Erin McFayden reviews “A History of What I’ll Become” by Jill Jones
A History of What I’ll Become
By Jill Jones
Reviewed by ERIN McFAYDEN
Jill Jones’s A History of What I’ll Become practices profusion: formally, across its 85 interlocking poems and reams of reference, and affectively, in its oscillation between deep delight and an equally profound sense of frustration — even with, amongst other things, its own project. In ‘Oh Venus, That Zenith,’ day breaks across the persona:
Oh Venus I don’t forget you
in the spread
of tinted morning, the grids
I’ve wandered far in circles
around your heights
without shoes or sensibilities
I don’t forget you
and how I’ve climbed
into another balance, cusp
another arc and then
That a tinted morning might come over the poem as a ‘spread’ is fitting. We might hear, in these lines, echoes of ‘the spread’ as it’s used as a technical term in debate: a swelling-up of words in excess of grammar, and sometimes of meaning. The novelist Ben Lerner recently brought the phenomenon of ‘the spread’ to the attention of us non-debaters, claiming in The Topeka School that this glamorous (or clamorous) mode of speech characterises much ‘official’ language in contemporary life: ‘these types of disclosure were designed to conceal…even before the twenty-four hour news cycle, Twitter stems, algorithmic trading, spreadsheets, the DDoS attack, Americans were getting ‘spread’ in their daily lives’ . Jones’s poems aren’t trying to conceal, so much, but nevertheless their constant movements through the folds and arcs of language are always tailed by a sense of something within this excess evading us, slipping away just as the shifting light breaks over it. All this profusion might not lead us to conclusions, or any fixed answers, that is.
An interest in the fragment is Jones’s launch point into these twin senses of proliferation and loss. The collection opens with a series of epigraphs drawn from Shelley, H.D., Stein and Sappho. Sappho, especially, has been a long-standing interest for Jones, who has noted in interview that she’d ‘like to hear the ancient Greek metres and how her poems worked whole, rather than as fragments…’ . ‘As Long As You Need / Fragments’ pieces together ‘a series of mistranslations, misunderstandings, or loose versions of several fragments from Sappho,’ and is Jones’s most direct engagement with her throughout the collection. One thing that the poem is, is a paean to desire:
Remember our burlesque hearts
and heads relaxing on sweaty breasts
in Sydney’s sun ecstasy
in its dusk-pink twinky hours.
Remember making our way
Among shadowy electro-shapes
no party too hot…no dance
where we were absent.
Jones remixes Sappho, (mis)translating her for contemporary Sydney, with its little resolute pockets of queerness. The poem doesn’t pretend towards preservation of literary-historical artefact. Nor, really, does it attempt to make Sappho’s fragments whole in some static way, or ‘complete’ in the sense of being finished. Rather, Jones revels in the generative potential of the gap, the trap-doors of language and of imagination that can be opened in Sappho’s fragments:
Still…to the ends of the earth
Desires! all of them older
all of them younger all now
still lifting above the roof.
…in fabulous style…just like
honey…for as long
as you need…with these
These ellipses feel like they might have something of the same burlesque about them that hearts do, earlier in the poem: so many bright possibilities spangling across our minds at once. In this sense, A History of What I’ll Become isn’t an archival project in the simple sense of functioning as a record. It even goes further, I think, than art critic Hal Foster’s ‘archival art,’ which makes its source material ‘disturbed or detourné…obscure, retrieved in a gesture of alternative knowledge or counter-memory.’. Rather than just reconfiguring historical narratives, Jones writes a way of looking toward (perhaps, desiring) possible futures that emerge from the ruptures, gaps, and incoherences — as much as from the intelligible material — of various pasts.
