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Peter Minter reviews

Struggle and radiance: ten commentaries

by Jill Jones

Wild Honey Press 2004

Peter Minter is a poet, editor and reviewer living in Sydney, where he teaches Indigenous Studies at the Koori Centre, University of Sydney. He has published five collections of poetry, including the 2000 Age Poetry Book of the Year: Empty Texas (Paper Bark Press,1999) and the more recent Morning, Hyphen (Equipage Press, 2003). He was the Poetry Editor of the Australian literary journal Meanjin from 2000 to 2005.

This review is 600 words
or about 2 printed pages long

‘Radiant impasse’

In the introduction to her 1995 chapbook Invisible Ink, Jill Jones wrote that ‘[p]oems are never unaccompanied, they’re practised in a context, a world. [They] are always working, not pure objects of contemplation... I’m interested in relationships between states, times and locales. Shifting borders. The openings and closures... The great themes, like the weather.’ [1]

Jones’ lucid inquiries into contextual weather have helped sustain her writing life for over a decade. Her new chapbook follows the publication of two longer works, The Book of Possibilities (Hale & Iremonger, 1997) and Screens, Jets, Heaven: New and Selected Poems (Salt Publishing, 2002) in which she refined her signature mode: a socially responsive lyricism that encounters and speculates on thresholds of place, atmosphere and human interaction.

Struggle and radiance: ten commentaries is a hand-sewn, carefully produced object from Wild Honey Press, Randolph Healy’s small but increasingly prominent outfit based in County Wicklow, Ireland. Over recent years Healy has published poets as diverse as Joan Retallack, Pierre Joris, Mairéad Byrne, Pam Brown, John Kinsella, Trevor Joyce and Ron Silliman among others, indicating a refreshingly eclectic editorial scope. And although it comes in at only 18½ poetry pages, this compact book indicates a significant point of contact in the ever-increasing international reach of contemporary Australian poetry.

The book’s sequence of ‘ten commentaries’ reveals an especially meditative, at times melancholic moment in Jones’ oeuvre. Her observations on the ‘openings and closures’ of ‘unknown tracks’ are marked by spectres of mortality and transience, as ‘The mysteries / get no younger’ and ‘I don’t understand / what’s happening now’. A sign of the growing maturity of her work is the manner with which Jones faces such cosmic indifference and epistemological anxiety with hard-won, hard-edged belief, her ‘fugitive smile’ and  ‘spittle of faith’ in ‘a star [falling] / past your window / into the alley.’

Her approach reminds me of a comment by the Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoschenko, who wrote that ‘[p]oetry comes in the act of anticipating the fact of possibility.’ Anticipation is intuitively, ironically proleptic in that it both foresees things in their absence and, in the very act of apprehension, presents them unwittingly into being. Jones charts the weather flowing from the gap between presentiment and ellipsis. Her poems not only anticipate possibility, the sometimes mysterious, sometimes abrupt edges of comprehension, but also anticipate themselves:

I am down and out
on the lawn
     tracings and tracks
     a tiny park
     the winking fishnet
And above me
words, meteors
     ganglands of galaxies
In the darkness
     dogs and cleft air.

So what’s the Struggle and radiance about?

So what’s on the list?
   What’s left behind.
   Coaches and ambitions.
   The lost children of everywhere.

Should we be calling
each other?

The book is, dare I say it, redemptive in an entirely secular way, offering moments of existential clarity in unsentimental material observation. Jones’ work is also darkly humorous, cleaving advanced anti-romanticism to poetry’s struggle with boundaries between language, self and the world. This makes her work both precisely personal and sharply social:

...tired by scripted armageddons
and recent events
     crass pillage of enlightenment

As if you could be free
     like America
     like a colony.

In the words of William James, via Gertrude Stein and Lyn Hejinian, Jones’ poetry is ‘conscious of consciousness.’ It dramatises the desire to know, to share experience, while being acutely aware of the limitations of communication, the radiant impasse of reference.

[1]Jill Jones 1995 Invisible Ink, self-published chapbook prepared for The Whole Voice Poetry Conference, University of Sydney 3-5 November 1995, p. 1.

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