Woodford: Island Press, 2008, 72pp.
Rae Desmond Jones published four books in the eight years between Orpheus with a Tuba (1973) and The Palace of Art (1981). The date of publication of the second of these means that there is a publishing gap of twenty-seven years until this new book. Though it’s a significant poetic silence it does contain a book of short stories and two novels. Alan Wearne includes him under the rubric of “one of the great unsung elder statesmen of modern Australian poetry” and it’s a judgement I’m inclined to agree with. His early work was strikingly distinctive and, though one wouldn’t want to fall into the error of treating his poetry as though it were completely homogenous, much of this distinctiveness is carried over into this new, late book.
For me, the first marker of Jones’s poetic manner is the way he is completely at home in the seedy, urban world. And to be “completely at home”, in literary terms, is a very complex phenomenon. To take a reasonably uncomplicated poem from Blow Out, “Heat”:
Tonight this summer while the fires burn Around the city & the smell of smoke hangs Near the ground & ash gently dust the sheets, At 11 pm TJ drops his customised harley in the street At just the right angle so the moon Stares unblinking at her own reflection in the silver black enamel of the tank, Unzips & rolls his hips back Then puts his hand in his pockets & closes His eyes, lost in a paradise of sweet relief. A flood of piss arcs & flushes the curling leaves Of a rosebush peeping over the fence As a ghostly virgin kisses his deep bruised cheeks & whispers “fuck me” into his cauliflower ears. Slowly and lovingly he tucks his prick Through the narrow fork of his jeans as though it Requires ponderous care & deserves Nothing less than a crane. He turns & bellows at the smooth closed blinds “well what are you looking at? Never seen one Before? It’s got your name tattooed on it.” Still unzipped, without a cause, the defeated hero Stumbles over the squealing gate.
Essentially it is a portrait, one of many in Jones’s work, but, as often, the position of the narrator is difficult to determine. It is calm and slightly distant – the ampersands, endemic in Jones, emphasise this – but it is not socially distant. There is no sense of an authorial position which is, in any sense (financial, social, creatively) superior to TJ. This adds a slight sense of unease to readers which they are probably reluctant to acknowledge since it would make them appear to be no more than literate snobs. To add to this, though we all consider ourselves unshockable, there is the slight frisson that this is a poem about someone urinating – not the most disturbing of subjects, certainly not Basho hearing the cry of the abandoned child, but, at the same time, not one that usually falls within the ambit of the subjects for poetry. In other words, although one of the powerful ways in which poetry historically renews itself is to shock readers by including hitherto unacceptable material, we don’t get the impression that this is what Jones is interested in doing.
“Heat” is a good example of a Jones portrait and emphasises one of his strengths as a writer: an ability to look at the lower levels of urban life dispassionately. You meet this in his novel, The Lemon Tree (though there the life dealt with is as much postwar Broken Hill as it is inner Sydney) and in his book of stories, Walking the Line. But, in the case of “Heat”, one wouldn’t want to think that this dispassionate registration is all that is going on. The poem is set among the bushfires of the Sydney summer season and opens with careful references to the moon reflected in the motorbike’s fuel tank. The final lines connect TJ with James Dean as a rebel without a cause and describes him as a defeated hero. The poem thus spirals, though not too far, towards allegory whereby someone who might have had a prominent and admired function in a different culture, is reduced, in the situation in which he finds himself, to the sordid and the belittling.
