by A History of What I'll Become
Published February, 2020
The year 1599 was Shakespeare’s annus mirabilis – a year in which, after a relatively barren period, he wrote four masterpieces: Julius Caesar, Henry V, As You Like It, and Hamlet, spanning the First Folio’s three genres of history, comedy and tragedy. The achievement of this period was crowned with the Bard’s longest and most enigmatic play, Hamlet. For me, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s great open poem – the play more than any other that points to the generative power of language. I think of Shakespeare (always writing by candlelight in a small room above the front bar of a London pub) in love with writing, amazed by what he was writing, unable to keep the profusion of his verse within the tidy lines of a plot.
The writing of Hamlet is most obviously relevant to Jill Jones’s work because she embraces an open poetic; which is to say, her poems, like Shakespeare’s great play, tend to resist closure. They do not present us with any kind of straightforward revelation but rather – in Hamlet’s words – ‘thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls’. But I invoke Hamlet primarily to explain a label that has increasingly attached itself to Jones as a writer: ‘prolific’. In a recently published interview with Jen Webb the poet remarked that the epithet often carries an ‘accusatory’ tone, but it could just as well suggest jealousy, even awe.
Quality, of course, can suffer from quantity, but it doesn’t have to, and it certainly didn’t in Shakespeare’s miracle year. The past six or seven years – in which Jones has become a prolific poet – have been an exceptional period of creative activity, in which she has published five remarkable volumes: The Beautiful Anxiety (2014), Breaking the Days (2015), Brink (2017), Viva the Real (2018), and now A History of What I’ll Become (2020) – and the latest collection has more than one hundred pages of poetry. It is an impressive strike rate but, more importantly, these books contain some of the best poetry written in Australia during the last decade.
What has brought about this rich vein of form? How does she do it? Such matters – the favours of the Muse – are ultimately inscrutable, probably even to Jones herself. But I think it has something to do with the generative power of language: that Jones continues to test what forms can do; that she continues to take risks, that the language’s evolution continues to replenish Jones’s storehouse of phrases and images. That words beget more words. This is ‘Mouth Form Flower’ in its entirety:
Let fault flaw
Let the fence fall
Let’s flabbergast the goal with tongues
Let debacle warp in dawn
Let beginning bury end
Let a hundred pods blush
Let the mouth form flower
Let flesh flash
Let’s lick plethora
Let erosion jabber in the gown
Let’s find fit and make do
Let’s sieve without shock
Let debris fill rust
Let myriad dapple and draw
Let’s spurn our quote marks
Let’s trick death perception
Let limit out
Let not mere quintessentials
Let wreckless wreck more
Let cloth drop
Let’s lay waste the hours
Let’s not say
Let a thousand errors bloom
This list-poem is a paean to desire – and we get the slipperiness of consonants and the dissolving effect of assonance. While the list-poem is an expansive form, there is also a marvelous economy at work: ‘Let flesh flash’, ‘Let limit out’, ‘Let cloth drop’, ‘Let’s not say’. Many of the statements have the initial feel of sound over sense – which is appropriate to the poem’s subject – but they repay close reading. Even here, there is an ecological resonance in the metaphors ‘Let beginning bury end’ and ‘Let a hundred pods blush’, which is transformed in the poem’s resolution to ‘Let a thousand errors bloom’. Later in the book such errors, based on Mao’s metaphorical flowers, become literal flowers blooming. In Jones’s work the material is always becoming language as the language becomes material. ‘Let a thousand errors bloom’ also explicates an aspect of Jones’s process. She is open to chance and the happy accident, and in her poetry ‘indirections [often] find directions out’. The collection abounds in such list poems – which can range between suggestion and instruction, from existential manuals to manifestos.
