Jackson, Ross. Time Alone on a Quiet Path. Perth: UWA Publishing, 2020. RRP: $22.99, 124pp, ISBN: 9781760801540.
Perth poet Ross Jackson is well-known at readings for the dry wit, economy of expression, and lucid description in his poems, which often appear to have arisen from solitary walking and contemplation. Hence, I was not surprised at his first collection’s title, Time alone on a quiet path.
Reading this book, I recall Søren Kierkegaard’s notion of the ‘single individual’ (hiin Enkelte), which represents not only the inescapable separateness of human existence but also an ideal of artistic and spiritual practice (Martin 100–102). The poems seem to come from one of Kierkegaard’s ‘[…] calm and, in the intellectual sense, dispassionate observers’ who ‘judge with […] infinite caution or refrain from it entirely because, enriched by observation, they have a developed conception of the enigmatic world of the hidden, and because as observers they have learned to rule over their passions’ (Kierkegaard 229). They are the thoughtful notes of a witness like Jackson’s ‘isolated woman’ or ‘detached man / who has trudged through scrubland / in a quest for becoming’ to eventually find that ‘when they no longer look for it / their becoming may begin’ (56).
However, the book opens with a quote from Paul Valéry warning us not to imagine the poet from the poems. We are advised, quite rightly, that the self one may ‘construct’ by writing may not be the whole truth (5). By including this, Jackson is perhaps hinting that contemporary readers are inclined to focus too much on writers’ backgrounds at the expense of their text. Nevertheless, although some of Jackson’s poems adopt the viewpoint of a character (‘Sight Having Been Lost’, for example, vividly describes a blind person’s sensory world (14)) most of them, perhaps inevitably, do suggest someone writing from a particular range of experience.
This someone remembers Australian urban life in the 1950s and 1960s, growing up in a family of ‘white fella’s’ who, gathered around the radio, ‘rode via our big brown box / filled with glowing valves’ to the ‘outback’ they had ‘never never seen’ (103). On wet schooldays they wore ‘raincoats of clear plastic’ with ‘hems weeping / over hairless knees’ (105). Now matured to a healthy seniority—‘sixty-six this year, still / full of pain free hours’ (120)—they live in Perth, enjoying the privilege of a house in a coastal suburb where they ‘can hear the dunking surf’ (69). They have a private garden where:
Sticky with colour from our callistemon
a wattlebird, in its bristled tweed
(not a bird for painting on porcelain)
hangs from the ends of twigs. (76)
‘Our’ here is one of the few clues that the house is—or has been—shared. If this speaker has a companion, they almost never inform the poems and apparently do not participate in the neighbourhood walks that frequently provide inspiration. It is hard to see the ‘Melancodger’ of the playful poem ‘Nocturnarrative’ having company as they ‘ambleslide down the snicket / beside the hedge’. It is the ‘goldfolded moon’, not a human face, that ‘sends’ their ‘blackdoguinness bounding for the sky’ (114).
Nevertheless, one of the most moving poems is about a couple, two metaphorical ‘Old Horses’ who ‘head to bed’ with ‘tired legs / shod in scuffs’:
that kind of love
their kind of love
long ago (112)
Relationship poems, though, are not our speaker’s thing. They prefer to write poems of place and the people who come with place. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this book is that although much of it is set in Western Australia, it neither laments settler depredations nor praises living landscapes, but simply depicts the sights, sounds and smells of Perth locations. One poem recollects a Wembley evening ‘when lamplights handed / down their glowing cups / to cars streaming by’ (50). Another notices an ice-cream van at Leighton Beach carpark and ‘above the railway lines / a rainbow melting in soft serve clouds’ (53).
The ice-cream seller, waiting in the rain for non-existent customers, is imagined as feeling ‘dismal’. Many of the poems explore the situations of others, often those less fortunate, such as the homeless man ‘scraping in the lee of candelabra’d apartments’ on King Street (33) and the roadworkers in ‘a jumble of men and shovels / on a truck off an alley’ in Singapore, where the speaker is a tourist ‘fork in hand at a first-floor window’ (65).
Alongside all this sharply-drawn imagery, Jackson uses Aussie slang like ‘mug’ for face (105), ‘scone’ for head (106), and ‘leg it’ (95). The slang works well to render certain characters, such as the TV-addicted man who calls relaxation ‘buggering around’ (102). Elsewhere, however, it can be jarring, and it could distance younger readers or those not from footy-and-meat-pie backgrounds. I am not sure whether to view it as lazy writing or as an attempt to portray suburban ordinariness.
Either way, their unpretentiousness allows Jackson’s poems to honour the other along with the self and to value observation over introspection. If you like clear, descriptive poems whose conversational style anchors moments of figurative flight, you will enjoy this book.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Kierkegaard’s Writings, XVI, Volume 16: Works of Love. 1847. Trans. Edna H Hong and Howard V Hong. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2013.
Martín, José García. ‘The Category of the Single Individual in Kierkegaard’, European Journal of Science and Theology 13.3 (2017): 99–108. Sourced at: http://www.ejst.tuiasi.ro/Files/64/10_Martin.pdf.
Poet and writer Jackson was born in Cumbria, England, and lives in Australia and New Zealand. Her four full-length poetry collections include A coat of ashes (Recent Work Press 2019) and The emptied bridge (Mulla Mulla Press 2019). Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, notably the Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry. Her awards include the Ros Spencer Poetry Prize. In 2018 she completed her PhD in Writing at Edith Cowan University, winning the University Research Medal and two other awards. She works as an editor and a casual academic. thepoetjackson.com.