Walleah Press

Famous Reporter 42 : December 2010



Famous Reporter 42




  Launch : Ginny Jackson's
'The Still Deceived'

Hobart Bookshop : 15th July, 2010

My first – and it would seem, unforgettable – meeting with Ginny Jackson was on the Vale of Blackmoor between Shaston and the village of Marlott where John Durbeyfield is fatally informed by the parson that he is descended from the aristocratic D’Urbervilles and where Tess Durbeyfield, who is taking part in a May Day dance, fatally crosses paths with Angel Clare. Yes, my introduction to Ginny was in the opening pages of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the introduction continued between the covers of George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss; on the grey streets of TS Eliot’s London in his Preludes. And through the work of Australian poets like Douglas Stewart and Kenneth Slessor, memorably in Slessor’s tribute to his dead friend in his meditation on time, age and death: 'Five Bells'. In hindsight, her pithy, incisive and provocative responses to the characters of Alfred J. Prufrock, Hamlet, Prince Hal and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern told me as much about her as about them. Ginny was twenty-three and I was 16. It was 1975. She was my English Literature teacher. I’d had insights before into the magnitude of the potential of the written word, but that year was a turning point for me in embracing a life of books and writing. Ginny’s energetic, philosophical, psychological and passionate intellectual engagement with literature was at the axis of that turning point. She was, to coin a phrase of one of my sisters : a ‘creative catalyst’ in my life. My friendship with her began that year and continued.

The Still Deceived is Ginny Jackson’s first book. That it is so accomplished is testament to a number of things: it is firstly the result of a life’s love and exacting critical evaluation of literature. Secondly, although this is a first collection, it needs to be said that Ginny was not newly arrived at the art and craft of writing poetry when she put the manuscript together. She wrote all her life. That she lived deeply and fully, though her life was cut short, is evident in these poems. Finally, this collection is a tribute to the fiendish resolution, courage and tough energy she drew on in sorting through and editing her work upon learning of her illness and its shocking two month prognosis in November. The task that she embarked on at that late date was not a matter of merely sorting and selecting, this was a process of diligent and ruthless editing, often rewriting, from her bed. She was also writing new poems during this – in my opinion, her best. Because of the imperative which cancer imposed on her and because of her natural grit which anyone who knows her will be familiar with, she managed to compress an enormous labour into a fraction of the time it night have taken.

So, to her book and to her work. The poems in The Still Deceived are philosophical in their outlook. Whatever their content, these poems are wrestling with big questions. As the description on the back cover says, they are about the nature of existence and the subjectivity of human experience. Over and again they wonder where human consciousness stands in relation to everything else. They are metaphysical poems which unswervingly cut to the chase on the subject of life and death especially when addressing the brevity of the former and the imminence of the latter for their author. An illustration of this is the poem ‘Moths’. In this diminutive 10-line gem, all the poetic elements are working seamlessly towards its vast end – the precision of its imagery, the aptness and exactness of the moth metaphor, the tetrameter lines and beat which leads to its inexorable and confronting conclusion.

‘Moths’ is one of a number of poems grouped towards the end of the collection, written in the last months of Ginny’s life, in which she faces her mortality eye to eye: 'Set Up to Blow Down', 'Oatlands Churchyard', 'Wesley Church', 'Metal', 'Reunited', 'Entropy', 'Getting off the Bus'. These are poems of immense sorrow but which are remarkably free of sentiment, especially sentimentality (a word which I recall, she treated with extreme derision in 1975!). Sorrow, when addressed, is understated…

It’s the slow crank of a melancholy tune,
the passing of a shadow on the lawn,
filtering sun and shade in turn,
running through the empty booths
now that the crowds have gone.
     ('Set up to Blow Down')…

similarly in the poignant and beautiful 'Reunited'. Mostly, these poems transcend the personal which is given place in the wider angle of Ginny Jackson’s philosophical view. This might be said of the whole book which she started to put together in the knowledge that her months were numbered; the whole selection was made through the lens of this awareness and her typically, but now intensified, wry, antiromantic philosophical vision.

The title The Still Deceived attests to this, (coupled with her own enigmatic lithograph on the front cover) it alludes to Philip Larkin’s book title from 1955, The Less Deceived and to a line in its bleak poem 'Deceived'. The notion I think she is carrying over from Larkin’s poem is a view that we are constantly duped in what we think we understand about anything.
Below the feelings of now, or now
is the whisper of a constant self
that backs away from the evidence,
makes nonsense of the fall of leaf.
     ('The Still Deceived')

It’s a theme that is present in many of her poems. ‘On Scientific Method’ on the first page for example concludes

The hum of truths that will exist forever
Only outside of the glass

'The Heaviest Sack', ‘Map’, ‘Facts’, ‘On Close and Distant Suns’ (one of my favourites) are all poems which are about seeking knowledge of the world outside experience.

This collection owes more, I think, to Philip Larkin than the title. Larkin was one of the great twentieth century craftsmen of poetry in English, and a wry, dark humourist. In Ginny’s strongest poems, and their compression of volumes into the spareness of the short line via effortless rhythm and sometimes rhyme, I hear homage to Larkin’s craft. There’s plenty of similarly black humour too. Listen to a few of these aphoristic lines:

Memory is just history, selected battles ('The Visitor')

Christmas – a time where best wishes fail
as inevitably as first fruits in drought ('Childhood Christmas')

Like libraries, we only ever lend shared moments to others ('Jealousy')

The poems in The Still Deceived blend sound, image and sense powerfully, often in the couplet; often too, the lightness of the rhythm counterpoints the weight of the meaning.

You can tell from the tower that God has gone
but the bell still rings its sonorous song

In this book, there are poems of exuberance, tenderness, joy and celebration. 'Motherhood', 'On Planting', 'Swallow and Crane', 'Baby Love', 'Finding the Time'. There are poems which reflect Ginny's deep, visceral love of the landscape of Tasmania: 'June', 'Southern Town', 'March 42 degrees South', 'Lisdillon', to name a few. Read them all. There are so many more I'd like to talk about.

So to go back to the beginning: this meeting started for me with Thomas Hardy. At the time, Ginny seemed to be well on Hardy's side in viewing the fabric of human existence as being subject to the unthinking intrusion of an indifferent fate. Intellectually, The Still Deceived might attest to her not having moved far from that position. In her writing she had the capacity to step out of experience and see its limitations. Her poems also reflect though, how she reached out and embraced life in a magnanimous and open-hearted way, engaging totally and exuberantly in the moment.

It's a hard call welcoming a new book when you're farewelling an old friend but the imperative for me in writing this launch speech has been to treat her poems with the professionalism they deserve and that I think Ginny would have wanted. She was a hard task-master on herself and on others. Reading Rilke's first Elegy at her graveside, a typically demanding and typically stark and unsoftened choice, (Who, if I called out would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?) her voice was behind me like a big stick waving Don't wreck a great poem by blubbing she said. There are echoes of her words still in the air today!