Crossing film references with urban reality is a common event in Jones’s poetry and a way of contrasting behaviour which, in context, is heroic, with sordid realities. I know that it is the underlying setup of both Ulysses and “The Wasteland’, but Jones does it in a distinctive way. There is a group of poems at the end of the 1977 volume, Shakti, which are very much concerned with the values of Hollywood popular film and the way these relate to reality. But there is nothing trite in what these poems have to say and the way in which they operate: they are not simple works though they are often (“Jungle Juice”, “The El Paso Restaurant”) funny. One of these poems, “Flak”, crosses the imagery of war films with Eliot’s notion of poetry being “a raid on the inarticulate”. It begins “It could become one of the great classic / film clichés – almost like John Wayne’s back / in the searchers . . .” and finishes:
you are the only one of the squadron to survive to walk the streets of london on leave haunted in the fog past army greatcoats in pubs & lily marlene it has everything life & certainty of death the black night of the soul multiple metaphors of society the body & an inbuilt cross-reference to oedipus at colonnus & lastly the tides under waterloo bridge
“Flak” is not an easy poem to summarise – its concern with writing is an additional complexity – but it does focus on experience mediated through the powerful visual clichés of film. I mention these poems from Shakti because one of them is about James Dean. It is a three part poem which begins with the author in a car and the crash which killed the actor behind him. But the processes of transformation have already begun so that
in the rear-vision mirror you catch him looking through your eyes narcissist as ever the flowers of his mockery recurring eternal late movies on television
The poem’s final section makes it clear that, when the American car pulls up beside you at the lights, with James Dean as its driver, you need to keep ahead of it:
move slowly past him the manual gear change up when the lights go green the speedometer needle climbing & the sleeve caught in the door & leave him & america pissweak reflection & creator of a generation now gone to parenthood & the suburbs & the chicken still screaming on the veranda
this seems straightforward enough, even rather programmatic for a poem, but the last lines are much more equivocal:
the tragic screen widening to cinemascope the sun coming up & the huge mandala of the wheel easy in your palm
I’ve never been entirely sure whether the tragic screen is something that the accelerating car can keep ahead of (in other words, it widens in the rear vision mirror) as it speeds towards a transcendent reality, or whether the screen is in front of the driver and the point being made is that we never escape the screen, the permeation of our lives with the images of popular culture.
Both “Jungle Juice” and “The El Paso Restaurant” – the last poems of Shakti – take a comic approach to reality and film cliché. In the former, Tarzan “his testicles banging together like billiard balls” turns up at Dr Livingstone’s hut for the 1936 Congo Fashion Parade while the gunboat “Vorster” “captained by Joseph Conrad / and on her decks princess grace kelly and robert morley / arms linked each side of little black sambo” arrives at the village’s wharf.
Blow Out’s “Heat” can lead in other directions as well. As I have said, it is one of Jones’s portrait poems and there are a number of these, some surreal, some realistic. The finest is probably “The Generator” from The Mad Vibe. It is a portrait of a character over the top in every way:
always brilliant & all the world is queer particularly you he voted petula clark for post- mistress general had a volkswagen fitted with a siren screamed up & down pitt st chasing police cars he hated the public at seventeen was sure life was barren & at twenty hungered for royal weddings told me he could speak to jesus on the royal telephone the joy was not divine he preferred orgasms . . .
After introducing this character, the poem goes on to describe how he discovered ultimate sexually thrill when he met a man who wanted someone to apply electric shocks to his scrotum, someone to turn the generator. But one day his cat is run over messily and he
just sat there in samadhi contemplating the wires between the stretched out poles of mind fizz out into the open palm of night i am the cat the cat & he repeated the cat is dead man i am the cat then he kissed me got into the Volkswagen dropped the clutch started the siren & as he accelerated filled the night with flame crossed the arc & burned straight out towards the gap
Again, there is a lot of the high literary in the middle of this very raw portrait, especially in the symbolism of the generator, the spark and the gap – here the gap between self and others, or even other species.
