Review by Lucy Alexander
Jill Jones once confessed that there was a time when she wanted to be a rock-star, 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:
time changes sky
my sad answer
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
Walleah Press 2012
82 pages, $20