Poems Coming in Fast: Jill Jones’ Ash is Here, So are Stars

Posted on May 14, 2013 by in Verity La Reviews

Poems Coming in Fast: Jill Jones’ Ash is Here, So are Stars

Ash is hereReview by Lucy Alexander

Jill Jones once confessed that there was a time when she wanted to be a rock-star[1], and there is something of this in the flavor of the poems here.  Not simply are the poems sprinkled with references (‘Fine Young Cannibals’ the title of a poetic pastiche lovingly woven from ‘The Best of the 80s’ mix-tape) but her lyric impulse, her formative influences, edginess and attitude.

The poems come in fast – they swerve, they flash you with the scent of ‘Blood Bones & Diamonds’ they catch you, distracted by their songful voice and plunge you among the lanes and backstreets of the city.  They turn your eyes to the graffiti on the walls and make it meaningful, then up to the ‘ghost moon bitten apple’.  Jones writes better lyrics than those pretty boys with guitars strapped to their groins.  But there are also poems here that move at walking pace: that grieve and grieve again for that ‘you’ that puts the poet in perspective. The ‘you’ that allows poems such as ‘I Must Be With You in the Cold Time’ such depth and symmetry.

I’ve lost my sensitivity, you say.
That was always possible
Along with a fear of breathing.

If Jones were a celebrated rocker she would not be among the ‘faultless popstars in cocktail shoes’.  She would insist on shoes she could walk in all day and night if necessary, to hunt down the poem, to transcribe ‘A Moon Song’: ‘The moon’s white eye closes on the horizon’. 

The book – Ash is here, So are Stars – bears witness to these tendencies.  The glimmering sheer brightness of the stars is tempered with the inevitable ash or guano – the granulation of time and memory.  The book is divided into two unequal parts: ‘In Fire City’ is a love-song to Sydney it seems – and to some form of ending.  It takes up three-quarters of the collection and the rhythm of the poems is tight, the poet’s eye is cynical, her voice versatile, convincing.  But there is also a sense of dissension from the common or expected – that ability to take a song and slice it open to see it then dispersed everywhere.  To make the poem an antidote to that jingle tune that revolves in the mind for days.   To use the poem as a scalpel that cuts into the belly of badly written song lyrics; or the over reliance on technology; of detectives and cops and hookers; catastrophic world events, or, indeed bureaucracy:

You can read tides, bovine reports
each guesstimate is its own shining
its own howl, its moment of
rock and roll sunshine.

And in this dissension – in this very self-awareness, which is central for most of the poems in In Fire City – Jones dissents from herself.   Being incredibly culturally aware there is a sense in which the poems interrupt themselves and take tangents mid-song.  Something Fine Young Cannibals never did.  For instance in ‘There are No Extras’:

It’s all busy
even at ground level
hello cellophane, hello ants
days beget days
that’s the charming
the little songs
jumping out of backpacks
and while koalas
fall from trees
and offer us their thirst
that’s past cute

There is so much here – too much, overload.  And maybe that’s the point.  The tourists who are introduced halfway through the poem – the extras for whom this overload is the norm and who are not needed as extras – put this process in perspective.   But then, in Blue Lines:

It’s not the birds that are the spectres
they come in the afternoon, true,
swing by the air song filled, passes
that branches come to ground, falling
with dryness and shadows, remembering
midnights rather than afternoons,
declining drugs rather than passing shots…

The birds representing the free spirits, the transient if not spooky, singing and destructive of the native flora suddenly – maybe with one nod in the direction of T.S Eliot with his coffee spoons – refuse drugs?  The opening is enticing and evocative, the leap of association requires a special sort of brain gymnastic typical of this part of the book.  It seems there is no pause between the actual and the imagined, the spectres and their bird-shadows.  This type of playfulness keeps the reader guessing well into each poem, and shows why Jones would not have been satisfied as a rock icon.  ‘enjoying the acrobat music/needing to move, ‘to do nothing’.

The ‘In Fire City’ book opens with a small haiku-like poem wedged into the left-hand corner of the page.  There is no title, no explanation – it stands alone down there at the bottom of the page, and reads:

after the weight
of eleven dreams
the dog shadow

It feels like something of a little gift puzzle – what does this mean, is it a preface to the book? Is it a message for reviewers? Is it a reference to the Danish band Mercenary (I don’t put it past Jones to love her melodic death-metal)? Is it to do with the Aesop fable: the dog and his shadow? Jones’ reference points are varied and unpredictable, but this poem is still a mystery.  Perhaps it is there to even out the pages after the title?  There are others like it among the book – inscrutable but enjoyable.

