Wild Curious Air
by Jill Jones
Recent Work Press
Published September 2020
Jill Jones, here’s her book Wild Curious Air. I’d been distracted by worries about stepping up to these poems. These years of overlapping crises have demanded, among other things, so much reading, so much thought, so much feeling. What did I have left to bring to reading Wild Curious Air? When I opened the covers it was like walking into a concert hall, a bit nervous about staying still and focused, then discovering that it’s easy because the music sounds lovely. I had forgotten that there would be pleasure.
Wild Curious Air finds its material in what has come before, digs into the turbulence and profusion of the present, and propagates the demand that we attend to the reality and urgency of this moment. Jones has discussed her use of a kind of decomposition-composition with fellow poet Claire Albrecht. She uses the metaphor of compost when she talks about writing, and compost is a motif in the poems themselves. In Wild Curious Air, that compost that is for Jones both process and trope, is made out of her own past work, and the work of other poets. It includes quotation, translation and mistranslation, as well as fresh lines grown out of the fecund leaf litter of reading. This is a poetic process rich and radical enough for the times and for Jones’ continually open, experimental approach to poetry.
Jones has been an ‘international’ poet since forever, her attention turned to matters other than competing visions of what Australian poetry should be. Over the years she has named her influences: William Wordsworth (she likes his old stuff better than his new stuff), Kenneth Slessor, Eugenio Montale, Tomas Tranströmer, Charles Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, Li Po, Sappho, Emily Dickinson, George Oppen, Tu Fu, Lorine Niedecker, and plenty more. The poems and poets that have informed and impacted her thinking are more like an ecology than a genealogy. Anyhow, ‘Australian poetry’ is beginning to feel like an anachronistic category. So many poets who live in or are connected to ‘Australia’ are disrupting, exceeding and burning down all kinds of institutions, assumptions, borders and binaries. Jill Jones was already writing in that terrain. She’s still there, and the rest of us can join her. She doesn’t do closed systems. Her ideas and her texts are leaky, or maybe permeable is more accurate as it’s a polydirectional exchange.
Jones was quick to move into online spaces, the mailing lists and forums of the nineties. As Web 2.0 happened she started blogging, then shifted, as most of us have, to more prescriptive social media platforms. Jones did a Twitter project, left Twitter, but remains present on Instagram, at least for now. My memory of Jill Jones in the early virtual world, when we used to think of it as separate from ‘real life’, is of a person who was patient, sincere and uninterested in picking fights. I imagine that these online spaces were a relief to Jones, a place to be with peers from all over the world, a place to grow as a poet in the absence of a more simpatico sphere where she happened to be located. Towards the end of a long 2021 interview with David Ades, in which she discusses her last two collections, Jones says ‘I think I’m less obscure than some people like to think’. It must have been relaxing, earlier in her writing life, to be online with writers who shared her interests, and who didn’t frame the way she wrote and how she thought as ‘difficult’.
Online networks have changed. I think they’ve become less generative, there are fewer poetry projects that share process or make experiments. An online presence now has more to do with reminding others that you exist. I have no idea if reminding people of her existence comes easy to Jones or if she steels herself to do the work needed if you want to keep working. Jones doesn’t lead with diffidence, self-deprecation, only her questions sound like questions. She writes and speaks about her practice with confidence. But her answer to David Ades’ question, her gentle assertion that she’s not really so obscure – after all, the book includes an afterword and notes on the poems – encourages me to stop framing her work as ‘difficult’. The poems aren’t thorny, they are where uncertainty blooms, self-aware, but not self-absorbed, the spiral of connected thoughts opens out.
It’s not that there’s never a bum note, a phrase or chunk that clunks instead of shimmering. As I’m reading Wild Curious Air I sometimes want to argue with Jones about a choice of word – ‘exile’, really? Isn’t that a bit strong? Or I’ll backtrack over an image that to my reading is unsound – a cracked rivet in the works. Sometimes I want to say to the pages of this book that it’s okay, we get it, it’s okay to leave in only the lush and brutal fragments, we don’t need to be eased or bridged. That’s a criticism of the poems but not of the reading experience. Who after all wants their eyes sliding over flawlessness. As Jones herself said to Michael Brennan in 2011, ‘I want to continue resisting the poem as either perfect little artefact, or as pure linguistic construct.’