What does this amount to as a kind of introduction to the poetry of Rae Jones? The central fact seems to me to be that, comfortably inhabiting the low enables your movements towards the high to be both genuine and, poetically, successful. I don’t think any Australian poet writes such moving concluding gestures as Jones. The reason is that most poets are situated in their poems in a kind of poetic equivalent of the middle class. The climactic closing image is then no more that a rhetorical gesture of the sort that can be learned in writing schools. But if the poet and the subject of the poem are firmly in the gutter, then the gesture upwards becomes the sparking of a powerful gap. There are a whole set of clichés (lying in the gutter, looking at the stars etc) which accumulate around this idea but they don’t make it any less correct. Jones himself is not above deploying such clichés. In a fine poem to his daughter at the end of this most recent book, “Singing Crazy”, he listens to Patsy Cline on the radio (for me, rather a lifetime riding pillion with TJ than a day locked in a room with a Country and Western record!) while his daughter is at music camp:
. . . . . Patsy plays the whole register of sloppy emotions - Each fine nuance of intuition & response from delicate To crass so I guess I’m the same, reaching for the stars With one arm while shovelling from the slop bucket With the other. . .
It’s a dangerous moment but then the whole poem is about the power of clichés.
Whatever the implications, Jones’s conclusions have great power, far beyond their rhetorical techniques. I can remember reading the first poem of the manuscript of his first book, Orpheus With a Tuba. It is a portrait of a piano tuner who describes how, in a lift, he met a friend, a violinist, who now owns a Stradivarius and how, when the lift door opened, there was a friend to meet him and escort him
through the crowd of shoppers with dumb faces buying lingerie. you pause afraid of being misunderstood, before you return to the piano with the screwdriver, locked in the blind numeral of self.
“The blind numeral of self” – that’s not a bad phrase to conclude a poem about the relationship between art, on the one hand, and on the other physics, mathematics and mechanics. And Orpheus With a Tuba is full of such frissons: a poem about a modern incarnation of Orpheus finishes with the girl holding his head and singing to him “of the sweet & inarticulate / stars”; a poem about the death of an uncle concludes with memories of the poet’s mother (who broke the news by telephone) “i can only offer her now / lumps of memory torn out / of our dense and common heart”. And perhaps, best of all, as an example of this distinctive high/low conjunction, is “The Poets”:
they speak to a vast audience consisting mainly of one another all of whom nervously shuffle manuscripts & wait their turn meantime the masses who are as usual deaf blind & stupid just keep walking to the bus or into the office reading newspapers & quite obviously don’t give a fuck, & who can blame them . . .
The poem goes on to imagine one of these people accidentally reading one of the poems published in the corner of the review page and then returning to “real life” thinking of
the legs of the office girl so tightly clenched he thinks her pussy must almost pucker & blow him kisses but rarely he might think at how unreal the world has become & how beautiful & how soon he must leave it which is also beautiful & how time passes but in any case perhaps just for a minute he thinks poetry & knows himself dwarfish, blind & ugly & returns once again to the real.
It’s a wonderful, moving and inspired conjunction of the vulgar, the sublime and the poetically powerful.
“The Poets” introduces an important element into this high/low conjunction – that of poetry itself. It’s a complex question but generally, one suspects, in Jones’s verse, poetry represents the transcendent, the most definable manifestation of the high. And yet, contrarily, the function of poetry is to expose us to truth and one of the features of truth might be that the life we are living is not as “high”, that is – enlightened – as we think it is. So poetry has a kind of simultaneous raising and lowering function. There is a fine poem in Shakti, “Strathfield Street”, which works away at this.
in strathfield street an old oleander parades a purple rinse bouffant & passé the houses in poisonous good taste lean back from the paths & the ladies watch but look the other way as they sweep their verandas behind the railway the clouds bank heavy & the trains slide along the tracks like hungry caterpillars near the barbed wire a sunflower swings its bull head angry & confused the matter of poetry in acres of the rational & sane the utterly ordinary beside a sign which advertises invalid aids & surgical footwear a fine drizzle crosscuts the trees & on a leaf of the oleander the world condenses into a delicate & ugly flower
Not at all a straightforward poem in terms of what it wants to say about poetry in the world, the sunflower alongside suburban realities, but it does succeed in making those overwhelming realities faintly insubstantial.