Jones moves over themes she has touched on before in earlier and prize-winning books.  The balance of city and relationship with the spaces it creates for dialogue, how this affects the self, the other, the way these two merge and transgress boundaries and barriers.  This is perhaps where the references to music and pop culture come in – they are the zeitgeist of the alleyways, they are the placard advertisements, they are the songs on the radio.  There is no avoiding them, but here ‘In Fire City’ Jones takes them and burns them and transforms them into words packed with emotions – anger, grief, love, longing.

This is the wide city
it has accumulated me
along each stage
the clarinet, the needle
and abraded bone.

In ‘Altars’ she grieves at the loss of lives and the change in the landscape of the city – metaphoric and cultural, when she writes:

machine heat
time changes sky

persistent graceful
my sad answer

towers came
distance to ground

Her tone is so measured, her pitch so perfect that it take a second to notice the ‘caved human/trapped into night’ is the death that stalks the cityscape.  She negotiates the persistent unutterable possibility that it could have been me, us, our family, our towers.

The last quarter of the book is called ‘Hang the ash!’ and is made up of three longer poems that have a new distinctive style and though they play with the same word repetition some of the same syntactical dancing, they have more space to breathe – are sung to a slower beat.  ‘My Fugitive Votive’ Jones allows her strong lyrical streak out for a while, and explores her own poetic.  She remembers the book, almost as relic:

‘There’s nothing in the master narrative
that beats death’, but somewhere, the old rectangle
of my book is porous and words feather in the rewrite.

Perhaps it was the imagery I was missing in earlier poems when Jones was acerbic and academic.  Here she allows ‘time goes flaccid’ and:

I’m needing horizons, vistas beyond these pages.
Trees topple but we keep printing.

Here is the environmental political heart – the poem printed in this book rails against the printed word! (Thank goodness Verity La uses very little paper!)

But perhaps my own favorite line comes straight after the title line:

Its ash is here but so are stars
And my crackhand singsong runs glooms voodoo down.

There’s the old songstress, the rock’n’roll guru.  Maybe there’s still time, Jill Jones, to get that album up and those backing vocalists organised?

Ash is Here, So are Stars
Jill Jones
Walleah Press 2012
82 pages, $20


ALWAYS KNOWING WHEN TO TURN THE PAGE: an interview with Nathan Curnow and
Kevin Brophy

Posted on October 30, 2012 by in Lighthouse Yarns

ALWAYS KNOWING WHEN TO TURN THE PAGE:  an interview with Nathan Curnow and <br /> Kevin Brophy

Radar coverMore and more it’s being reported that poetry is experiencing a resurgence, primarily due to the form finding a home – or endless homes – on the internet.  Poetry seems to suit blogs, online journals, even in the social-media space (amongst the torrents of Facebook and Twitter drivel it’s always a pleasure to find some carefully crafted words, or tips on how to find some).  Although no one’s yet collected the statistics, an increasing number of people might be experiencing poetry, which can only be a good thing. Long-live the creative wordsmith.

Two poets who should be at the forefront of this resurgence (if they’re not already) are Nathan Curnow, a regular here in Verity La Land, and Kevin Brophy – we can all thank our lucky stars that they’ve recently co-authored Radar (Walleah Press 2012).  Astute readers will remember that we published Brophy’s ‘Flicker‘ and Curnow’s ‘Blessing‘ in August and September 2012 respectively.  Go on, grab yourself a copy – you won’t regret it.

Nathan Curnow is a poet, playwright and performer who has toured Australia and New Zealand and been heard widely on ABC radio. He is the author of The Ghost Poetry Project, a collection of poetry based upon his stays at ten haunted sites across the country and released by Puncher & Wattman (2009). He has also won the prestigious Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize and co-edited the 30th birthday edition of literary journal Going Down Swinging. Kevin Brophy teaches creative writing in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. From 1980 to 1994 he was founding co-editor of Going Down Swinging. In 2005 he was awarded the Martha Richardson Medal for poetry. In 2009 he was co-winner of the Calibre Prize for an outstanding essay.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.


Congratulations on your joint collection Radar – it’s a truly wonderful read. How would you both describe the book?


I like to think it’s an attentive book, from my collection of poetry to Kevin’s collection of prose-poems, two different forms and styles scanning memory, dreams and experience through language. We didn’t set out intending to come at it from different angles, but I’m so pleased that it turned out the way. Perhaps my work monitors the open skies while Kevin’s searches the ocean depths.


The book fits us between its covers because I think we are both poets driven by a lyrical impulse, interested in pursuing narratives-of-feeling, both of us schooled (though in different eras) by Melbourne’s performance scene, and both committed to a poetry of plain speaking. The book is most definitely two books for the reason Nathan suggests: the forms are very different. Free verse has its own modern tradition now, especially in English poetry, and Nathan exploits it, revels in it. He knows how to make a line work, and how to bend a line ending. There’s none of this in the prose-poems, which are visually not-poetry, and work much more as mental swirls, as clouds posing as paragraphs, slightly exotic as a form. Both of us, though, I think, head out into fiction at times…


How did the idea for the book come about?  Was it along the lines of ‘I’ve got some poems, you’ve got some poems – let’s do this’?  Or was there something deeper going on from the very beginning?


