Jill Jones, ‘The Beautiful Anxiety’ in Cordite

Review Short: Jill Jones’s The Beautiful Anxiety 25 March 2014


Frank O’Hara has a poem unambiguously and humorously titled ‘You Are Gorgeous and I’m Coming’. As pastiche or homage – even incidentally – the first two poems from the six-part sequence that opens Jill Jones’s stunning new collection The Beautiful Anxiety are titled: ‘1. Hold On’, and ‘2. I’m Coming’ (‘My Ruined Lyrics’). The present continuous tense of the verb ‘to come’ is thematically apt everywhere in this collection. Not only are poems throughout The Beautiful Anxiety sensual and frequented by moments of desire or quiet ecstasy, they are constantly ‘coming’ in the sense that they are arriving.

Sometimes these arrivals make their way through lines that rush at the reader, swerving in as though ready to collide; other times they sway the direction of the poems gently, offering surprising segues into new and unexpected terrains. From ‘My Ruined Lyrics’, ‘5. Flesh and Spark’ begins: ‘And when I came / to you / it was raining’. Pages later this preoccupation with coming, with arrival, continues with ‘What’s Coming Next’, a superb poem in which Jones offers: ‘In the glass is another world. / You can bare silence and find it neither golden nor clean.’ The poem veers between moments that apprehend the familiar world – even the mundane – and departures into the surreal, dreamlike, and wholly imaginary or abstract. Wry lines such as ‘We are coughing because the train is late’, ‘Maybe it’s easier to focus on cloudy days’, and ‘An expensive perfume arises out of damp air’, are interspersed with ‘Do dreams stand up in the slashing gravel?’ Weather lore rhymes and idioms are also alluded to, yet these presences are continually deflecting, defamiliarising: ‘If today is streaky, tomorrow will be unreasonable’, and ‘All bets are off. / You have to go through with it.’ Each line or couplet offers a surprising connection or shift between registers, yet these slants and disconnects feel natural, never contrived.

Jones’s striking humour, which ought to be be noted as another feature of this collection, is established through effortless wordplay in ‘The Future’: ‘And music, well, its dire straits are everywhere’. In this same poem, the natural world is a presence that ravishes and is, in turn, ravished by the poet’s gaze: ‘And later, to be kissed by the sea / amongst salt and dogs, a bulging sun. // Our hunger swoops upon our dreams.’

The book is divided into three parts, respectively titled ‘O tasted and gone’, ‘Wandering breath’, and ‘Which is being too’. The penultimate poem in Part One is ‘As It Comes To You, Finally’, which opens with: ‘I see smoke loops by trees / and hear voices of those / arrested and pursued.’ Yet despite the poem’s title, replicated (without the comma this time) in one of the closing lines, there are no finalities here. Rather, the poet offers gaps and shifts, absence and elusion, illustrated most openly by an ellipsis in the poem’s second last line: ‘If we’re all at a cliff and a balance / … / to break ourselves of everything.’

Certainly, transience and points of entry and/or departure are the focus of much of Jones’s poetry, as the titles of collections such as Broken/Open (Salt, 2005) and Dark Bright Doors (Wakefield Press, 2010) might suggest. Also central to this poet’s work (both previous and new) are place and weather, texture and tactility, which are similarly evidenced by the title of Jones’s preceding and equally exquisite book of poems, Ash is Here, So Are Stars (Walleah Press, 2012). The natural world may be a preoccupation of many poets and poetic traditions, however in Jones’s verse these tropes are keenly observed and interrogated, refuted even as they are evoked. From ‘Trees’: ‘There’s nothing you can / say about night / that hasn’t been said, / dreams, horrors / all that banal dark stuff’.

The work of a poem taking place in a tangible environment and language’s negation of the world and lived experiences is another presence at play here. ‘Turns on Water’ notes ‘language both outside and inside’. In ‘Misinterpretations /or The Dark Grey Outline’, ‘Light is spring silver / and escapes my language’. This poem ends with ‘cold erupting through asphalt, /sight and feeling mashed with / my flaking alphabets’.

Throughout The Beautiful Anxiety, corporeality and ethereality, the vast and the intimate, the personal and the (eco)political, are twinned with skilful precision, musicality, and a sense of the strange and mysterious.

Jo Langdon

Read this review in Cordite

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