Emma Jones: The Striped World

London: Faber, 2009, 55pp.

An extraordinary first book by a Sydney poet of whom, I’m ashamed to say, I have never heard. I suppose the fact that the poems which have previously appeared have all been in English journals, and that the publisher is English, might form the basis for some kind of defence but, as with all discoveries, you can’t help thinking that you should have known enough to see it coming. At any rate, The Striped World announces itself as great first books do: as a confident, almost authoritative, voice wrestling (if voices can wrestle) with a coherent and sophisticated set of concerns. You get a sense of the distinctiveness and strength of the voice as early as the first poem where the moment of birth (a good place to begin a book) is described in a memorable phrase: “We just rolled from each other like indecent genies”. The coherent set of concerns involve, as far as I can see, issues of process (as opposed to such fixed entities as identity) and the issues of outside/inside in the whole spectrum of manifestations from perception and epistemology to the womb and birth. These “issues” emerge as short, sharp lyrics and extended meditative set-pieces.

An example of the latter is a brilliant and complex poem, “Citizenship”. It begins with a description of the public library at Provincetown in Massachusetts, a library noted for having a half-size model of a racing yacht in one of its reading rooms. There is an element of the grotesque about this setting – this place from which the poet looks outward to the world – that makes the reader think of other poems which work in and out of a weird location. The first of Beaver’s Letters to Live Poets with its shark aquarium comes to mind but a more telling comparison, given that the poem is set near the site of the pilgrim fathers’ landing place, and thus close to core American experience, is probably Lowell’s “For the Union Dead”.

In a room like this, with the sail of a ship
passed through the upper glass
of the doorway, and the walls lined with books,
Henry Kissinger: Years of Upheaval, and books on war presidents,
and elms in the windows, and the pilgrim dead
ballooned from their branches
like spinnakers winched to the dead Atlantic -
it’s good to be an alien, in America.
. . . . .

“It’s good to be an alien” is only partly a cultural judgement, a response to the overwhelming potency of the United States. More significantly, it is an epistemological issue. As the poem says: “Perspective fills the window”: looking out through the library window imposes interpretation on what is seen in a way that recalls Blake’s belief that the doors of perception are not clean and which takes up a Blake quote in the book’s epigraph: “The sun’s light when he unfolds it / Depends on the organ that beholds it.” What worries the poet about cultural interpretation seems to be that it solidifies experience into shapes that are hard to shift. Those shapes are perfectly symbolised by the rooms of the library (doubling as the inside of our minds) with their weird superpositioning of boat and books. And when you look out through the glass of the washroom at the elemental sea and sky you see your own face reflected in the glass and imposed on them. Jones wants something different exactly because she is a poet with a poet’s perceptual responsibilities:

. . . . .
Permanent change, the permanence of change.
In the window, the sky meets the sea,
its neutral twin in the wash-stand.
. . . . . 
Here, my sight is a wrecked president. An act.
I see, and I want to see
other things. The particular grit.
Rococo-less stars. I want to see particles, not pictures.
As though there could be matter without memory.
As though I wasn’t
a visitor, in these parts, as though I wasn’t
made, a limited thing.

Because I’m tired of fabulation . . . . .

The poem finishes with the story of the man who returned from a trip to find his own funeral being celebrated when a body had been misidentified. When he protested that he was definitely alive they told him, “You’re no citizen” – presumably because all the necessary official papers now declared him dead. The poem is, finally, I think, about the poet’s position. Rejecting the fables of identity leads to a kind of statelessness. It reminds me of the conclusion of Peter Porter’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Hesiod”:

Sparrows acclimatize but I still seek
The permanently upright city where
Speech is nature and plants conceive in pots,
Where one escapes from what one is and who
One was, where home is just a postmark . . .

