TERSE, TENSE VERSES: Kurt Brown on Emma Jones’ The Striped World

the striped world

The Striped World, Emma Jones, Faber and Faber

When a new poet swims into our ken we take note, and make our adjustments. These adjustments usually require both a new angle of seeing, and a new texture of speech, to which we must become accustomed before we can begin to swim easily with them on our own. Subject matter is hardly ever the issue—who has really introduced new subject matter? How, even, could that be possible? Human nature has not changed since the ancients first began composing poetry. And rarely, except during true periods of foment in the arts, do we encounter genuine formal innovation. The line is the line is the line, as the stanza is the stanza. And all variations of scattering words around the page have seemingly been tried and are recognizable enough for us by now to be comfortable with them. An unconventional touch here and there—odd punctuation, spelling, syntax—but not radical change at the foundations of the art. A new “voice” announces itself not so much through tone, through attitude and opinion, as through imagery, diction, and personal obsession. A new mood is created, and we acclimate ourselves to it the way we adjust to anything we have not experienced before.

The texture of Emma Jones’s poetry, the sound and rhythm and peculiar feel of its language, is immediately recognizable as personal and distinct. There is a terse, tense, bitten-off quality to her verses, her way of thinking, that draws our attention first. We have the sense, almost immediately, that there will be scant room for excess, no posturing or circumlocutions of any kind. The lines seem to clip off units of meaning with little or no flourish, and move on:

When the sun, that gradual sepoy
rose, then clouds occurred;
the sea came, and hung like a man;
the tankers boiled,
and a wind rifled the trees.

The imagery here is singular, a personal way of seeing that arrests our attention because we are forced to look at the world from a new perspective, one which is not our own—and certainly not stereotypical—but to which we can accommodate ourselves with some imagination and effort. How is he sun like a “sepoy,”? The word itself is unique, at least in poetry. A dictionary will tell us that it refers to a situation that existed in India under British rule. Native Indians sometimes became soldiers, and served under British command. The word “sepoy” refers to them, especially, if they served in the British East India Company. So it is possible that the sun is envisioned here as a kind of lackey, or servant, that willingly submits to its task of lighting up the world each day. This has socio-political implications, though the poem does not go on to develop these. The following images are just as unusual: the sea that came and “hung like a man,” tankers boiling on the horizon, and wind that rifles (not “riffles”) the trees. It could be argued that all good images are unusual, so what’s so unusual about these? Perhaps the slight threat, or latent violence suggested in the verbs: “hung,” “boiled,” and “rifled.” Perhaps the fact that the images strenuously avoid the kind of sentimentality that often accompanies images of nature. Maybe even the rapid-fire succession in which the images occur, each adding another vigorous stroke to the landscape the poet is portraying.

Then there’s that curious phrase: “clouds occurred.” Why the abstract verb, where everything else is concrete? And why the use of “occurred” in the active tense, rather than the passive as in normal usage? Certainly the alliteration is pleasing. But it also has the sense of depersonalizing nature, of characterizing it in mechanical terms, rather than cozily anthropomorphizing it as is often the case. Clouds simply “occur,” they are not personified Actors on the great stage of Nature, playing their parts in the Grand Scheme of things. I am taking the time to point out these details because I think they help clarify the most prominent features of Jones’s style: abrupt phraseology; aggressive patterns of imagery; radical compression of thought; unsentimental depictions of nature and human experience; spare, everyday language mixed occasionally with unusual and surprising diction. Realizing all of this is part of the process of acclimatizing oneself to her work. Still, even with familiarization, it is possible for Jones’s poems to surprise. One never gets quite accustomed to the oddness of her style, the next unexpected word choice, the next far-fetched but astonishing metaphor.

These hallmarks of her writing might be found anywhere, in any poem, in any stanza. In a poem about a painter setting his easel up en plein air near the seacoast, a poem that might be about the relationship between reality and art, she begins:

Everyone’s souls, which didn’t exist, were playing up,
and they flocked as the shadows we left on the ground
when the tired sun — that midday man — was an artist.
And they surfaced in our sweat, which made, for us,
a soft lunar garment worn abroad…

Here, she contradicts herself immediately in the first line, but by doing so seems to be able to have it both ways: souls may not exist, but still they play and flock. The abruptness of the phrase at the end of the line is peculiar too: playing up…to what, or whom? Obviously she means something like “acting up,” or “playing around” but by phrasing it the way she does she is able to suggest more—that the souls had an audience and were behaving in a self-conscious way. The imagery, again, is entirely unpredictable. The sun is a “midday man,” an artist of shadows, whose chiaroscuro work is most visible in the afternoon. And, like swimmers, those same souls “surface” in sweat which is characterized as a ‘soft lunar garment.” These images couldn’t be more peculiar. And the diction, once more, arrests us: that word “lunar” stands out as an inspired choice, especially since the sun has just been the subject of the previous image, and it is the sun which brings sweat to the surface. Suppose, for consistency, Jones had written: “a soft solar garment.” Not bad, but the word “lunar” offers up another contradiction, one that adds complexity to an already complex image.

In a poem entitled “Window,” Jones presents us with one of poetry’s oldest enigmas: the inner life of contemplation vs. the outer life of action, and the problem of having to choose between the two:

His sadness was double,
it had two edges.

One looked out —
onto skylines,
and streets with ice-cream
men, and cars,
and clouds
like cut cotton.

The other stayed in
to watch
his memories unbuckle
and his hairs
all repeat
in the washstand.

Both were impatient.
Sometimes they’d meet
and make a window.

“Look at the world!” said the glass.
“Look at the glass!” said the world.

