Review: Andy Jacksonon Jill Jones

Walking as a
Jittery Mortal

About three-quarters through Acrobat Music: New & Selected Poems, Jill Jones nudges the reader knowingly in the ribs. ‘Difficult Poem’ proposes a list of possible definitions of what a ‘difficult poem’ might be, or might be assumed to be. Composed of only six lines, and nineteen words anagrammatically rearranged from its title, with an introductory subtitle, ‘(yeah like a’, it’s an ironic riposte to what has come back to Jones, as she told Jen Webb in a 2019 interview, ‘that my poetry is thought to be a bit “difficult”, for some reason I can’t quite figure out. Because it really isn’t difficult.’ Having read Acrobat Music, I wouldn’t disagree with her. And ‘Difficult Poem’ certainly hammers home the rousing, generative riffing of Jones’ approach.

For those who persist in declaring her poems ‘difficult’, I could easily counter with the acutely moving double-elegy of ‘Into Our Thin Rivers’, the rousing provocations of ‘Patience Without Virtue’, or the melancholy yearning of ‘The Night Before Your Return’. But, equally, and I imagine Jones would concur, a poem’s ‘difficulty’ or ‘accessibility’ is perhaps one of its least interesting aspects. The only advantage of considering any readerly struggle is that it alerts us to the interpersonal dimension of poetry, which, as an attentive, pressurised art of language, acts upon a reader, sensitises them to the bodily, vocal expression of another life. It’s in this sense that Jones’ poetry enacts its cumulative, gestural spell of presence.

‘Difficult Poem’ is not a typical Jones poem, at least in the context of Acrobat Music. It does have a fair whack of the punch and pluck of her consonance and plosives, and the wit of her juxtapositions. What it doesn’t have is what I would characterise as the heart of her music, the musings of a body-mind moving through time and space, particularly urban space, sifting through the elemental and the detritus of now. Or, as it’s expressed in ‘Vertigo Blues’, the sense that ‘All is so beautiful and shifting terribly’, yet ‘What makes it so difficult is also what / keeps me here, still’.

Jill Jones’ place within Australian poetry is undeniable, though she has received relatively little critical attention. She has won the Mary Gilmore Award, the Kenneth Slessor Prize, and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry, as well as being shortlisted for a number of other accolades. She co-edited the groundbreaking anthology Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay & Lesbian Poets with Michael Farrell (2009) and A Parachute of Blue (1995) with Judith Beveridge and Louise Wakeling.As a senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide, she’s taught and mentored many emerging and developing poets. Full disclosure – she supervised my PhD, which I completed in 2019. Her unobtrusive, capacious thoughtfulness, her keen conversance with subtlety and rigour, is one of the main reasons I not only survived that epic project but emerged at the other end with an exegesis and a suite of poems I’m proud of.

Jones released a previous ‘new and selected’ volume in 2002, Screens Jets Heaven, through Salt Publishing in the UK, which served partially as an introduction to her work for non-Australian readers. Plenty has happened since then, including another nine books. Acrobat Music gives us previously published poetry from all of her books, from The Mask and the Jagged Star (1992) to A History of What I’ll Become and Wild Curious Air (both 2020), along with thirty-three new poems.

While Jones’ poems often engage in a kind of queer take on the psycho-geographical, a thinking-feeling walk through place, it’s not a walk that is at all linear: ‘I wander in my doubter’s method of the way’, she writes in ‘Wandering as Method’. This method, perhaps from an analytical perspective, seems to detour or leap across vocal registers, the human and the mechanical, the bodily and the linguistic, even time periods. In ‘An Address to the Shadow that Follows Me’, Jones writes, ‘I’m still your goddess of crumbs and scraps, chewing on suburban air’, her attention drawn to objects, ideas, sensations that are apparently tangential, but are in reality deeply related. Or, again, in ‘Self and Nothingness’, ‘I am a project as I scour the streets, for / what it’s worth, and I’m looking for ways / to write back the damage’. The voice of the poems is perennially thrown and askew, yet determined and questioning, always moving along desire-lines of resistance and curiosity.

So it’s no surprise to see that the book has been arranged not chronologically, as most selected poems are in order to imply progression or evolution, but in six unnamed sections with poems from each book interwoven in the first five. In the book’s foreword, Jones writes of these sections as arranged in ‘zones’, ‘to show, through this form of clustering, what I have been doing’. The principles guiding the arrangement aren’t really thematic or formal, but based primarily ‘on the soundings (auditory, feeling) of a poem against adjoining works or a wish to create more variety or connection within the section’.

