Emma Jones ISBN: 978 0 571 24538 3
For myself, I first discovered Australian poet Emma Jones last year in a Dublin bookshop, lonely and heartsick, rooting through the bargain shelf for something modestly priced that would change my life. The other book I bought that day was the happily titled When things fall apart.
But, it could be said, true ‘discovery’ had occurred some five plus years previously. In an interview given to The Australian in 2009, poet Jacob Polley describes how Jones, then a PhD student at Cambridge University, had read at an informal poetry reading on campus. This is Cambridge, so naturally there is wine and a fireplace. Polley thinks ‘wow’ and later forwards some of her work to an editor contact at Faber & Faber, the preeminent publishers of poetry in the English language. The rest, as they say, is history.
As a collection, The Striped World speaks from an adventurous and subtle terrain, borne from the wilderness and restless search for belonging of the poet’s twenties. Jones was raised in Sydney’s inner west and throughout her schooling and university studies received no formal creative writing training. She tells us in Farming –
it’s a singing bone,
the indivisible pearl
it’s a bright barred thing. And pearls
are empire animals. And poems are pearls.
Jones’s poems create new worlds such that this world is rendered odd. As the painter in ‘Painting’ notes: ‘and still the light comes / and into the eye / and with it a world, and a borderline‘ (my emphasis). Her verse is dense with odd imageries, such as ‘the internal doll in its stuck seat’ (Conversation), ‘diminutive earl’ (The mind), and odd recurring words such as ‘colonnade’. The effect is offbeat and a little unnerving. With a world there is a borderline, and this is the abject space in which we are aware of our own borders, our own liminality. The recurring zoo thematic lends itself to this carnivalesque, a space where the world can turn on its head, the unexpected can and does happen.
Pietà is the poem Jones read at that fateful Cambridge reading, and it displays her humour, which is a slippery thing, not funny so much as a wry joke on itself. Pietà, the classical icon of Christ and mother, is retold somewhere like a southern American truckstop by a country singer, all fried chicken and ‘streetlights spun with milk’:
and baby I like to sing, so off we went,
and sang ‘Love in the Museum’.
That’s a good one, though it makes me cry.
See, I said, there’s love in the museum!
Although the iconography firmly places us in the present, there is something temporally non-specific here, an eternal world weariness and naivity: ‘Why you want the face of a man / with the face of a child?’. So whilst the treatment may sound light and fripperish, there is a dark, deep sadness in the seemingly light touches. The sorrows of the crucifixion and the sins of humankind are welled up in this intransient truck stop.
Like Jesus’s wounds in death, there is an abjectness in this Pietà: ‘I straightened out your fingers one by one. / You died, and your face stayed on the sheets’. Through the visceral, we are aware of our own edges, and led in by the commonplace of the scene, we are laid waste. The effect is not so much otherworldly as the world rendered new. As Daphne says of her leaves in Daphne, ‘They sing, and make the world’. The same may be said of the poems in this collection (as noted by the dust jacket).
More circuitous is extended poem Zoos for the living, which explores Adaminaby township in New South Wales, the old town, which was flooded for the hyrdro dam of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, and the relocated new town. Poet JS Harry also explores this space in what she calls The life on water and the life beneath, an extended, exquisite poem. Jones’s poem, itself quite beautiful, has a similar treatment of the space and livingness of history:
And fishermen farm the once-lived-in streets, angling their lights.
And these are streetlamps for the dead.
And yet ‘old Adaminaby asserts itself’ as:
drought undoes the flood… And things happen in Adaminaby.
The real overlays of past and present in the drowned town are used to explore the significance of history in present life. The past is not really past. The title, then, is curious. What is a zoo for the living? We have the old and the new town juxtaposed with the old and the new mother, a ‘beebob blonde / blue-eyed British jitterbug’ with pale skin imported by famine to England, and later Australia. If we live amidst the ghosts and fragments of the past then the world becomes a zoo, a space for the living marshaled by ghosts and overlays of the past. This is recognised history.
By its title, Zoos for the dead becomes a companion piece to Zoos for the living. It tells the story of a person who has inherited a talking parrot, Narcissus, ‘the survivor of an atrocity’, from an Aboriginal brother and sister. The person is writing down Narcissus’s language in a ‘special book’—‘My language is official but his is important’. The zoo for the dead is an ironic exploration of living amidst history that has been displaced or denied. History is corralled points of view, something living put into a frame. Because a zoo, of course, ultimately houses living things.
As other reviewers have noted, there are flaws here. For this reviewer it is the thrall of language for its sound rather than meaning that is at times frustrating. And yet as a natural pearl is imperfect and simultaneously beautiful, Jones has the immense accomplishment of creating her own striped world with this collection, a new pearl.
Here it is again, light hoisting its terrible bells.
As though a world might wake up with it —
The moon shuts its eye. Down in the street
the same trolley is playing the pavestones.
For twenty-five years I’ve been waking
this way. There was one morning
when my mother woke and felt a twitch
inside, like the shifting of curtains.
She woke and so did I. I was like a bird
beating. She had no time for anaesthetic.
We just rolled from each other like indecent genies.
Even the nurses were startled.
Now she says the world and I were eager
from the start. But I was only waking.
From The Striped World, Faber & Faber