Reviewed by Clare Best, Helena Nelson and Ross Kightly
Chris Jones’ latest collection opens with a short section of poems about lyricists, poetry and poets. These pieces raise doubts and searching questions about the poetic craft and its practitioners, whilst showing Jones himself as an accomplished and amusing craftsman in pursuit of something like the point and purpose of poetry/song.
The lines in these opening poems rattle along, metrical and rhymed, telling their stories of the likes of Thom Gunn, who is immortalised in ‘An Invitation’:
He’s easy, bear-like, big with charm,
blue jeans, black panther on his arm,
an earring glints; he talks and flirts
though when I err he smooths his shirt,
in no uncertain terms explains
he never trekked to Fascist Spain.
The final poem in the untitled opening section, ‘Now, Now is the perfect time of my life’, sets out, in the first person, to tell a slightly wistful narrative of the poet as his 17-year-old self in dialogue with his friend Kat, concluding somehow that his poems still exist in Plath’s deadly pickling fluid – “my babies floating in their jars”.
The collection then takes off into the ‘Jigs and Reels’ section. This consists of eight pieces, each occupying a double-page spread across which two versions or modes or parts of a poem are ranged. These poems are all in quatrains, all rhyming. I found them suggestive and mysterious, innovative and moving, with their same-but-different takes on related images and themes. Together they form a weave of significant power, focussing on accidents, incidents and observations of everyday life and placing things side by side to speak to each other. The lines and images seem to move and slide in relationship. The effect is certainly dance-like, mesmeric, leaving the reader reeling.
‘Skin’ and ‘Movies’ complete this collection, stepping outside and beyond the poignancy of the poems in the ‘Jigs and Reels’ section to a more considered vantage point. ‘Skin’ is a painful meditation on vulnerability and frailty, whilst ‘Movies’ addresses the fragmented nature of experience and reflects on how we cobble scraps into stories with which to console or baffle ourselves.
This is one of those pamphlets that’s close to being a book. It has a thin spine, and there are three endorsements and some bio on the back jackets, quite a heavy weight of recommendation for a chapbook.
In fact, of its 38 pages, only 26 contain poems, and of these, seven precede the ‘Jigs and Reels’ section that gives the collection its name. The result is slightly odd. The early poems are mainly tributes to other artists. The first features songwriter Paddy McAloon, I think – a nice piece but with an awkward (to me) final line – and this reflects a recurring problem I had here. The publication has lovely stretches and then suddenly bits that snag or puzzle. Here are the last few lines of ‘King of Rock ’n’ Roll’:
[ . . . ] the guy who shunned all stir and buzz
beneath the tender stitch-work of each song;
fragile as star-shine for seeming like us,
who soon as I caught wind of was gone.
I can’t see that “who soon as I caught wind of” can sound mellifluous. It’s trying too hard for compression. Does it not fall victim to its own lyric impulse? Tribute poems follow for Thom Gunn and Ken Smith, and the second of these is, I think, both moving and well handled.
On reaching the ‘Jigs and Reels’ section, a title page gives the impression that the real pamphlet has started and this is corroborated by formal consistency in subsequent pages. In fact, for 16 pages, poems continue in metrical quatrains; there is a feeling of ‘jig and reel’, though the tone is reflective. Some interesting things are going on between poems twinned on facing pages. I liked ‘A Conversation / For the Lad’. Like many of the poems in this section, the emotive charge is strong:
I chip these quatrain blocks in part
to show precisely what he’s missed
though understand the end of art
both magnifies, diminishes.
But even here, something in me wants to tussle with the expression, wants it not to take the easy way by dropping words to fit the rhythm, wants it to say what I think he means: “though I understand the end of art / both magnifies and diminishes”.
Towards the end of the pamphlet, there’s ‘Skin’, a prose poem. It narrates the poet’s experience of a skin disease at the age of 13. I found it wholly compelling.
The final poem, ‘Movies’, to my mind, takes two stanzas to get going. But the excellent second half captures a family scene, in front of a TV screen. Here is the final stanza, which strikes me as perfect:
The four of us knee-deep among the cushions
move from chat toward a moment’s hush,
caught out by plot, by love, some tricky part,
and though I try to learn these scenes by heart
I’m lost for words, distracted – see, I’m crying
and when you ask me I can’t tell you why.
It took me a little time really to ‘get into’ this collection but once in, I found I really liked where I was. Not because it was a particularly comfortable place to be – because it wasn't – but because there was a helluva lot goin’ on. We've got the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, Thom Gunn and Sylvia Plath all jostling around – and that’s only the first four poems.
Things get a bit more intimate in the eponymously-titled section, which comprises 16 tightly-wound, dense and intense poems arranged in pairs. I was brought up short by images such as “I was eighteen and awkward as elbows”; while in ‘An Invitation’, Thom Gunn is not only “big with charm” but also – in one of the most apt poem endings I can remember – “a streetwise dude from some old poem”.
These few quotations should be sufficient to convey a flavour of the easy rhythms of the verse, but there is also the unobtrusive rhyme that links “streets” to “sleeps” and “given” to “hidden” amidst other more conventional music.
There’s childbirth and death and all the rest of the stuff that goes on in life, and I have to say that the whole collection clinched a permanent place on my grossly-overcrowded shelves with the last poem, ‘Movies’, which begins with the line: “There are films I've never lasted through”. It goes on to explain why: such films were in the background to family life where the poet had to be “chaperone to check the spats and brawls”. When the poem concludes by saying “I'm lost for words, distracted – see, I'm crying / and when you ask me I can’t tell you why”, I know why I am.