At heart, though, Porter’s rejection is cultural – it rebels against the dangerous politics of place with their appeal to a kind of essentialism that we would now be tempted to call fundamentalism – and Jones’s seems, finally, to be epistemological. But to say that the poem is about perception doesn’t mean that it is a cool, philosophical piece. The author introduces a touch of Lowellian angst in a passage that is quickly elided and easy to miss:

. . . . . 
It was good to give myself time, it was good
to be an artefact
washed up and out on the timely rocks,
the buoys, of Massachusetts.
. . . . .

“Citizenship” is an example of those large poems that I like a lot. You can live inside and explore them as a reader and they don’t reject you, even though they often take a lot of time and reading of the poet’s other work before they begin to come into focus. There are a number of others in The Striped World, including “Waiting” which, like “Citizenship”, is set in a library. This is a poem which takes up one of Jones’s major images of process and perception – the wind – and uses it, together with the story of the fate of a school friend, now ensconced in the United States, to anchor an extended meditation on change. Rather nicely, a central passage combines Pound and St Paul, recognizing the potential double meaning in the famous statement from “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”:

. . . . . 
It says “why write? there’s nothing in it.”
When we were girls
we had the souls of girls

and now that we’ve grown
we have the souls of girls. Why say
“innocence ends” when the same

blue bird beats in the chest
as before, and we breathe the same blue water?
I haven’t put childish things from me.

And when I spoke as a child
there was no difference. So should they write
“innocence ends”, or “there’s no such thing”?

And should you write? Wind, white cloud,
white paper . . .

Another extended piece, “Sentimental Public Man”, explores – I think – the implications of conceiving self as process rather than identity by looking at its darker, political, side. The public man has no real self and that is the cornerstone of his popularity: he can be transformed into the various identities which his public want. The poem begins by associating him with another of this book’s major images, the cage, but later speaks of him in terms of a mirror:

. . . . .
Someone walks with me for my protection.
And if I say
“things happen, and an average man

is made a brilliant thing
by solitary acts
and the gaze of his countrymen”

he says nothing;
it’s as if his pocket mirror had spoken;
it’s as if we must

as he says, go out, bright and blank,
and draw the world in,
and make it in our image.
. . . . .

Finally, in this loose grouping of long poems, is “Conversation”. This has a delicious structure whereby two demotic sentences, “Oh this and that. But for various reasons . . . I put off going back”, are separated by a thirty-four line, one sentence, expatiation on what the reasons are, all done in the highest of high styles. It is probably the poem which contains the most complete laying-out of the metaphysical and epistemological tenets in this poet’s materialist position and the individual statements are intense, figured and memorable. The child self is the doll in the doll’s house, “the fictive soul in its brute cathedral”; difference is “just distance, not a state”; this poet’s attitude to matter is “the kind of shuttered / Swiss neutrality a watch might feel for time”; the essential organ of perception, the eye, is “that heated room” and death is not the end of matter but a situation in which

. . . matter turns to matter,

and my small inalienable witness to this is real, I can’t pretend
to wish to be a rooted thing, full-grown, concerned

with practical matters, in a rooted world, and careful of borders,
when an ineradicable small portion glints, my mind, that alma mater,

and says, make your work your vicarage . . .

It’s quite a dazzling poem, structurally inventive enough to support its burden and, at the same time, lightened a little by a potentially comic setting.

The issues which I’ve tried to trace in these long poems underlie the shorter pieces in The Striped World. “Daphne”, for example, takes Ovid’s story and turns it into a statement about process over fixity. Daphne worries about the implications of a view of the world which might have her say, “Once I was a girl, now I’m a tree”. As she says in the poem, “Season’s don’t arrive. There’s just a shifting.” “The Mind” seems to expand on an image from “Conversation” and describes (it reminds me of Coleridge) the mind’s active role in creating forms, forms which are “your subjects and your penal inhabitants, / your cracked and cleaving citizenry.” It finishes with an image of the menagerie:

. . . I live in you like a paradisal ape
lives in a garden, walled, with onlookers;
as the zookeeper lives; as the girl lived in that house.

