Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by Jill Jones
Five Islands Press
July 2017, ISBN: 9780734053640, Paperback, $25.95
The poetry in Jill Jones’ Brink is full of disjunction, rhythm and atonality that comes together smoothly in a way that feels entirely appropriate to the modern world. From the first poem, “Tremble”, the reader is challenged to rethink assumptions about narrative and structure, and to reconsider what words are able to do: “This isn’t a book/This isn’t a map/Don’t look up in haste”. These are poems that take us to the edge of our lives, towards an inevitable, impending apocalypse. Ecological destruction is one of the most insistent of the many ‘brinks’ that form the underlying thematics of this book. The sixth extinction, that almost certainly includes humanity, is always in sight:
There were azure clouds but it didn’t smell right.
We expected immunity but it didn’t come.
It seemed almost effortless in the end.
We felt a rush. (“Our Epic Want”)
Though it may seem like a dark theme, there is a concurrent and equally present sense of tenderness and joy in these poems. The tension between impending loss and the smaller ephiphanies of the sensation and beauty of the present creates poetry that is deeply moving without being sentimental. The soft curve of a neck translates into the blue sky, which transforms into a day that is transient, air on the skin, the scent of flowers, or the memory of fruit no longer on a tree:
I could take your arm, nothing
banishes sorrow but that’s no matter.
How root live with skin
is the argument. There’s always more
where apricots fall and lemons are flush
where you can almost believe, though
that’s not enough. (“Brushing Yonder”)
Throughout the work there is always a playfulness that undercuts the darkness and forces the reader back to the textual. Many of the poems have metapoetic elements, as they work towards the brink of what can and cannot be said, utilising a range of poetic techniques including repetition, rhythm, formal techniques like the lipogram (omitted vowels), references and reworkings of previous poems (easter eggs for Jones fans), enjambment, parataxis, missing punctuation, and perhaps most importantly, silence. Jones uses white space expertly, incorporating it into the text to create its own kind of meaning that allows for indeterminacy, chance and multiple possibilities in the space of those deliberate gaps:
“stand clear_____” (“Speak Which”)
Language is both the subject of the work and the antagonist. Jones always gets to the brink of something impossible to say and then attempts to manifest it to expand the limits of what we can do with words:
Perhaps it is all a set-up. It doesn’t matter
What it is. Everything in my mouth
Cracks like a sweet.
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. (“Self and Nothingness”)
There is so much sensual detail in this work, much of it centred around the natural world: bird, sky, cloud, leaf litter, though always rooted in the dialectical: subject and object, signifying and destabilising, destruction and construction, working in concert to create the poetic motion of each piece. In a Buddhist sense, the elemental, the scientific, the country landscape and the urban, sex and desire, birds and insects, life and death all become part of the a single ecosystem, transforming and transitioning through the alchemy of text:
all that’s gone
minds, networks, armies
love torso & heel
on and off screen
thresholds of grass
becoming white blind sky
my cut hands
sticky waters (“My Dreamy Epic”)
Jones’ magic is not only in the complexity she creates in this work–the combining of humour, transgression, political activism, and textual play–but in her extreme ‘condensery’ as Lorine Niedecker put it. So much happens in the taut space of the work that unpacking it feels indulgent:
ant to ant
to grit, holding
sky of rock (“PLeNTY”)
Jones is a poet whose control and assurance is exceptional. The poems take us to the brink of who we are in many aspects: animal, alien, destroyers, inhabitants, lovers, indivudals and collectives. These are poems that make no concessions to humanity’s frailties. We’re about to reap what we’ve sown and all of these exquisite conceits may be illusions against time’s inevitable collapse: “but all these vapours will be unmade” (“The Woodland Chapel”), and yet there is something audaciously beautiful, subversive and permanent in the moment of our experience, in the placement and play of language and in the almost languid sensuality of touch:
Even if I counted the air
in all its nonchalant molecule
or the ways everything
grows after it dies, the grass
waving at us, if I could count
each shiver it make
I’d still wish to touch you
Ten thousand more times (“More Than Molecules”)
Brink is a powerful, exciting and very modern poetry collection that demands repeated reading. In spite of its dark prophesy, it is deeply consoling.