Jones’s poetry is characterised by an attentiveness to form and a mastery of tone. Many of her poems are disjunctive in terms of their content – true to the workings of a mind that snags on choruses and advertising tag lines. Jones’s is a self-reflexive art and the language and poetry itself are always among its central concerns. ‘Difficult Poem’ is the shortest lyric in the volume:
(yeah, like a
lucid tiff fit of plum dolt cuff
epic mould cute plod dulcet mop
coiffed lump polemic fit demotic puff
muffled tic code flip deficit flop
melodic if cleft podium iced muff
tumid elf difficult mope lucid top
Here we are reminded of Jones’s penchant for admitting alluring – sometimes deliberately ornate or gaudy – adjectives. These adjective-noun compounds are constructed from the letters of the title, so the poem itself is a language game, and the poem’s rhymes reinforce the game-like element. There is something Anglo-Saxon in the wallop of the lines – probably that the phrases read like kennings – but the poem’s rhythmic heft is undermined by the campiness of the diction.
Is this poem difficult? Or does it rather describe – even enact – difficulty, without itself being difficult? The conversational ‘yeah, like a’ is a reminder that we have entered the shadowy world of the figurative where language has already begun to bend. The poem’s paratactic structure and the consistency of the grammatical repetitions ensure a reader quickly finds their feet. The main difficulty the poem presents a reader is to connect these discrete grammatical units to the poem’s title. Each of the eighteen units speak to some aspect of poetry – which is to say ‘difficulty’ for the public at large – or, more specifically, to issues of resistance and transparency.
Beyond their compelling music, something might be said of all eighteen units, but I will limit my comments to my favourites. ‘[F]it of plum’ – the only unit that breaks from the two word adjective-noun construction – alludes to William Carlos William’s famous poem ‘about’ eating the plums in the fridge. This poem might leave readers scratching their heads and asking ‘So what?’ or ‘What difficulty am I missing?’ The ‘fit’ may be a moment of madness or perhaps a fight but it may allude to extra-textual, even biographical, knowledge beyond the poem, reminding that poetry is an elliptical art and that the incomplete information a work presents us with is a large part of its difficulty, as well as its thrill. ‘Cleft podium’ alludes to John Stuart Mill’s famous remark that we ‘hear’ rhetoric but ‘overhear’ poetry, and that the metaphor of the lyric voice – this construction of interiority – can itself cause misunderstandings and difficulties. Then there is the ambiguity of ‘iced muff’. Is it a risqué colloquialism or does ‘iced’ suggest coldness, rather than something sweet? These aren’t the only possibilities. Perhaps a bungled performance – or the notion that difficulty can be caused by a writer’s incompetence as readily as their skill – is the most fecund of these options. Finally, what better description of a poem than a ‘melodic if’ – an epithet that reminds us that poetry roughens the calm waters of transparent communication in its pursuit of music?
Jones’s oeuvre is difficult to place in the landscape of Australian poetry. Her urban settings, her skepticism regarding language’s mimetic function, and her open poetics, sit comfortably with the legacies of the Generation of ’68. But while she shares some of their tastes and concerns, her writing differs markedly from anyone in that group, and her poetry doesn’t seem profoundly influenced by these poets – or by any other Australian writer. Her work rather shows traces of the Objectivists, the New York School and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, and European poets such as Tomas Tranströmer and Inger Christensen. Beyond this, are three abiding influences: Sappho, Dickinson and Gertrude Stein, all of whom were prolific experimentalists. One poem, ‘As Long As You Need/Fragments’, a cento, draws entirely upon Sappho’s fragments, often in mistranslation.
One of the book’s introductory epigraphs quotes the French scientist Antioine-Laurent de Lavoisier:
nothing is created,
nothing is lost,
It is interesting to read the intertextual quality of Jones’s poetry through the lens of Jed Rasula’s ecological writings with one eye on this epigraph. For Rasula, the past can be viewed as a library of decaying texts – or compost – from which contemporary poets can compile new works that still retain traces of the old. This process, which mirrors natural cycles of decay and regeneration, dissolves the author and decentres the human, attuning us to the wild, to the heterogeneous and unpredictable elements in both nonhuman nature and the mind. A History of What I’ll Become draws on fragments from Sappho and Old English literature, including the Dream of the Rood and Beowulf, and a number of poetic texts from the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In Rasulian spirit, these include translations and mistranslations alike. This referentiality to outside texts also operates as a formal strategy within the text. Thus, the collection refers back and forth to itself – and to Jones’s other books. Dozens of phrases – ‘a name I’m not sure of’, ‘the thick weave’, ‘a prayer that never surfaces’, ‘I wake up in fragments’, and the Whitmanesque ‘I bless every idea, glance and jot’ – recur later in different contexts as a kind of recycling. Poems ask questions of – and talk back to – other poems – as the speaking voice is framed and reframed in different contexts.