(Am I the only person left alive who thinks that “like” should never be used as a subordinating conjunction?)

Images of prisons and menageries form an important part of the shorter poems which are about perception and their significance is reflected in that these poems supply the book’s title. “Tiger in the Menagerie” is a fine poem because of the skilful way it enacts its theme whereby the striped tiger inside the barred cage everts so that the tiger is inside the cage. This is done by some lovely, fancy, cryptic and shape-shifting syntax and results in a chinese-box kind of paradox. A rather simpler but equally memorable poem is “Window” where the perceptual issues are, as in “Sentimental Public Man”, expressed through a character: in this case a sad man who looks out into the public world and also in into the world of the body. But the wonderful conclusion seems to stress that the poem’s real interest is in the phenomena of the mind and its perceptual processes:

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.

Finally, in these short poems, there is “Death’s Sadness” a really sharp (six line) poem about the twin towers which gives some idea about how Jones will deal with public issues – always a difficult question for a good poet since they bring with them desperately formed, solidified interpretations and thus are, almost immediately, clichés. What we get in “Death’s Sadness” is something really cryptic, so cryptic that I can’t work out whether its stance towards the events is something out of which a poetic method of talking about public outrages could be created:

Who knows death’s sadness when he parts his hair?
He parted it to the right, then left.

Death was a sad Vatican, his own state.
His lookout was a little mirror.

He sure was clever. The buildings slid.
Death had a hand in that and everything.

This poem leads me comfortably to speak about the two poems about which I have been silent. “Zoos for the Living” occurs early in the book and “Zoos for the Dead” almost at the end. They are two poems concerned less with perception and process than with Australia and its history: in fact they look like two surviving episodes from a kind of alternative poetic history of Australia. In the former the flooding of Adaminaby during the construction of the dams of the Snowy Mountains Scheme plays against memories of the poet’s mother’s arrival from England:

                                                           A beebop blonde
blue-eyed British jitterbug, she had a ticket to ride.
And her skin was as pale as the lashed cliffs at Dover.
It had a quality. It had a ring to it. And I was stitched in:
an alleged convict-celt, with a bland facade

like an Anglican chapel, and with secularized, mild,
deferential, careful, middle-class good manners.

In the latter, stolen generation material plays against images of diving into the wreck – here the wreck of a convict transport, the Miranda. The recurrent metaphor, drowning, is a magnificent one for Australian history which has brought the art of forgetfulness to a peak of perfection. The tone of the poems is slightly larky – with plenty of comic and grotesque surreal about them. The major issue is whether they represent the best things in this book, or are interesting early experiments in finding a mode to write about one’s native country and one’s self. They aren’t the poems in the book that I remember most lovingly but one can put the case for them by imagining how tempting it must have been to do them in the style of “Citizenship”, the style that Lowell mastered to bring the personal and the locally historical into focus together. You can imagine a poem circulating around the image of Adaminaby, the drowned town coming to the surface in drought, representing, as the drowned river does in Deliverance, the refusal of past trauma to be forgotten. The poem will then move in and out of personal memories, with a carefully titrated degree of revealed personal trauma, perhaps with a narrative section summarizing the poet’s history, before finishing with a plangent phrase that unites the country’s history with the author’s personal history. There’s a lot to be said for a poem that resists this method, that is prepared to seem less solemn and po-faced.

Time will tell, I suppose, whether these two Australian zoo poems are the best things in the book or the weakest. I’m reminded of another great first book, Judith Wright’s The Moving Image, which concludes with that long and very complex poem which gives its name to the book. I’ve never met anybody who actually liked it, though literary scholars have to work it over since it contains so much of the philosophy which lies behind the great shorter poems of the book. It’s an important poem that literary history – every bit as addicted to forgetfulness as macro-history – has chosen to forget. It’s hard to know how good a poet Emma Jones will end up being but one’s tempted to say of The Striped World that its poems promise “anything, everything”.