It’s an invigorating and fascinating approach. It allows the reader to be drawn into the cumulative gravitational concerns of Jones’ poetry, the recurrent questions, provocations, and linguistic energies that make her work so identifiable, yet also so unpredictable. Indeed, I was often wrong when trying to guess the collection in which a poem was originally published (though this probably also says something about me, not just about the reiterative clusters of Jones’ work). This non-chronological ordering has also allowed her to stitch subtle connections between poems via individual words, so that ‘dust’ or ‘dream’ appears in one poem, then suddenly pushes up into the next, as if with a will of its own, whispering yes, all this is connected. It’s an ecological poetic that takes seriously the fact that humans and our languages are part of this world.

While the six sections are technically untitled, each comes with italicised epigrams, micro-poetic samples whose first lines could, considered collectively, amount to a suggestive poem in itself:

I’m on my way under clouds…

It is impossible to live as if we are free

clear, grey light falls forever…

the way the air touches you…

it’s a long time since I’ve come home this way

Not as straight as the wall / but standing, taller

Here, again, is the elemental – weather, sky, atmospheres, aliveness – which carries traces of the existential, but is, in these poems, more importantly, the actual world in all its tangibility. Here, too, is the self, underneath and within those elements, constrained by political forces. On that point, an entire essay could be written about the place of pronouns in Jones’ work. The first-person singular is typical, though even then it isn’t essentially autobiographical or stable. It morphs into persona, or into first-person plural, or into the world and its other lives. I recognise myself; then soon enough, I lose myself. ‘I look at each plant for belief or breath. / Their brights unveil me as shadow or guest’.

Then there are those rare words that seem to me emblematic of how Jones’ poems hit the eardrum, not just as sound but as resonance, implication, and era. Giddy. Scuzzy. Grit. Flange. Jabber. Junk. Hubbub. Shtum. Iffy. Nag. Sappy. Glab. Trash. I could elaborate on what each of these words means, the way they might seem attached to a particular generation or era, or why they rarely, if ever, appear in others’ poems. But I’m more interested in what they do, their affective impact, how almost all of these words are discomfortingly onomatopoeic, dispensing with description, or even observation, in favour of how the energy of a thing penetrates us.

Acrobat Music keeps returning to Light, Air and Stars, but also Dust and Anxiety. These are the substances that are always both distant and wholly present, the ancient source of our lives and that which surrounds us now, in our tumult. The poems are also speckled with sudden bursts of colour – most commonly, blue, green and white – which feel profoundly metaphorical as well as physical. Blue hits the ear and the heart as melancholy spaciousness. In ‘All Shook Up’, Jones writes ‘the moment, there are only moments, then / everything’s gone, again, from here / the sea’s almost clear and blue in the shallows’. Green is naivety or organic urgency, ranging from the ironic plea of ‘Do not forsake me! / I’ve become the most beautiful green dress’ (‘The Green Dress’) to the subtlety of ‘Whispers like clouds of aimless particles / … hoping for something greener’ (‘When Planets Softly Collide’). White, building on its connotations of the clinical room and a colonial measure, appears as unreliable authority – ‘I set sail every morning / … The north is scudded / with patches of white’ (‘And the world is breath’), and ‘My heart’s white as copy paper / waiting for my next lie’ (‘I’m almost good’).

In her review of Acrobat Music in Australian Book Review, Cassandra Atherton notes that in Jones’ poems there is ‘a persistent sense that language alienates writers from a connection to innocence and unmediated experience’. This is certainly present in her poems, but the opposite is just as much true, if not more. Words, for Jones, are inextricable from the desire to be present to the mess and jolt of experience, are perhaps even inextricable from experience itself. Aidan Coleman puts it rather neatly in his launch speech for A History of What I’ll Become: ‘In Jones’ work the material is always becoming language as the language becomes material’. Instances of this keep cropping up in the poems, directly or as in the simile from ‘The Beautiful Anxiety’, where beauty is ‘subcutaneous / like a language that entered you / without stamps of approval’.