It’s part of reading, to have quarrels with a text. Perhaps reading in this mode comes with practice – I’m sure I used to be less quarrelsome, ready to accept words on the page as authoritative. It might also be a result of reading so much online, where bits of text present themselves to us on the daily; poems, screen grabs, memes, misattributed quotes; where things can change, or even disappear. Then I think of readers past, writing angry letters, feeling the urgency of insight, quarrelsome in print and in correspondence. And if you’re stretching language, if you’re doing poetry like bebop and improvising with your extraordinary chops and your tricky tempo mind, or like free jazz, listening out and connecting with what’s around you, those excessive word choices, those bent-until-they-hairline-crack images, they’re part of what gets you to the next uncomplicatedly wonderful line. And anyhow, I could read the same line on another day and think I had it wrong, missed an ambiguity that hinges a different sense into a turn of phrase.
In this book there’s a lot of bodies finding new limits – or as Jones put it in conversation with Albrecht, ‘I think a lot about how bodies and places unravel’. It’s not laid out for us, the unravelling, we can mind our business, but it’s present, and familiar to those of us who know or are discovering new forms, in the most immediate and biological sense, of our own unravelling, or awkward knitting. Jones doesn’t plate up ‘vulnerability’ and I like that for her and about her. She doesn’t offer us tidbits of autobiography – if life events or confessional reveals arrive it’s only through accidents of language and expression, and who’s looking? ‘My poetry is an investigative process, rather than a self-expressive process.’ Whatever’s going on in her personal world, she makes use of the compost of language and texts, drawing on dailiness.
Making a poem, making it ‘cohere’ as Jones often says, is a tussle. A poem in this collection, ‘Symposium of the Unfinished’ includes a section called ‘Around the Genuine’. It begins with an epigraph by poet Nuar Alsadir, ‘Meaning is more of a dance’. That sounds effortless, until you start dancing. The opening line is just
The curve of a bowl
and I feel it, that curve, I’m ready to imagine ceramic warmed by something the bowl holds, and I’m going with ceramic rather than wood, or stainless steel, or plastic, because I’ve read the next line, one word, ‘breaking’. Then I stop reading for a second while I experience rapid, rushing thoughts (maybe the warm curve of my coffee cup is influencing the reading experience) about meaning, form, structure, what holds things together and what cracks and shatters, what is possible and what exceeds possibility – before I even get to the next line
or a street a hand
The curve of a street? I saw that street coming as I read, I was already imagining a bowl the colour of bitumen, made of blue-grey clay. The curve of a hand? A hand can curve, and of course every bowl traces its ancestry to a cupped hand. The curved hand might be holding, breaking or mending the bowl. Or picking up the pieces, vulnerable to hurt from a sharp edge. All we’ve done so far is read the title, epigraph and first two lines, and we have bodies and objects moving through space, doing the dance of meaning-making, holding together and coming apart. Pleasure. The next lines draw us inward,
the way life contracts
to a room
and then expand again
or rises over the world
with wings or bombs.
It’s getting trancelike and ecstatic for me at this point, life contracting and expanding, not through choices, through circumstances beyond you, yet inherently you, and you can’t control them, but you can take notice. Then,
the next day and the
the next are unfinished
Jones describes a sense of fluctuation and assemblage that happens when we have to live through new and difficult disruptions – not the adrenalin-charged heights, but the everyday confusion and incoherence of illness, loss, displacement, the process of reworking ways of doing a day,
walking a circle around
the genuine the faltering
and then that decomposition of language motif returns
unfinish rememb amazem
I’m not sure about the closing couplet – what does it mean to say?
