Jane Williams: Parts of the Main

Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2017, 106pp.

Jane Williams is one of those poets whose work becomes progressively more engaging and interesting as years, and books, pass. There isn’t much in her first book, Outside Temple Boundaries, that prepares you for how good Parts of the Main is, but then twenty years is a reasonably long time in a writing career. As poetry, these poems are not especially ambitious or experimental – by which I mean that, a few lines in, you know, at least generally, where you are, even if you hope that the direction the poem travels will not be predictable. In poetry’s house of many mansions these belong in the wing kept aside for calm, free verse meditations usually hung on some item of personal experience. But they do have threads of obsession that animate and unify them. And the most important of these is an interest in other parts of our lives, other directions our lives might have taken, those times we can be creatively lost, and how we can gain any sort of perspective on this thing called “our lives”. One could choose poems almost at random to explore this but “Elsewhere” from late in the book’s first section might do for a start:

there’s an emptiness to evenings like this
a loneliness that can stare down buildings

reshape everything even bitumen even intent
until leaving becomes the next natural step

in the evolution of a life couched in waiting
for the rules for the impetus for the lights to change

for the mottled blue longing of the sky to shift
and the road out of town fixed as it is to turn left

to turn right and lead somewhere else.

This is a fairly abstract poem and one might contrast it with something like “First Morning in Venice” where the poet listens to the story of a fellow tourist who, having been lost in Venice’s labyrinthine alleyways is rescued by an old man who returns her through “a succession of frescoes, / across a fifteenth-century plaza, / somehow threading three floors / of hospital corridors”. Thinking about the mesmerizingly complex city around her, the poet describes it as designed “to waylay us from whatever task, / whatever path it is we think we’re on”. You could place those poems of Parts of the Main which deal with alternative lives (or alternatives within our lives) on a spectrum between these two poems, between generalised meditation and specific anecdote.

Take a poem like “Doppelgangers”, for example, the first poem of the second part of Parts of the Main. It begins:

They’re out there somewhere
making the moves we dream for them;
shining second-chance moves.

One, with an eye for detail
shifts boundaries incrementally.
Another, prescient, chooses to lean
this way not that into a changing climate.

A propagandist becomes a poet
becomes a man and everyone gets it -
really, everyone understands . . .

Here the alternatives in our lives are imagined as inhabitants of a parallel (and perhaps contiguous) universe. But the poem is conceived ethically in that the alternatives are morally superior second chances which mean that the characters will not to be funnelled down a bad pathway. So the first of them (in the first two lines of the second stanza) doesn’t tie him- or herself to an inflexible set of principles; the second makes different decisions in that crucial moment when the values of a culture can be felt to change. The third is the most interesting because it contrasts choices made between being a poet and being an activist. As a result (in my reading anyway) poetry is positioned as a way in which issues are raised without the inevitable one-eyedness of the activist: it’s one of the roles for poetry (and the creative arts generally) that I’ve always wanted to endorse.

As the Venice poem reminds us, travel is a good, practical way to have our preconceptions altered, our planned journeys turned aside. The book’s second poem, “Everything About Us”, has a title whose ambiguity nicely expresses the centrifugal and centripetal approaches to the self. It details the experience of living in a Muslim country during Ramadhan where everything seems to define the visitor as foreign but the visitor experiences, almost by osmosis, some kind of redefinition:

. . . . .  But labels are blankets we hide under, revealing selective truths by torchlight. Empty beer bottles replicate like drones on the laminate bench top, then stop. We moderate. Abstain. Our bodies thank us. A new ethos sidles up to the old one, we let parts of it in – no more or less than we need . . . . .

This poem finishes with an affirmation of those experiences which transcend their cultural inflection, in this case, a mother kisses her boy goodbye at the gates to his school. In the next poem a woman has a “slight stroke” in a restaurant and her husband, after organising the ambulance, turns “to the comfort of a single sauce-drenched / spring roll”. This might have been easy to criticise in terms of basic human self-centred greed but the poem sees the gesture as a grasping of the familiar in a moment of crisis: the “simple affirmation, / the vivifying sweet and sour of its call”. Two poems embody the intense experience that these abrupt meetings with otherness can provide. In “Pembantu Rumah (Maid)”, the poet worries (in a way that is nicely conveyed by verbal repetitions in the text) that she doesn’t engage with her housemaid – who seems a self-effacing domestic fitting. When she eventually asks her name, the weather abruptly changes, bringing the relief of rain. And “The Newlywed” (another nicely ambiguous title) sees the heady experience of being alien from the perspective of another character, as both poet and a recently married Asian woman stand alongside each other waiting to visit the Eiffel Tower.

The poems of the final section of the book detail a period spent in the Slovak city of Sturovo, on the Danube and connected to neighbouring Hungary by a bridge – always a potent source of symbolism. The final long poem, “Days of Leaving – Notes to Self”, acts as a kind of summary of these poems about unpredictable changes of direction when it says, as one of the notes to self, “be open to getting lost – / it could be part of the story / that sustains you / when nothing else will”.