In ‘Poetry Diesel Butterfly’, Jones recounts the speedy, almost weightless movement of a Wanderer Butterfly, alongside the infiltration of diesel fumes, the racket of road works, and the writing of a poem. ‘The Wanderer appears again / taking no note of me / I think three syllables / but it’s already gone’. In its ambiguous grammar, the phrase ‘I think three syllables’ here is both the time the butterfly takes to move, and a suggestion that we think through units of language.

No wonder that it’s here, too, that she writes, ‘Poetry actually does things’.

What poetry does, and what these poems do so well, is to jolt us out of our usual consciousness or understanding, even out of ourselves, if only momentarily. Jones’ voice is agile so that many poems contain spark after spark of wry surprise, threading together pathos and insight, tragedy and humour. In ‘Leaving it to the sky’, the prose poem form allows for an even tighter sense of juxtaposition and containment, which I want to say is both haunting and hilarious, but is perhaps more accurately some hybrid sensation which does not quite have a name:

Finally, there’s rain on iron; but piss-weak. My phone falls so easily off the table. I don’t believe in fake tans, but I could. All around are little dogs. Hail, queens of suburbia! Every so often, it’s the age of beige. Perhaps you could win a sedan, be in business, not be a wanker. I remember Friday’s laughter down by the river. But the swans aren’t wild, just nasty.

Later in the poem, there are other eminently quotable phrases: ‘Am I my own provocateur?’; ‘I’m having a yak with a piece of paper’; ‘So, am I famous for not being famous? Do I lack an over-arching narrative?’ Each of these could be taken as a fragmentary statement of Jones’ aesthetics, or an aphoristic flare.

Yet the poem moves on, as always, beyond itself and the self, into the world, its prose breaking into verse lines for its paradoxical conclusion:

Poems that contradict themselves like this, in a kind of riddle or twist, usually at their endings, occur quite a few times in Acrobat Music. ‘Refrains on Sand’ finishes ‘Because I don’t belong here I know it is better and I know it is worse’. In the middle of ‘Self and Nothingness’ are the lines ‘I crave nothingness. / I know it doesn’t exist. / That it does.’ Similarly, ‘The End of May’ ends with ‘That this doesn’t matter. That it does.’ This isn’t quite a matter of repetition. It’s more like recurrence. Uncanny echoes. A sensation or a thought is flipped upside down, so that its opposite is shown to be equally significant.

For all the fierce observation and wit of these poems, their political and ecological weight, there seems to me to be a strong impulse to transcendence. Not in any sense of escaping from the tangible world – quite the contrary – but of breaking through the habitual human blinkeredness:

What about that title, Acrobat Music? It makes me think of circuses, costumed bodies moving through air. On one level, all music is acrobatic to some extent – a choreographed, bodily performance. To say that a particular music is acrobatic, though, implies a kind of virtuosic play, elaborate and deliberate, yet also somehow risky. And where’s that safety net?

In terms of the music of Jones’ poetry, there is, I think, little reliance on meticulous orchestration, or scoring. There are certainly arrangements in the structure and detail of these poems, but they tend to rely on the raw material of improvisation, or soloing, the intuitive stitching together of fragments to form some kind of awakening echo of experience, or of the real. Jones has said, ‘Improvisation doesn’t necessarily imply lack of structure, in my mind, but seeing and feeling what comes to hand, to eye or ear, and find a way of making it into text’. Momentary observations, shards or rivulets of language, emerge from a practice of ‘listening and seeing whilst passing through and with a place. It’s both passive and active, receiving and translating, as well as being in the place as one among many entities, sentient and non-sentient’.

Whereas acrobats are liable to show off, to seem to take risks when in fact they’ve rehearsed it ad nauseum, the self in Jones’ poems is immersed in the moment (or, at the very least, reflecting back upon it). The language is of a human entanglement in the other lives and energies that inhabit the world. It’s not rehearsed or premeditated, but affected, in the middle of it all. The movement in the poem ‘I Am Brushing Myself’ is emblematic of this immersion in the botanical and the fragrant. It concludes:

I’m reminded of the entanglement of language and experience, appearance and depth. To isolate one is to misrepresent the other. I’m lured into thinking about grit – both as detritus and as character trait – through the tension in the poem between movement and pause. The caesurae here, while on one level intimating separateness, allow silence to speak, suggesting a lack of tenacity, and the absolute need of it. Tenacity here is also nearby, in the earth.