the body betrays what it loves
by saying it loves its betrayals
Maybe it’s the word ‘betrayal’ that’s bothering me. It’s a Graham Greene kind of word, not something to be careless with in a messy world, the accusation of ‘betrayal’. I’m not sure, but I don’t think we’re talking about sexual betrayal – more like the betrayal of change. The dance of meaning, the disintegration of language, the bowl that can break, the body that ‘betrays what it loves’ – what does the body love? Caresses? Cakes? A cool plunge and a hot shower? What are the body’s betrayals? Some bodies might betray themselves by becoming perceptible, bodies in their role as predators or prey. A body might betray itself by transgressing social codes, oops, excuse me. A body might betray itself by becoming painful, inflexible, irresponsive, unpredictable, unmanageable, blood sugars and oxygen levels and creatinine and who knows what else veering and crashing. And how does a body ‘say’, in a figurative way – are we talking about words? Or gases, excretions, ranges and levels, protuberances, a yellowed eye, deeper lines? You know what? I’m going to pretend this poem ends with the broken word ‘eclips’, I’m going to think about metaphors that move across the things to which they refer, sometimes obscuring the referent altogether.
The bowl as object, the dance of meaning, these two things that are in opposition or in balance, provide me with a useful opportunity to reflect on Jill Jones and the craft of poetry, the nuts and bolts of it, what makes a poem coherent, or not. How can the poem hang together in such a way that it is separate from other poems (even when it shares fragments with other poems), that it’s compelling enough to propel the reader in their reading, and that it makes that vessel or that dance to the extent that it means something? And when should easy coherence be disrupted? A writer who pays attention to syntax and makes use of it to pun and play, double and double back, as Jones does, knows that sentences, lines, and stanzas have their own logics and trajectories that must sometimes be resisted. Syntax can do the work of making things work, but a poet as skilled as Jones takes care that the sentence itself doesn’t blithely carry the writer along to some other place, some meaning that is not the one they want to make. And it’s not just the internal logic of syntax that holds this risk. Poets know lots and lots of tropes and know the tricky feeling of bumping into something – a rose, a plum, a hind – and working out when to go with the cultural associations and when to mess with them. The system of syntax and the system of images can both get you into trouble. Forces and tensions need careful skilful handling to get the clay to cohere into the form of a bowl that holds what you want it to hold.
There is plenty of breakage and mortality in Wild Curious Air, plenty of death. Not deathbeds and coffins, but something that can be harder to grasp, and to face: the prospect of a future without one’s self in it. There’s nothing like a bit of thinking about then to make the experience of now extra bright and precious. Blossoms and leaves come and go and an awareness that nothing lasts forever is a common side effect of close observation. It’s an occupational hazard to feel the nowness of now, bittersweet.
Attention to the passing moment is accompanied by another interest: the way moments keep following each other. Here’s what Jones has said about her previous collection, A History of What I’ll Become,
I wasn’t thinking simply of what emerges in time but where ongoingness, including poetry, comes from. There is a sense of collaboration with the dead, in this case dead poets, throughout the book and the poems talk back and forth to each other, which is structural, conceptual. So, it’s not lyric as private event but as social, and book as a specifically made thing.
Jill Jones continues to argue for the lyric as a social, as well as intimate, form, having ‘no problem looking down at the ground among particulars while also looking up into the sky and some kind of vastness’ – if we think of the sky and its vastness as part of our material world, why not include the dead in our social world? Mortality and interconnectedness provide answers to one another in the poem ‘A Piece of Everything’. This poem is sparse but goes big – in this walk the narrator isn’t so much noticing the details, instead they’re ‘walking over the discarded skin of the world’ – discarded by who? By those who’ve been here before us? By those of us who are unappreciative of the interesting crust of the planet? Or is this discarded skin something else, is it bits of our skin, shed and become dust… though the idea of dust doesn’t exactly arrive until we get to the final couplet ‘my own ashes/awaiting’. There’s another couplet here, ‘the tree keeps falling while it stands’, and in this poem, it seems that humans are a bit like that too, shedding their skin, turning to dust while they’re still alive. The prospect of a world without me in it isn’t such a rupture when thought about that way – ashes waiting for us, the skin we shed already becoming dust, strengthening our kinship with the already-dead – the circle unbroken in a material rather than spiritual sense.