Ecological crisis haunts A History of What I’ll Become, but the theme is less overt here than it is elsewhere in Jones’s recent work. Occasionally it is reflected in a note of uncommon and direct anger at the status quo:
It’s the way I have to fix things
by painting a sign. ‘I can’t believe
I still have to protest this fucking shit.’
I can’t put the leaves back.
The sign could just as well apply to issues of gender inequality, and many poems examine the cultural forces that shape us. ‘The Doll and Me’ begins with a description of a childhood doll, with ‘plumpy head, ‘itsy cheeks’ and ‘uptight clothes’, but moves in the second stanza to a contemplation of the doll – rather than its owner – growing up:
What if the doll says ‘I could begin
to take you apart’, and
pins a dress to my hollows,
paints me so I smile
at every beastly, devouring kiss?
‘Cursing Girl Gust’ reads like a nimble translation from the Anglo-Saxon, interspersed with curses from King Lear’s Tom o’ Bedlam:
o what! spare us heroes & heofen
though I look like the almost-you
there is other craft rare & raw
in my wit’s hoard
I have no show-brag trick kiss
my uncomely dross-dress
plain-face hide & hunch-mind
my down-dark leant in cunning
fuck you fey-fickle foe pest-face
you’ll not play in the cut of me
don’t sweet-wif me wanker
you sack-head creep between walls
The form provides a satisfying mix of lyrical nourishment (‘the almost-you’, ‘down-dark’) and flashier pyrotechnics (‘show-brag’, ‘trick kiss’). Some readers will probably hear ‘show-bag’ in the latter pair of phrases, making the ‘trick kiss’ that follows concrete but also cheap and flimsy.
The title of the collection suggests circularity, or inevitability. As in Jones’s other collections, culture is considered in terms of agency. ‘Patience Without Virtue’ invokes epigenetics, the ‘beaten-up memories’ we carry in our cells. A fatalism, regarding the individual and society, permeates much of the work. ‘History’, for example, articulates our collective ennui:
I am a history of stretched air
of shade, of dirty dirty coal
a history of monetisation
of hedge funds, sulfur clouds
The list-poem, which, in places, builds an irrefutable argument, can enact inertia with comparable deftness.
Mortality and a longing for lost pasts are more pronounced in this collection. In ‘The Hour Of My Death Is Always The Same’, ‘The great sarcophagus/ of the world opens’ and the speaker wonders ‘how black the black earth / truly is’. Death is evoked with (uncharacteristically) Plathian imagery in ‘Gods’, from the sequence ‘The Lost Child’:
As if my face was made of marble, given an ancient
name etched with gold, so I’d look gradual, almost
While Jones is never uncomplicatedly autobiographical – a poem from an earlier collection is titled ‘The Thought of an Autobiographical Poem Troubles & Eludes Me’ – this book, while not transparently confessional, encompasses material of a more personal nature, including the death of parents. ‘Into our Thin Rivers’, which begins in the first stanza at a father’s deathbed, moves adroitly in the third and final stanza to a longing for the lost continent of childhood and an elegy for nature:
As a child I remember them covering my face
and the ticking machine that was also a river
a dark delta land full of birds
I remember its ether breath
I sometimes still smell it in my dreams
I wonder who decides to turn it off
Smaller losses are expressed no less eloquently, in ways that allude to less complicated, and more sensual, pasts.
Many of the book’s central themes coalesce in one of the volume’s most impressive poems, ‘This Crumbling Aura’:
There’s nothing sacred about me. I was born under stars
that kept moving. Outside I could smell lost temperatures
stolen dust my blood tainted with history.