Listen, also, to the way the phrases flow – and are blocked, diverted and eddied – in this excerpt from ‘Our Epic Want’:

Again, we could try to leave the meanings of the poem to one side, but the mobility of the poem is partly as a result of the associative juxtapositions, how it jolts us between affects – from music that hurts more than love, to absent candles and guns; from switcheroo to acetylene. It’s also very much the music of the words, and how the energy of the unenjambed sentences are contained within – and therefore expanded by – the limits of the line. It’s an almost-jazzy movement that relies on breakage as much as structure.

Atherton notes in her review that ‘some of Jones’ more linguistically challenging poems have been excluded from this volume’. This is certainly the case. Jones implies as much in the book’s foreword. But while poems were mostly selected for the collection due to their being ‘remarked on [by] readers and critics… as being of consequence… and what seemed to work when read aloud’ – a guiding principle which is equal parts ambiguous and revealing – a significant number of poems are generated through formal constraint.

Readers can invariably appreciate the poems without even being aware of these constraints, which work subterraneously, or at a delay from the immediate impact of the poem itself. ‘A Fantasia of Oddments, Wagers and Zeroes’ unfurls a kaleidoscope of overwhelming sensory experience – ‘while I cope with presence, motes, a fantasia of being… innards sounding a sonorous plaint… the west’s bountiful sophistry’ – along with a gradual realisation that the poem is abecedarian, through each line’s final word rather than its first. ‘Hope for Whole’ tells us in a footnote that it contains no ‘a’ or ‘i’ – in a kind of linguistic divestment from the vowels which make up the name of the mining company Adani. But, again, it’s the fusion of estrangement and directness that is foremost. ‘Hope for whole country / not those who would strop / or cull reef. / Keep touch the swell deep course’.

There are also a large number of sonnets (especially if you interpret the sonnet loosely) – ‘Marrickville Sonnet’, ‘The Dress Sonnet’, one of her ‘Six Temperamental Sonnets’, ‘Round Midnight’, ‘Figure’, ‘Elegaic Continuum’, ‘The Door’, ‘St Petersburg’, ‘Wandering as Method’, ‘Fate is a Virus’, even ‘Flight Matter’ (where each line is its own stanza), and ‘Email is a Record’ (which is fifteen lines long but with its eighth line broken into two). There are also the half-sonnets, ‘A Moon Song’ and ‘Milky Way Poem’, and many poems that are thirteen or fifteen lines long. Here, the form hovers as a kind of ghost, incomplete or in excess.

What draws Jones to the sonnet form can’t be definitively determined from analyses of these poems. But it’s notable that at the point where each of these sonnets reaches its ostensible volta or turn, there is some kind of door, an inner or outer resource that might transform a situation from blockage into flow. In ‘Round Midnight’ she writes, ‘But now this window is ready to include our shoulders’. In ‘The Dress Sonnet’, ‘wind removes / my feathers and shaves my bones with that first whip of change’. These are not moments of resolution – Jones is a poet too attuned to how the world operates to succumb to the neatness of closure – but suggestion, or permission.

It’s through this sense of implicit permission that Acrobat Music affords its greatest pleasures. A reader might find resisting the apparent arguments or perspectives in these poems productive – as Ali Jane Smith puts it, to ‘have quarrels with a text’ or with ‘a phrase or chunk that clunks instead of shimmering’. For me, though, even when a poem began to stir some kind of resistance, it immediately, through its linguistic tactility and tenderness, brought me back to the bodily experience of reading and of being in the world.

With their proliferation of question marks and hypotheticals, and their music, these poems rouse, prod, and rattle. They invite us to inhabit our own discomfort and wonder. In ‘I Walk As Jittery Mortal’, we ‘feel earth as thrust, metal and scrape’ and ‘look at each plant for belief or breath’. Over power and knowledge, the poem prioritises openness and orientation. ‘Out here I hardly know myself, finally’.

Works Cited

Everyday Words and Creative Practice: Ten Australian Poets in Conversation, ed. Jen Webb and Monica Carroll (2019, Puncher & Wattman).

‘Form, sound, address: Manoeuvres of language and form’, Cassandra Atherton, Australian Book Review 457, September 2023.

‘Let a Thousand Errors Bloom’, Aidan Coleman, Sydney Review of Books, 6 July 2020.

‘Hot Composting’, Ali Jane Smith, Sydney Review of Books, 20 June 2022.

‘Mix it with grit: Claire Albrecht interviews Jill Jones’, Cordite Poetry Review, 1 October 2020.