The poem which follows “Strathfield Street” in Shakti is “The Pier”. It too is about poetry but explores the idea (originating with Rilke?) of poetry being about the ingestion of experience, its processing and then excretion as art. Here the reality is, unlike that of Strathfield Street, described with a metaphorical density that make it seem magical in itself:
at the end of the pier old tyres are nailed stretched out black half moons on to the timber around the headland rocks push old bent teeth through the receding gums of sand & trees . . .
A shag surfaces to swallow a fish:
the fish is gone & the swallowed christ breaks into many parts in the belly of the bird as the acid works inside him he folds his wings & moves elegant & serene the simple body of a bird below our legs the silver mangroves tremble & rise & it is past midday the sun flakes the white gull shit on the pier. caught in the body, the uncomfortable damp layers of it
This seems to be the inverse of the preceding poem in that the processes of making poetry and the status of that poetry are mocked. The divine reality (the “Christ’s body”) is swallowed and all you get from the resulting poetry, it seems to say, is shit.
Interestingly this image of ingestion appears in the first poem of Blow Out, a sinister/wry piece called “The Last Drop” in which ordinary workers line up for their morning caffeine fix in a poem which connects this to mounting a scaffold – for “the last drop” – and communion:
Here as the last drop falls, the biscuit breaks Like the body of Christ on the wall into fourteen staccato images, Down through ripples of brown & white caffeine, Swirling into redemption (until lunchtime)
And in another poem, “Shot”, (which reverses the role that Jones usually plays of dispassionate observer so that he is the one snapped on a mobile phone) it is significant that he is caught in the process of eating:
. . . . . she opens the phone raises it focuses blinks & clicks capturing my soul. I see myself in a diamond of light, an old man sitting alone with a piece of broken biscuit caught between his teeth
And it may be that a metaphor like this is really at the heart of “A Brick & Sandstone YMCA” where the alter ego of real poetry (“the fractured poetry / of commerce and power) is focussed on:
. . . . . I walk on past the sushi bars & doner kebab stands, Breathing the richness Of burning oil & scorched meat, Listening to the fractured poetry Of commerce & power, Wheeling & dealing; The pimp with acne scars, A policeman with his sagging gut, A thin girl with dead blonde hair & needle scabs along her arms. Meaning passes through me & whispers then moves softly on. Above my head a monorail car Slides pneumatically Into the future Gripping a single greasy rail.
It’s a fine, if disturbing, last image though I’m not sure if the monorail car is a symbol of the commercial world which travels on one track which has to be kept greased or whether it’s a symbol of the world of experience which passes through the consciousness of the poet. After all, it too might be one track: the first poem of the final section of the book (which begins with a visit to the optometrist) establishes that this is a poet who could conceivably be called “one-eyed”. But the fact that these last lines recall the end of Lowell’s “The Union Buries its Dead” leads me to think that the earlier interpretation is more likely to be correct.
This final section of Blow Out, “Familiars”, has a number of portraits. There is one of a dealer who, when under pressure from the police, takes up windscreen washing at an intersection:
. . . . . But if someone gives him a tip He leans across & breathes A mouthful of Marijuana smoke into the cabin As the lights change & they accelerate away & he waves & whispers have a nice day
This is a ‘nice” poem and the poems of this section often do something unusual in Jones’s work by being nice. The two poems to his daughter, Alysse, are clearly of this kind as is the book’s last poem, “The God of Naughty Children”. The elegies for his father, mother and grandmother, familiars in the sense of being familiar ghosts, could conceivably have been written early in Jones’s career; when “Telephone Elegy”, for example, was written. They are solemn and intense beneath their co-ordinated clause structure, but the last three poems of the book strike a slightly unusual tone. Perhaps extended fatherhood and even an extended period as mayor of the Council of Ashfield in inner Sydney (has any previous important Australian poet ever been a mayor?) has not so much softened a sometimes abrasive approach (the “mad vibe” mode) as create yet another alternative.