Jill Jones, ‘The Beautiful Anxiety’ in Meanjin
Selves and Their Grace Notes: Poetry in Review
Martin Langford reviews six new works of Australian poetry in Meanjin, May 2015
Jill Jones has always been a sensual writer, a close observer of weather, cityscapes and urban detritus: ‘each element of fibre, the occasional feather / or slip of whitened excrement / the glassy tips of plastic that flutter / as you pass’, and there has often been a lyrical inflection to the way her ever-mobile subject encounters its endlessly unfolding welter of details. In her earlier work, the poems were often grounded in a particular mood—unhappiness, say, or frustration at the daily round. In a poem such as ‘Inside and Outside Houses’, she slipped out of the self and into a world of infinitives:
To feel the moon behind my shoulder now,
steady, clear in a colder region
above the deep routine of evening
inside and outside houses9
Many of the poems in her new book, The Beautiful Anxiety, are grounded in a broader perspective stemming from the experience and self-awareness of the mature writer. With a heightened consciousness of limits and relativities, this may be rich ground for the poem, but it is not necessarily a comfortable site for the subject to operate from. The title poem, which, I suspect, may become a touchstone for the understanding of Jones’ later work, begins from the point of view that ‘Damage seems almost a necessity … subcutaneous / like a language that entered you / without stamps of approval’, and proceeds to consider how ‘You must be going elsewhere’—with its characteristic confusion between passive and active—and that:
There’s never time to know
yourself. That’s the beautiful anxiety
of moving, as each gutter, each wing
each clip, or semiconductor
the air dripping through your skeleton
your fur that scares easily, as it all
seems to be crashing.
The air moves history into history.
You look where leaves hold the light
skin holds the light
edges hold the light.
Nothing holds on
To nominate the overarching mood as one of beautiful anxiety is to register both the impossibility of knowing ourselves, and the compelling and even pleasurable nature of the dilemmas that movement nevertheless engenders. A few of these poems, however, including this one, in which it ‘all / seems to be crashing’, also have an ominous air. In ‘Big Flower’, the poet dreams that she is visited by ‘death and the big flower’, passing through ‘plains of clouds’ until she is where:
Death knows me, the moon knows
me, I see that smile on the birds
that know me in the tree
to the northeast, me, their bright
bodies the least of my preparations.
‘What’s Coming Next’ is an Audenesque inventory of skew prognoses and slant familiarities:
In the glass is another world.
You can bare silence and find it neither golden nor clear.
If today is streaky, tomorrow will be unreasonable.
There’s a long street where leaves are tipped red.
There are no easy places to rest in Jones’ world—least of all in the assumptions her subjects might make about themselves. Small wonder that such a world is pervaded by anxiety: the astonishing thing is the persistent emergence of its beauties.
- Jill Jones, in Flagging down Time, Five Islands Press, Wollongong, 1993.