I guess the deepest thing going on is that we’re mates and have liked each other’s writing, and approach to writing, for some time. I had been sitting on a number of poems when Ralph Wessmann from Walleah Press approached me with an offer of publication. What I had amounted to about half a collection so I made the suggestion of a 2-in-1 book. Thankfully Kevin jumped at the opportunity, which was a real thrill seeing that he’s been instrumental to my development over the years. I don’t even think he had anything written at the time, and we didn’t look over each other’s work until the latter stages. All I knew was that he was heading to Europe and had promised to write, which was enough for me. It’s kind of like if the film director Terence Malick says he’s happy to work with you. The only answer is ‘Wow, let’s do it!’ and then you figure it out as you goPerhaps Kevin could speak about the process from his end, because I think he was exploring a different approach to how he usually works.


I believe that Ralph and Nathan were looking for a female Tasmanian poet to partner Nathan with the book. And somehow they stumbled across me. I liked the idea because I did want to try writing a book in a creative frenzy, over about six months, and knowing Nathan’s work I knew he would be both professional and lively. I was relieved when I read his first draft, to see that he had taken an autobiographical approach to his collection, while I had taken a more ‘fictional’ and speculative approach to my little paragraphs. I was pleased to see that the two halves would be different enough, and both hopefully engaging for their own reasons. Of course there was something deeper going on and that might make the reading of the book a little more interesting and unsettling than many poetry collections.


Radar certainly is more interesting and unsettling than many poetry collections. Two themes that have emerged so far in our interview are the notion of autobiography and the slip to and from fiction.  I wonder if you could expand on these elements of the work.


One of the great twentieth century poet-eccentrics (later adopted by the Language poetry movement), Louis Zukofsky, wrote that ‘the test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection.’ That’s ok, and as poets we want to ‘afford’ our readers those pleasures. But they are not the full range of pleasures. The critic Kenneth Cox, an admirer of Zukofsky, finally decided that with Zukofsky ‘What is lacking is afflatus’. He meant ‘the breath of life that sends a thrill down the spine and gets engraved on memory’. Whether it is autobiography or fiction does not really matter; what matters is whether the body and its breath are in the work, along with those other pleasures poetry can afford its readers. Nathan’s work heaves with afflatus. One of the reasons I pushed out of the line into the paragraph was to get at that part of me that brings the world and its afflatus into the words. I would be pleased if our poetry looks unsettled, and even more pleased if the poetry is unsettling.


As Kevin says, the line between autobiography and fiction doesn’t really matter, what matters is the strength of the piece, how it works and conveys. Although much of my work uses autobiography as a launching off point, I don’t primarily write to tell people about my life, because I know that writing can never give the whole picture. Poems are inadequate frames and writing demands twists and turns which askew everything. Still, much of my work in Radar presents as autobiography which I’m not particularly comfortable with at times, and it’s the reason I’ve included the poem ‘To the Google Earth Tracking Vehicle’, kind of warning the reader that while I’m trying to be honest, it’s also just a pose and can’t escape being that. So the line is hazy and complex, and what matters most is the ‘full range of pleasures’ for the reader that Kevin refers to. This is why I’m so excited about the direction he takes in Radar, because he’s still showing me how to write about life in new ways. His pieces are full of strong images and a deceptively simple tone that presents characters we can all relate to, ones with obvious failings. They are portraits that speak honestly and intimately about others, about all of us, and so therefore, indirectly, about what Kevin does (and perhaps doesn’t) know about himself. I like that you refer to it as ‘the slip to and from fiction’, Nigel. It’s so slippery that it almost becomes a non-issue.


What hopes do you have for Radar?


This is the toughest question. I hope that Radar grows up into a fine classic book without feeling it has a split personality or a repressed side of itself that won’t stay repressed. I hope Radar has a large extended family of readers who get together once a year to talk about it. I hope Radar gets to talk with critics and other books along the way, and that in its retirement, when it is hopelessly out of copyright and looks like something left over from the era of ink and paper, it can hold its own at the bar and sink a few with those old-timers who are still on their feet. I hope that it doesn’t get too garrulous with age, and always knows when to turn the other page.


All of the above from Kevin. I hope the book is returned to over and over. I hope its owners read it to people that they love and that it inspires them to write. Plus I sent a copy to Missy Higgins, who I’ve never met, so I hope she likes it too.


Radar can be purchased by visiting Walleah Press.