Jones is also writing about living in a time of intense change. The brief period of human existence dominated by global capitalist politics and economics, a dominance that has in part reproduced itself through a myth of its own permanence, is coming to an end. Those who benefit from that system are desperately pretending to themselves that they’re building a new world: a brutally secure, surveilled, exclusive techtopia. Meanwhile the rest of us continue to struggle for something else, perhaps a world in which we care for one another, where everyone can live well with enough. Thinking about bodily failings interwoven with a transforming world is rich material. In ‘The Vertigo Blues’ Jones makes a pun on the word ‘fall’,
My aura quivers with fall. The maple’s yellow paper blows
through the front door in veiny stanzas like ink crackling.
The fall can be autumn and the fall can be falling over, or the feeling of falling, perhaps not falling, perhaps unsteadiness, vertigo. The yellow maple leaves signal the season, but they’re not just autumn leaves, they’re paper, more than paper, stanzas, pre-written, inscribed by their own midrib and veins. Feeling like falling, the narrator has poems arriving readymade, falling at her feet. This poem is full of music, with references to pianists, an oboist, a saxophone, Jay-Z, Wolfmother, Brahms, notes and riffs, a trumpet! There’s quivering, shimmering and shakes. The poem describes an inability to rely on one’s own senses, but it’s not panicky, there’s a surprising certainty, a double certainty of presence and disintegration. The poem ends,
All is so beautiful and shifting terribly.
Anxieties that are apparent and anxieties that are submerged swirl together in these poems, but I still find Jones’ work optimistic, despite the sometimes grim subject matter. Maybe it’s the walking, a flow of endorphins subtly lacing the lines produced at the hand and eye of this particular body. A longish poem ‘To enter / As you enter / Entrances’ brings a burst of energy, lush possibility, and release. Isn’t that title just a treat? Between the words and the slashes there is space for us, and the syntax, unsettled, ensures that ‘entrances’ discards its double definition and can only be read in the sense of becoming entranced, enchanted. The poem begins with three epigraphs; lines from Dante, from Derek Jarman and Emily Dickinson, writing about three different botanical otherworlds. As we read, there are more quotations, interweavings, more Jarman but also Andrew Marvell, William Blake, Basho, Gertrude Stein, Marx and Engels, Shakespeare, Sappho, Baudelaire, H.D., and Luce Irigaray. Wild and cultivated places are queered, made indistinct. Remember those maple leaves that were already poems? In ‘To enter / As you enter / Entrances’, a garden is ‘a lyric. It’s an epic.’ A garden becomes and communicates as poems do, expressing feelings, relating events, a garden ‘tells and it shows’. The composting metaphor becomes literal here ‘your papers and books rot in the garden, the words becoming something else, more as well as less.’
This poem is written in numbered quotes and prose paragraphs, to keep some order, with just two sections using line breaks. The point of the poem is the interweaving, the decomposition, the rotting and renewal. Derek Jarman’s garden was a project he worked on at the end of his life, living with HIV, in the visually stunning, unusual terrain of Dungeness, a shingle beach in Kent. Close to a nuclear power station and conscious of the rising ocean, Jarman created his garden as a place without a spatial boundary, but had a sense of temporal boundaries, a future without him, in which he expected it to be submerged, the power station that dominated the horizon dismantled. No wonder he felt, in a quote Jones includes in this poem, that ‘Paradise haunts gardens, and it haunts mine.’
Throughout this collection there are references to plastic. In ‘To enter / As you enter / Entrances’, plastic even provides immortality ‘we’re all filled with plastic now, shiny gleaming people, never quite destructible now.’ I wonder what it takes for us to be able to associate the word ‘plastic’ with the way plastic looks as it fades and crumbles. Unlike composted leaves or words, decomposing plastic is a problem, of course – everything else in the garden can disintegrate and re-cohere into new life, whereas plastic decomposes into microplastic, a material that continues to damage living things. Even the plastic-eating bacteria that Jones refers to elsewhere in this book produce toxic by-products. In the world of these poems, plastic is an irresolvable problem, a ubiquity, a motif of our complicity in our own destruction. I wish Jones would resist the framing of plastic as an impossibly difficult problem. This is quibbling, right? Except that composition, decomposition, compost and the dynamic and abundant emergence and re-emergence of life is the subject of these poems. The power in refusing closure, composing and decomposing, is that it refuses the idea that how things are, at any moment, is how they must be.
