becoming language, as the poem is formed in the matrices of sight, voice and sign. This intimacy and integrity give her work a rare quality, the reader feels the same winds that so often sweep through Jones’ world, the same textures of dust those often hard and dry winds create. In her recent work, along with her finely tuned works of ekphrasis, Jones has moved toward an engagement with the ecology of land and language. In Broken/Open, Jones develops complex meditations on the systems that govern our relationship to place as much as language, while maintaining the simple and direct style of earlier work:
Where Wind Falls
If you surrender details
they gather “a portion of the beauty”
in blue suburban clay.
In a clouded space
there’s room to step shadows
where wind falls under the sun.
Ways you still
hear the grass
strata, fine planes, slips of craft.
But light leans in from the left
expecting more than
What do you need to know, to walk
land along the lines of its wounds?
Nothing is beyond question.
Such poetry is a nod to recent more ‘experimental’ work from Australia and elsewhere; it develops a marginal space between at times conflicting perspectives on poetics.
While supple and subtle in her wit, and while open to witness social ironies, Jones does not abandon common experience : the immediate and recognizable social experience of the world based on a sharing of that world (not creating distance through irony or metaphor). Hers is a poetry that crosses poetic margins and borders, not cutting them or transgressing, but building bridges and points of access and communication, forming a whole, prescient and often deeply moving experience.
Written for PIW.