Jill Jones, Breaking the Days. Geelong, Victoria: Whitmore Press 2015. RRP: 22.95, 57pp. ISBN: 9780987386663
The titular moods and concerns of Jill Jones’ The Beautiful Anxiety—published by Puncher & Wattmann in 2013 and awarded the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for poetry in 2015—continue to resonate in Breaking the Days, Jones’ ninth book of poetry. A joint winner of the 2014 Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize, this subsequent collection pairs beauty and anxiety, pleasure and hurt, sensation and abstraction, in powerfully unsettling ways. Individually and as a whole, the poems air small tensions and disturbances, composing a quiet music of ‘uneasy things / clicking together’ (12).
The opening poem sets the tone with its elicitation of motion and instability: ‘You lose your grip / standing, if you forget the door / if you forget what you forgot’ (1). Comprising images of birds, traffic and trains, it closes: ‘The sun beats down everywhere. / You lose count and fall into its pleasure / every time.’
Surrendering or succumbing to pleasure, the irrepressible or overwhelming recurs—the poems convey a continuous interplay of pressure and release, often enmeshing the vast or infinite with intimate, corporeal referents.
In ‘Shiver’, Jones writes:
Remember to look at
remember to be kind
to leaves, they can’t
always be green
is hard, there’s pain
in all cells. (3)
Not only are these lines indicative of the sweeps and shifts from—in this instance—the cosmos to the immediately physical, but the offsetting of ‘be kind’ and ‘there’s pain’ via the poem’s deft enjambments also resonates more widely within the collection. Indeed, moments of pain pulse quietly throughout these poems, with tiny breakages glimpsed or felt repeatedly: ‘Smell the sky like a hurt / blossom gone to ground’ (7). Each time, there is gratification or transformation: ‘harm in all its nuances / sings’ (7).
The poems’ language and iconography is often deceptively simple or familiar, as in ‘Milky Way poem’, which reads in full:
The stars are there.
We go out
to see them
and say they are out
until we grow cold
and go in.
The stars are there. (34)
Often, this seeming simplicity or recognisability generates a comic charge, and the lines are childlike and wry at once, such as in ‘Telltale’: ‘bullying the dolls / making bad magic with spit and snot’ (4).
Also central to these poems is the sensory experience in the everyday and familiar. Often the senses entangle—‘shadows blow in / like diesel and roses’ (6). The seasonal and temporal are fluently evoked, and even portraits of lack or concealment are vivid in their imagery: ‘Like the year you never had spring / and nothing yellow happened’ (8); ‘You see lemons / even though they are hidden’ (13). Throughout, the poems reveal the endlessly generative, connotative, associative qualities of language and representation, and situate themselves within this realm.
Despite the ways in which the quotidian is suggested, however, a palpable or fixed setting is often conspicuously absent from the poems. William Carlos Williams’ maxim, ‘The local is the only thing that is universal’ (Imaginations, 358), provides a noteworthy point of reference here. Jones’ localities are not pinned to specific spaces, but seem to wilfully resist, even as they gesture to, the particulars of a local or place-driven poetics. There are ‘bike baskets filled with pink wrapping’ (20); a plaza that ‘glitters, an icy heat’, and ‘city sparrows’ that ‘kiss all the particles on offer’ (23)—however, while the poems signal towards immediacy, the places evoked remain essentially nebulous, and the collection ultimately deviates towards the intangible: ‘The crazy openness of time’ (20) or ‘the doubt of the world / a small stone at the heart of the matter’ (27). This tendency towards abstraction seems pointed. In ‘Shouting in the rain’ Jones writes: ‘food / or socks, or eternity – they all go together’ (43). The tensions remain productive, in any case.
The body as a space or setting is also of note. In particular, the poems return often to signs of the failures or fallibilities of the human body: ‘your skin, which leaks / its sweat and tablets’ (10). There are antidotes and customs, seen or felt anew: ‘the vitamin sun’ (38) and the swallowing of ‘water mixed with a solution of mineral grit, / as though it’s a cure’ (6). These moments, too, are tied to the sensual, sensory motions of the body. In the same poem: ‘the colder night / pours more water from an ugly tap onto my wrist’ (6).
In ‘The door’, Jones writes:
Something woke you last night
and it wasn’t bad thoughts
you leave that to others wiser, more beautiful
who understand popularity and language
but maybe not the allusions. (14)
This restlessness of mind and matter courses throughout: both the internal, ineffable spaces of the body itself and the body in exterior spaces provide often uncomfortable sites, where language, representation and interpretation are implicit everywhere: ‘Shade is a kind of writing, as well as a kind of light’ (6).
Moreover, the poems reveal an interest in the political within personal experience and the intimate aspects of our identity reflected in and by the everyday. In ‘It’s not metaphysics!’:
The glass is a tease, the columns
and frames where women curve their bodies
as if avoiding another request.
They are here, however, rather than where
someone might hold them. (23)
The connotative charge of words like ‘tease’, and the image of ‘women curv[ing] their bodies’ initially suggests an appeal for attention but then, concurrently or perhaps ultimately, a desire to curve away from it, while ‘hold’ denotes a romantic embrace but also being held down, restrained or overpowered. Regardless, the ‘rather than’ assures the agency of these women, be they actual or reflected, or even mannequins behind window glass.
The poems’ reflections and refractions generate spaces of depth and transience simultaneously. To return to the collection’s opening poem, there is a sense of getting by or coping alongside a phantom of gratification or content:
Feel your step and again forget
don’t mock yourself, move along
move through the atmosphere
with as much muscle and breath you need
however it pleases you. (1)
Jones’ music here, as in her earlier collections, breaks open days, spaces, time and mutability in ‘wrenching’ (7), beautiful ways.
Williams, William Carlos 1970, Imaginations, New Directions Books, New York.
Jo Langdon is the author of a chapbook of poetry, Snowline (2012), which was co-winner of the 2011 Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize. Her recent writing has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Overland, Island and Westerly. She is the creative non-fiction editor for Mascara Literary Review, and currently teaches in Literature and Writing at Deakin University in Geelong, Victoria.