By conflating the idea of undressing inside the room with a person’s memories, Jones is able to devise another startling image made possible through an unexpected word choice: “his memories unbuckle…” And once more we find an abrupt, snapped-off phrase which suggests two things at once: “his hairs / all repeat…” Repeat what, you might ask? But she means that his hairs continue to fall out, that the word “repeat” refers to the aging process, and not to something said. Though, if they could talk, they would admonish: “You are getting old, old!” We are reminded that time is wasting for the contemplative, while the world outside passes by unconcerned.

Other poems in this volume address various definable subjects, but in truly idiosyncratic ways. There’s a kind of existential rant (“Conversation”) poised precariously on a short periodic sentence; a vast urban landscape completely void of people (“Hush”); a rambling, bizarre re-write of Genesis (“Creator,”) (Jones is fond of one-word titles); a hip, jazzy monologue spoken by the Virgin Mary to her dead son, Jesus, (“Pieta”) which might have been written by Lord Buckley; a perfectly conventional sonnet about spring, called “Sonnet,” in decasyllabics; and a rambling paean to writing, childhood, and geography (“Waiting”) studded with unforeseen, colorful terms. In the eleventh stanza, for instance, she refers to a “cracked gardenia / strewing its level scents.” What in the world could the adjective “level” mean in this context? And yet, the word seems apt, inevitable, if only because it sounds right, its short “e” setting up an echo with the next word, “scents.” In fact, a crisp, and clear-cut lyricism might be added to the distinguishing features of Jones’s work. She writes as much by ear as by subject, with the result that content often gives way to sound, an ongoing set of repeating notes, as in a musical score.

But the heart of the book, its center of gravity even though it comes near the end of the volume, is a long ambitious poem entitled “Zoos for the Dead” which substitutes animals for people—mainly an extraordinary blue parrot— who seems to take the role of Sybil or socio-historical-spiritual guide for the narrator of the poem, who remains unnamed. The poem’s subject is announced in an epigraph, which reminds the reader of the sad history of Australia’s aboriginal population — especially aboriginal children — at the hands of racist governments from the late 19th century to the 1960s. The parrot, named Narcissus, is the child of another parrot who is a surrogate for one of the aboriginal children who was captured and abused by the state. Confusing? Certainly the poem is complex —both in its quirky symbolism and narrative manner — but there are stunning images throughout that make the poem worthwhile reading whether it hangs together easily or not. For example, the narrator’s first description of Narcissus is astonishing in its weird particularity: “…his Goya -/ etching face was first scooped from the gloom of his shirt-front / and angled me two white eyes winched on a lamé collar.” When the two of them, parrot and narrator, scuba dive into the sea off Australia to inspect the wreck of a ship called Miranda the imagery is compelling: “We found the wreck, squinting, / and we’d move above it like birds in slow circles, stung by some centre, / and find the loam of its beams, the twisted skins of its coins…” The images may be clear, but the allusion is not. The only reference I could find to a vessel in Australia named Miranda describes a wreck in Apollo Bay in southwestern Victoria in 1881; the ship was loading potatoes when a huge sea swell dashed it against the rocks on shore. For some reason, the wreckage has never been found. The connection between the story of the Miranda and the deracinated and abused aboriginal children is anyone’s guess, but we have to make room for foreign histories and cultural cues which may not be immediately apparent to readers in other countries.*

Though she’s obviously influenced by current post-modernist theory, she hasn’t fallen prey completely to the non-narrative craze. Despite the eccentricity of her approach, her subjects are never far from view. She may improvise around them, as she does for instance with the sonic patterns or bizarre metaphors I’ve discussed, but she never entirely abandons content. Her poems are built up of layers of meaning, sound, rhythm, and metaphor none of which completely dominate and all of which play themselves out, more or less, as the poem progresses. The reader may feel intrigued, or temporarily puzzled, but never thorougly lost.

Though Jones’s manner of writing is highly stylized and self-conscious, her work feels natural, natural to her at least, and not overtly labored. Her incisive intelligence, her canniness, work together to assure that—while calculated—her poems seem fresh and uncontrived at the same time. That is one of the keys to her success. A twenty-eight year old poet from Australia, this is Jones’s first book. The question to ask of any young poet just launching a career might be: will there be growth? But some poets arrive more fledged than others. How much growth can we expect by way of innovation on an already accomplished style? Perhaps the question, in some cases, is more than the reader can ask.

* Further researches into the incident, courtesy of Wikepedia, turned up the following information, which may begin to suggest a connection between the “parrot” in the poem and the history of the area around Apollo Bay where the wreck of the Miranda took place: “The Gadubanud (Katabanut) people occupied the rainforest plateau and rugged coastline of Cape Otway in Western Victoria covering the present towns of Lorne and Apollo Bay… Gadabanud means literally King Parrot people. There has been no documented interaction with the Gadubanud since 1846… although there are Aboriginal people in the area today who trace their ancenstry to the Gudabanud.” A thorough grounding in Australian history would inevitably supply further information necessary to completely decipher Jones’s poem.

2 responses to “TERSE, TENSE VERSES: Kurt Brown on Emma Jones’ The Striped World

  1. This was really a pleasure to read. It’s a hard thing to accept a new kind of ‘voice,’ because it can seem to fail standards. But we’re not a baseball world any more. We’re a baskeetball world. A different sense of rhythm…time. Kurt is forgiving, and allows the voice to enter the room as if there was a new source of sun rays. And Ms. Jones is the real deal. I don’t recall seeing such a lovely marriage of reviewer and artist. Usually, reviewer’s come first and announce mostly that they miss the point. Congratulations. This. is really big, I think. Thank you.