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Review: Jill Jones, 'Broken/Open'

Salt Publishing, 2005

Jill Jones’ most recent collection Broken/Open builds solidly on the achievement of her previous work while adding a new tone and increased depth. Compared to Jones’ previous collections there seems to be a new insistence on the unstated, the implicit and fragmentary. Nature is foregrounded in virtually every poem and the political or social dimension of Jones’ work is perhaps not as obvious as previously. Nevertheless a powerful sense of freedom, of life’s beauty and pain resonates through these poems.

One of the most striking connections between this volume and previous works is Jones’ delight in the musical dimension of poetry and in music’s role in giving us a sense of what this life might be. The poems in this collection carry a rich musical presence – their sounds, the words and syllables that bounce around us and make the simplest act of living seem deeper and more satisfying. Perhaps there is also, implicit in Jones’ style in this collection, a vision of poetry as a kind of musical accompaniment to being. Whether it is that "Music loads the morning with legends" ("Heat in a room") or "ways you still/hear the grass" ("Where wind falls"), music in one form or another is seldom far off in these poems.

What I have loved especially in Jones’ poetry, and find again over and over in this collection, is the way she uses poetry to create a free self - positive, humane, fully exposed to life. It is at this level that I think of her work as having a spiritual kinship to Frank O’Hara and early Ashbery – that beautiful rich innocence in which, using a contemporary unpretentious vocabulary, they were able to state the passionate exposure of living in a post-religious, post-grandiose world. Like Montale, another kindred spirit, Jones intuits that the tragic, the beautiful, the truly important will find their expression here in our everydayness. Some of the finest poems in the collection include brief concise depictions of such moments, as in the ten line "Speed of Breaking" where the poem alludes to a storm, a break up perhaps, where "Exhausted by my tongue, prone with excuses / I am staggering in the pattern of rain."

The opening poem "Winged" sets the tone for much of the book. Rapturously beautiful, it encourages a relaxed flowing with it as it weaves its own reality – a world that is both physical and imaged as language, united by transitoriness, by the inability to limit or define:

it is raised up but not grasping
the sides of the hour
it is suspended, it is surface
as though carried by water

or wind moves the parts of language
less calculable than the tides
not boxed or protected
once they leave the soft throat

the twist of autumn trees
lets down the light, trust
in the chill, naked and right
that winter will always be spoken.

Whilst not really sure whether I grasp it or can construe its grammar, I get the sense of a boundary world that is not ours but still reflects us in its very strangeness.

One of the most important poems is the sequence "Limits we’ve shouldered". Here the experience of love, rather than nature, is traced through a series of fragmented reflections and images. ("In retrospect it was gentle. . . bright as honey. . . awakening the ear, the mouth ") Images build on each other, set against each other, often using uncertainty in the construing of line breaks to invite more than one reading:

limits we’ve shouldered
a self whose feet will run

outside houses
the world’s promise of trees

As love poet, for that is how I read this, Jones delivers some powerful lines that capture the aching exposure of love, the vulnerability of our core being laid open:

As if born like babies
we are granted dusty flowers
like all the shunned words

The strangeness and disorientation often present in this poem struck me as a necessary fidelity to life’s openness, a valid and natural expression of a truth rather than any sort of trendy apeing of "post-modernism", as such a style can sometimes seem. At times the listing technique and the disjointedness enable a shift in rhythm, a quickening of pace. One especially remarkable section {"Future and Stardust"], slightly different from the rest, joins together a series of one line aphorisms and observations:

A mesh that is not seamless.

These little dings and impossibilities.

Glow out of the big sky.

Innocence is a universe – but not sanctuary.

If friends crash and faces are hollow.

If the thrilling emptiness is just a biology.

Whilst there are many strong and moving poems in this collection, I found "Limits we’ve shouldered" the most compelling, the one that most powerfully confirms Jones’ significance as a remarkable poet. Jones’ commitment to the truth of the immediate, the primacy of the natural world, of our bodied selves and of tenderness, finds a strong voice in these lines:

What flowers, we don’t know yet.

What remains, what you touch.

It is like a photograph, you step into it.

It is like space.

At 144 pages Broken/Open is an ample and varied collection of poems. Arranged into seven sections, the poems are well ordered to highlight a sense of contemplative space. The section titles give a good indication of the range of Jones’ concerns: "Birds/Updraft", "Down on the lawn", "All that’s gone", "As if", "Shards", "Seizures", "Ecstasy on a verandah". Perhaps it seems most appropriate to close the review with the last three lines from the last poem in the book, "Life in Autumn". Their freshness, their delight in being, capture well the remarkable energy, the musical fullness and courage of Jones’ work:

Joyous dark, I am your boat and you slap me with sails.
To go onwards, maybe, despite and because, and the weather.
The pages colour with the various, speaking skin of it, life.

Other reviews by Peter Boyle

Stephen Edgar's Lost in the Foreground (Duffy and Snellgrove, 2003)
Sarah Day's The Ship (Brandl and Schlesinger, 2004)