Perhaps the way plastic occurs in the book is the textual instantiation of the plastic problem – it turns up, awkward, cracked, sharp, an indigestible reality. Plastic has only been around since the 1860s. Think of all the poems we read that pre-date plastic, those worlds and thoughts that often feel as fresh and present as our own, composed by people who had never touched plastic. The upheavals that this book was written through show us that things can rapidly and radically recompose. That events are plastic in the other sense of the word, bendy, malleable. This poem opens and connects gardens, poems, bodies, and makes all these things places of cultivation and places of wildness – a garden is not a garden, or not just a garden, it’s enculturation partial and temporary, interwoven with systems and cycles that are beyond us, wild. But they are also of us, internal to us. We make the wildness as we make the garden, and it makes us.
‘I’m Almost Good’, a handy phrase that sounds less pretentious than the word ‘malaise’ – I’m almost good, not good, but who knows why the ‘goddess part has deserted me’. Almost good, certainly not too far gone for the kind of language-play that turns up in the line
I am half elegy, and half-chewed sweet
If a person is half ‘half-chewed’ does that make them a quarter chewed? There might be more sweetness for the chewed to chew on, levity to balance or more likely challenge the elegy.
I’m skirting the hours. I can’t put anything into them.
I can’t grasp the seams of minutes.
The poem is an answer to itself, of course – if hours that feel empty somehow produce a line like ‘I can’t grasp the seam of minutes’, no wonder the voice of this poem can be comforted by a honeyeater singing, and go from leaning on the fence to finding the gate, setting out again, ‘almost good.’ More hopeful even than the honeyeater’s song is the half-chewed sweet and the bits of plastic that stick out of these poems. Observation, reflection and association are enjoyable, but the moments where a poem wrestles with something – something that seems insoluble – those are good moments. When the tone of the poems and their content are at risk of closure, locked-in fates, inevitable decline, the awkward objects in the poem assert themselves. Familiar syntax and tropes that could create an illusion of stability, inevitable trajectory, are rejected, cracked up to make space for possibility.
In the poem ‘Undo Everything’, lines from other poems in the collection are reassembled. Of course, those lines that bothered me before turn up again
The body betrays what it loves by saying it loves
its betrayals, reciting its own typos, juggling amazements
as if god never left nor arrived
I can’t escape these lines after all. But the new setting is helpful – the image of ‘typos’, little, often overlooked mistakes, leads to thoughts of the replication of our bodies, the use of the alphabet as a means of representing DNA, the tiny changes that we experience as our undoing, wrinkles and tumours, bumps and cracks. The reader also rediscovers the memorable line that’s used as a dedication in this book,
Hold my hand when it gets even scarier.
and has already appeared in the poem ‘Future Shadow’, where it’s set in a couplet that is almost comic
Sometimes I’m frightened by hedges
Hold my hand when it gets even scarier
but in ‘Undo Everything’ it stands alone. The scariness foreshadowed and the reference to remembered dead in the opening line don’t contradict the pleasure and potentials that are also assembled here. ‘Knots are possibilities’, gall is a taste memory, not a present reality, and when a shadow falls on a page it’s beautiful. ‘Undo Everything’ has an elegantly patterned form of three-line stanzas, each tailed by a fourth line, with these single lines strong enough to be a separate poem that dives through and intersects with the rest of the piece. This strictness helps the fragments cohere, pushes them into relation with one another, but it’s a gentle push, drawing themes and interests that are present in many of the poems in the collection. The poem ends with
which isn’t sorrow.
a segue to the last poem in the book with its ten short lines, ‘Wild Curious Air’, a poem about ongoingness, in which problems neither solved nor insoluble recede and being takes over. The last couplet reads,
Let’s stride out anyway
There’s no full stop at the end of this poem, no closure. Even though our thoughtful, intimate, singing, social bodies are laced with plastic, in a world where we continue to drill oil made from ancient phytoplankton, we can think, in Jill Jones’ terms, of what else might grow from compost. and of wholeness rather than totality. A permeable, shifting wholeness, where problems can be tussled with, undone, transformed. Where no one and nothing is finished. Even death an ongoingness of its own funny kind.