These pasts could be literary-historical, as in references to Sappho and a host of other, largely European and US, poets. They could also be distinctly Australian, or distinctly of Sydney, and autobiographical. Certainly the middle section of the collection is centred on a Sydney recalled both too foggily and too vividly: a Sydney the site of disappointment, decay, or plain grossness. One of the collection’s rare prose poems, ‘All That Shudder,’ sees the speaker returning to the empty set of their youth:
‘That year, I went back to the city alone, me and all my noisy solitude. Everyone’s gone now. I remember the way we’d gossip stories into night, along those roads, Glebe Point Road, Darlinghurst Road. Or walk to the harbour, listen to the wharves, what’s left of them…
…I remember helping another girl throw up, just here, in another century after a night nearby with booming walls, all of that survival in tune with a kiss, names and numbers on drink coasters, promises as opposed to meanings, too many women not watching you.’
The deflation of revisiting this personal history is palpable. Jones’s persona herself doesn’t even get to throw up her discomfort; she just has to watch somebody else get their difficult feelings out. Many of these Sydney poems call back to Jones’s earlier work, including Screens Jets Heaven (2002) with its ‘Marrickville Sonnet,’ and the suburban or domestic scenes of The Beautiful Anxiety (2014) and Viva The Real (2018), which work in the same mode and with the same surrounding materials, even where particular place names aren’t mentioned. In this way, Jones engages with pieces of her own writerly past, as much as with an extra-textual personal history.
So much for this past, then — what about the future, as Jones writes it? For one thing, it’s still the source of an anxiety: Jones writes into the frustration attending encounters with patriarchal or homophobic oppression that doesn’t look like dropping off anytime soon, as well as with the seeming inevitability of climate collapse. How, these poems ask, can we write towards a progressive future in good faith, given the conditions of our present? As with her examinations of Sydney, this frustration has long permeated Jones’s work. In Viva The Real’s ‘Small Things,’ for example, she asks that ‘instead of a dove-grey rapture,’ her reader ‘wake up and arrange your resistance’ . The limits against which a lyric voice breaks impose themselves, still, in A History of What I’ll Become’s ‘Patience Without Virtue’:
Everyone loves the female voice.
Am I forgiven for having one?
I wait patiently, hoping it’s only
to do with simple flowers. It never is.
I dissent again. The moon goes as it came. (31)
The moon is immune — like the myriad political failures toward which we might also address our lyric plaint — even to a poetry so obsessively interested in it. And, yet, while Jones does scrutinise her own efforts to write a future from fragments of the past and present, the collection doesn’t culminate in any sort of disavowal of poetry. It’s much too joyful in its abundance, its word-play, its feeling and its cleverness for that.
Interested as Jones is in the form of the lyric fragment, and in a lyric lineage from Dickinson through to contemporary phenomenological poets like Vahni Capildeo via John Ashbery, the sense of lyric impulse as ultimately bound up with something hidden, inaccessible, or ineffable could well be at play here. Jones’s refusal of closure is well noted , and I want to extend this commentary by suggesting that the irreconcilability of Jones’s work to easy conclusions is a feature of the lyric mode she writes, reads, and thinks in. In this mode, as Alphonse de Lamartine has it in one of Jones’s epigraphs,
The real is narrow,
the possible is immense…
…and irreducible to its signs, lush as they may be in this work. If Jones refuses conclusions, transcendental proclamations, or delivery of a firm futuristic vision, she does so with reverence to the past and utter delight in the sense(s) of the present(s). There’s something we can’t quite grasp at the centre of this work, but so much flickering light to fold through ourselves in its surface.
- Ben Lerner, The Topeka School (New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Girroux, 2019), p. 39.
- Jill Jones, ‘Jill Jones is Poet of the Month,’ interview in The Australian Book Review no. 382, June-July 2016.
- Hal Foster, ‘The Archival Impulse,’ October vol. 110, Autumn 2004, p. 4.
- Jill Jones, ‘Small Things,’ in Viva The Real (Brisbane: UQP, 2018).
- See, for example, Aidan Coleman, ‘Let a Thousand Errors Bloom,’ Sydney Review of Books, July 6, 2020.
ERIN McFAYDEN is a writer, researcher, and educator based on Gadigal land. Her work can be found in Artist Profile, Art + Australia, and The Cambridge Review of Books, amongst others.’