Jackson. The emptied bridge. Kalgoorlie: Mulla Mulla Press, 2019. RRP: $20.00, ISBN: 9780648542438.
Miriam Wei Wei Lo
Jackson does not like to waste words.
She does, however, have a lot to say—why else would one continue to write poetry? This is the fourth collection1 from this significant member of the Perth poetry community and it clearly comes out of the discipline of writing as a regular habit. As a result, these poems collect experiences, observations and commentary that emerge from the poet’s practice of daily living. Subject matter ranges from the deeply philosophical to the prosaic, written in a manner that continuously calls into question the division between the two.
Take, for example, ‘The Hokusai tree’, which moves between the contemplation of art and the reality of life as a working mother:
The Hokusai tree sings with tinkling moons
of spent, gathered rain
I was going to say it sings
to me, but it just sings
The river is molten glass, scattered
with froth-bits and flotsam
Later I’ll get into my little car
with its No jobs on a dead planet sticker
and drive along bare new highways
past bare blocky new houses
to the Christian school
where they’re waiting
for poetry (6–7)
Observe the irony of those last two lines, which deftly insert art back into the mundane landscape of suburban Perth.
Oscillation is a key feature of Jackson’s poetic style and voice. American poet Robert Hass describes form as ‘[t]he way the poem embodies the energy of the gesture of its making’ (3). If we expand this definition to encompass form at the larger level of this collection, Jackson’s poetry oscillates between the pared-back zen of aphorism or haiku and the longer ragged line of free verse. There is a lot of experimentation: long lines, short lines; regular stanzas, irregular stanzas; formal verse, informal verse; metaphor, pataphor. This is in keeping with the wide-ranging interests and concerns of the poet, as per the following examples:
my arms around my six-foot son
hold only a little
part of him (39)
From ‘How the fuck would you feel?’:
I want to cross the street and get in her face with
‘Oi! How the fuck would you feel
If someone did that to you?’
but I suspect
she already knows. (52)
I want to sit here writing poetry letting my mind think things as my pen
I want to sit with the writing of Jack Micheline enjoying the rhythm of
I want to live on the streets like he did begging from village to village
with my poems.
A man could do that and retain his dignity.
A man could do that.
A woman has more sense than to do that. (103)
Jackson’s work oscillates because she is doing the difficult work of creating a conversation with high art as someone who inhabits a female body2. So much of the canon is the work of men enabled by the domestic labour of women—a fact Jackson pointedly alludes to in ‘Tom Collins House’ (99). Women who write must have a conversation with the canon but it can be like talking with an ex-husband who cannot imagine another point of view. One of Jackson’s finest achievements is her determination to have that conversation with poetry and to wrestle with it until it begins to register her voice. This is a complex voice that includes another significant oscillation: a Taoist one between emptiness and fullness, which the title poem, ‘The emptied bridge’ (58), captures with precision and resonance. More could be said about the influence of Taoism on Jackson’s work, especially in relation to her latest collection, A coat of ashes, but that will not be attempted here.
A key tension within contemporary Australian poetry is between difficulty and accessibility. Jackson’s work tends strongly towards accessibility; because of this, the small handful of poems that remain cryptic, such as ‘Dream 47’ (92), ‘a new candle’ (98) and ‘no sudden light’ (100), at least to this reader, are slight weaknesses in the collection. There are a few points where argument falters too: for example, in ‘The op-shop (Where does it end?)’ (76–77), this reader suspects that most Indians selling rags by the roadside receive far less remuneration, comparatively speaking, than an Australian working for the minimum wage. These are, however, very small blemishes in what is otherwise a fiercely intelligent work.
Jackson does not like to waste words, but she does like to pin them down until they sing. They may not be happy songs, but there is beauty and wisdom in their anguish.
1 In terms of development it comes before, not after, A coat of ashes.
2 Jackson is happy to be referred to as a woman, if it is relevant to the context; although she does not entirely identify as one (information from a private email conversation with the poet).
Hass, Robert. A Little Book on Form: an exploration into the formal imagination of poetry. HarperCollins, 2017.
Miriam Wei Wei Lo writes poetry to explore what is true, beautiful, and good. She teaches creative writing at Sheridan Institute. Find her on Instagram @miriamweiweilo.