But here I am without a prayer looking for gods in everything
that’s melting. I watch the littlest sparrow. It knows
where the crumbs are.
I broke marriage. I never fitted shoes. And where would I walk?
In the dark men will kill you and in scuzzy city light as well.
I’m never better than in some unknown country
called a dream though even there men kill me.
And even here I wake up in my own breath, the only thing
I’ve given back, scuzzy, scared tainted nothing holy
even in the way I walk past seats and palms where girls
look like Debbie Harry or Chrissie Amphlett in songs out of
another time, a virtual place my local understanding
shimmering along my skin as an iffy aura, a rapture, pleasure
All I am is a jump cut, montage a fiction to myself
in my profane air, badly edited but knowing where the crumbs are.
I’m inhabited by stories, fevers, voices and lies heaving
this breathing into light that changes every moment. There’s no way
to rescue me, even as a translation of an original hymn.
Am I simply my little secret?
Sometimes the dark is just the way a room is
or that part of a blink that flicker of closing.
This poem, in its repetitions and echoes, operates as a microcosm for the book. The speaker finds themselves, in a phrase that fuses eschatology and ecology: ‘looking for gods in everything / that’s melting’, as the ‘sacred’ of the poem’s opening morphs into the ‘scared’ of the third stanza, and the taint of history becomes the taint of ‘nothing holy’. The shop-worn cliché, ‘without a prayer’ gains new currency in this context; Christ’s providential sparrow from the Sermon on the Mount simply ‘knows where the crumbs are’, as does the poem’s speaker in the penultimate stanza. Hard-bitten practicality replaces trust in the providential – or in its secularised version – the belief that things will work out for the best.
The constrictions of social convention – the disarmingly simple ‘I broke marriage’ and the neat reversal of ‘I never fitted shoes’ – are mirrored by the constrictions of environment, as the terror of the night is depicted to be, equally, a terror by day. For Jones’s fellow Adelaideans the word ‘scuzzy’ might conjure the image of a certain O’Connell Street restaurant, but it carries other connotations as well. The harsh consonants combined with the skidding quality of the brief vowel sound has a visceral effect akin to ‘scratchy’ and, perhaps, the thought of someone being scratched out. Yet it also carries the seeds of excuse (scusi) and with it a politics that seeks to justify what Jones portrays as a horrendous status quo. No one of the speaker’s unstable selves can function within a soteriological framework, and it is fitting that a poem which adeptly balances outside and in, closes in utter darkness.
Rock icons ‘Debbie Harry’ and ‘Chrissie Amphlett’ have nostalgic resonance and seem appropriate symbols of female empowerment, but they are not without ambiguity. The Divinyls’ song the poem invokes and Amphlett’s sexualised schoolgirl persona, are particularly problematic in this context. A reader may have the sense too that Debbie Harry has been chosen for her early biography, specifically her narrow escape at the hands of the serial killer Ted Bundy. Even if this is not the case, I’m sure Jones would agree with the words of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets’ manifesto: ‘our writing speaks of more than we know’. Such are the workings of a generative art.
This is an edited version of a speech given to launch A History of What I’ll Become by Jill Jones on 15 May 2020.
Jill Jones. The Beautiful Anxiety, Puncher & Wattmann, 2014
Jill Jones. Breaking the Days, Whitmore Press, 2015
Jill Jones. Brink, Five Islands Press, 2017
Jill Jones. Viva the Real, University of Queensland Press, 2018.
Jill Jones. A History of What I’ll Become, University of Western Australia Publishing, 2020.
Jill Jones ‘Start up an idea, a poetry idea’: An interview with Jen Webb in Everyday Words and Creative Practice. Eds. Jen Webb and Monica Carroll. Puncher & Wattman, 2019.
Rasula, Jed. This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry. University of Georgina Press, 2002.
Shapiro, James. A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599. Faber and Faber, 2006.
Silliman, Ron et al. ‘Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto’. Social Text 19/20, 1988.