Reflections, by Marion Jones (Steele Roberts, 2012), 80 pp., $20.
Until Marion Jones published two books of poetry in recent years, it had been difficult to come across more than a handful of her well-crafted poems. Though some of the poems in her second book, Reflections(2012), at first seemed somewhat reserved, I soon warmed to them. They have a seriousness of intent reflected in careful word placement that is similar to an artist patiently putting down on canvas what she sees in her mind’s eye. Often the picture is of a dwelling place.
Jones published her first collection of poetry, Renovations, in 2010. In layout and tone it is a companion to Reflections. They create a de-facto selected works spanning some decades, and are therefore worth exploring together.
The poet vividly describes various houses of her childhood and of the present day, their weathering by daily light, and the patina left on the surfaces of these interiors by consciousness and memory. Underlying the visible is the audible: cries and rejoinders, ancestral voices. There are echoes in several poems of the contemplative Thomas Merton and Rilke, who are also referenced in the endnotes.
The description of a tableau carved into wood in ‘Wooden plaque’ (Reflections) nicely illustrates Jones’s craft, her fine-tuning of words and sounds. The scene is not exactly literal – catch the echo of Omar Khayyam’s ‘Rubaiyat’:
On the shelf, a bowl,
a jug, a loaf. A tree
at the window bends
in the wind. Her eyes
follow the younger, as
she climbs the corner
stair to lie beneath
the quilt on a narrow
Cracks in the walls of dwellings are a refrain – fissures or spaces that are covered over – a symbol that varies in different poems:
A fragrance of drying paper
conceals a skeleton of
splintered boards beneath
the skirts of woven hemp.
[‘Skeleton’ – Reflections]
between the tongue-and-groove,
where is a crack for slipping through?
[‘Room in the wall’ – Reflections]
‘Shed lantern’, one of a series of seven poems in Renovationsbased on paintings by the American realist painter, Andrew Wyeth, is a characteristic Jones poem. Though a mysterious goblin figure makes some kind of sense within the drama set up by the poem, it only fully sprang to life for me when I sought out Wyeth’s painting and saw what Jones had seen: a shadow-figure cast by the lantern. The last line, On the wall, sun casts a lantern frame in shadow, replicates the ambivalent interplay of light and shade in Wyeth. The poem is a kind of pantoum in which eight different lines are repeated once, the sixteen lines interwoven over four quatrains, to create a symmetrical pattern, a sense of containment riven with tensions. This is an apt structural basis for the poem’s theme of a domestic sphere, a place where the homelessand the outsider can find refuge, but also where the light of security, a lantern, casts shadows. Yet dark things can be revealing: a goblin’s back sheds light.
Though the poem is partly about obscurity – Obscured, the eyes turn toward the fartherest corner – it is not obscure. It encapsulates common themes of Jones’s two books: of worlds within worlds, the personal within the domestic within the historic; as well as of images within words and words within images. One of the lines repeated towards the end of the poem appears to image that core to the domestic sphere, marriage: Half-human, half-animal, two will merge as one. Other poems also explore the complexities of a close relationship: ‘Language you recognise’ in Renovations, is a notable example.
‘Shed lantern’, like some other poems in these two volumes, employs the literary device of ekphrasis, which is a description, sometimes of a picture, a mode that is ancient but still relevant as it deals with the dynamic space where the verbal and visual interact. Jones creates pictures of childhood interiors in the USA (‘Grandmother’s house’), a home on the coast south of Dunedin, and the houses of other people (‘Wind from the sea’). The covers of the two books are matching photographs of two-storied houses: Reflectionshas an image described on the imprint page as ‘Brighton, 1895’ [New Zealand]; and though the photograph of the two-storied house set in snow on the cover of Renovations is not referenced, it is a reasonable guess this is an old American house of some significance to the author.
Jones grew up in the USA but has lived many years in New Zealand, which explains the complex interweaving of experiences and memories of both countries in these two books. The last lines in Reflectionsfrom the short sequence entitled ‘Reflections (iii)’ considers New Zealand’s isolation in a similar tone to R.A.K. Mason’s famous lines, ‘this far-pitched perilous hostile place [ … ] fixed at the friendless outer edge of space’:
Oceans cannot claim
this God-forsaken place,
This of course is not Jones’s last word on New Zealand: there are many, and some are sunny, although underlying is a persistent dialectic of exile and belonging.
Wyeth’s world of weathered landscapes, dwellings and people is a visual correlative of the world of Jones’s poems. One of his most famous paintings, ‘Wind from the sea’, which depicts a room with gauze curtains billowing over a half open sash window through which a sere field and rudimentary road curve towards a distant ocean, is the starting point for an excellent poem dedicated to an acquaintance. After describing the town, Jones begins to describe the interior of the house of the dedicatee by describing the scene in Wyeth’s painting, and then:
On the floor
a painting, its frame,
its glass lie broken,
while night light
shines from windows,
doors, blazes from
The attempt to ‘frame’ a scene, aestheticise it, cannot be sustained; the view widens to the far shoreline:
pathways and gates
of the township
down to the sand,
over rocks and waves,
beyond the breakwater,
as if a lighthouse
again and again.
[‘Wind from the sea’ – Renovations]
At first I had to read back to find the syntactical source of the beacon – the ‘night light’; the light can also be read as the poet’s searching mind that like a lighthouse beacon scans dark depths. In ‘Lighthouse keeper, Taiaroa Head’ from Reflections, the motif of a lighthouse dominates the poem: an example of how themes and imagery flit between the two books.
Many more poems reward close scrutiny. There are several other loose categories besides the evocation of dwellings. In the latest book, Reflections, the first section has a series of poems in which the protagonist dissects her childhood relationship with her stepmother. The beginning and ending of ‘Flight Notes’ spells out the scenario:
‘You’re leaving to get away from
me,’ stepmother says. Rust tinges
the western sky as the plane lifts.
The City of Angels, a star disk tips
on edge, disappears [ … ]
Stepmother arrives, as
the Tower Clock strikes twelve noon.
The insistent use of the second-person singular – you – for the young girl in these stepmother poems is suitably dislocating: this is a harrowing study of a past underlying the present. Later in the book, in ‘Search for a shoe’, an unnamed ‘hag’ suggests the stepmother transformed into an embryonic mythic figure:
At my gate that night, her eyes,
red coals, seethe with the search
for her shoe, my mother, me.
The leading character of a further group of poems is a cleaner. Cleaning is a fitting occupation in a world of interiors of many surfaces, although the structures in these particular poems are educational institutions. Here, Jones looks unflinchingly at the world’s less glamorous patina:
two tiles up, Steelo and the Plus do not remove the circles of semen stuck like contact glue [ … ]
These young boys are the sacred beloved of Maori Hill fathers and mothers
[‘End Bac and the Gloria’ – Reflections]
This prose poem, and other poems in the group, empathetically take on a cleaner’s point of view of society. Other prose poems also have a grittiness of detail that complements the tensile limpidity of the verse. ‘Short talk on balance’, the final poem in Renovations, beautifully brings into play the poet’s grandmother and traditional motifs of measuring and balancing, such as pyramid and water jug, with the contemporary hieroglyphs of blue screen and GST:
In her eyes, I see she knew beforehand the deficit in my name, all I would have to pay. Inexplicably, her presence carries over: a credit, my balance, as I stand in line.
Not all Jones’s poems are fully achieved: some are brief reflections, observations that have a homily affixed, off-cuts from the work-bench. But that doesn’t matter; it’s the drive that matters, those occasions when all the elements cohere – into spare and scintillating poems.
DENIS HAROLD is an editor and researcher who lives near Dunedin.