Unpredictable changes to the pattern of one’s life make, as I’ve said, for a lot of thematic consistency in the book but any reader would want to know how this applies at the level of the poems themselves. The theme almost demands that the poems which express it should not be poems running along familiar tracks with familiar conclusions but poems which work by taking unexpected turns. There are plenty of these and I’ll look at them in detail in a moment but first one would want to look at some of those poems whose shape is familiar. “Dog Beach”, for example, is superficially a semi-comic piece about a beach where all breeds of dog can be found:

not its official name
but for the sake of preserving
certain dignities
(which my dog loving friend
assures me they have, along with
neuroses, borrowed hopes . . .)

it seems to me this day
they’re all here on Dog Beach:
the black, the white, the brindle,
the ghosts of packs past,
of untenable future breeds,

expressions not so alien
from our own –

sidekick Labs
clumsy with love, 
fretful Dachshunds,
lap leaping Shih Tzus
Pick me! Pick me!
Dalmatians shifting stance
between goofy and gallant . . .

The fact that I’ve had to quote a minor, if successful, poem at such length is a clue to its structure: it keeps its head above water by being a long imaginative list conveyed in long syntactic structures. This sounds very like the method we associate with Bruce Dawe and the fact that poem is about dogs is likely to recall something like Dawe’s “Dogs in the Morning Light”. Interestingly this is a poem whose conclusion is about familiar comforts – “who among us hasn’t desired / when at a loss for words, / the simple salience / of a tail to wag . . .” – rather than challenging escapades on unfamiliar paths. “The Day the Earth Moved” is another Daweish piece, a long single sentence describing an experience of the unfamiliar (or defamiliarising) in which a woman’s laugh (on a busy intersection on a Monday morning) suddenly makes her seem something more than human – “not woman, but merwoman / gone AWOL, caught out / slipping partially back into form”. It’s a poem that works by framing something uncanny in solid, assertive, straightforward poetic utterance. As does “Show and Tell” where the appearance of an eagle makes a cast of tourists put down their cameras in recognition that this particular incarnation of the real is “unshowable, untellable” and is only insulted by the cameras and their owners’ “compulsion to frame / the endless, abridged versions of us . . .”

But, as I’ve said, a poetry interested in unexpected turns in our lives really has to be capable of unexpected turns itself and a number of the poems of Parts of the Main rise to this. “Swallowing the Sky”, for example, is about how a poem forms itself at the same moment (and with the same randomness) that a cloud forms itself into the shape of a dog: it begins to dissolve at the moment of formation:

. . . . . 
Such fine points of ears,
legs built for speed, for the hunt,
tail set to thump nothing into being,
open jawed, tasting life on the hop.
Yet even as the poem takes shape,
its inevitable dissolve has begun:
a quiver in the back legs then the front . . .

The structure has that pleasing paradox of being an assertive poem about the failure of a poem. Something similar lies behind “This Complicated Inner Life” which sets out to be a poem celebrating an ambitious creative conception – “you’re thinking novel; big picture work of substance you have outlines whole drafts the scaffolding for the building . . . “ – until the pathway laid out turns into doubt-ridden quicksand. But whereas “Swallowing the Sky” ended in dissolution, this poem ends in some sort of surprising affirmation, perhaps that major works operate by accretion rather than by grand conception. The symbol used at the end is the group of ants found on the breakfast bench at the end of the night’s creative highs and lows: “you notice as if for the first time the ants on the bench mandibles raised in unison the way they cooperate to navigate that single crumb homeward more than slaves to the hive mind more than marks on the page”. “My Mother Asks Me to Write a Butterfly Poem” is, perhaps, the counterpart to “Swallowing the Sky” and “This Complicated Inner Life” in that it begins with the poet feeling she should remind her mother that you can’t write poems on commission but then, unexpectedly, she finds that the poem comes, replete with the inevitable metaphors of cocoons and transformation:

. . . . . 
So I start as we all must
alone and not alone
cocooned in the dark,
blank stare, blank slate
and wait and wait
until finally I get it
(how did she know I would?);
this is why we’re here,
all of us artists,
our singular job
to emerge, take flight,
disconnect the dots,
recolour the world.

I like “all of us artists” with its ambiguity of “all of us who are artists” or “all of us are artists” just as I like the way “disconnect the dots” expresses the sense of defamiliarizing that this book emphasises. But perhaps the most extreme case of a poem’s structure matching its theme of unusual pathways is “Proof of Existence”, one of the prose poems, which begins with the poet a bit depressed, wanting to be alone, going on a walk:

. . . . . I want all the possibilities, all the privileges of this spring day to myself – whatever hidden truths a walk in the park might reveal, loosed from the obligations, the diversions of technology and time. I take the delirious risk of leaving my phone at home, and soon my mind is drifting then spinning past identity . . .

A few lines later she is in the Amazon rain forest, where natives are looking up at a research plane which is taking photos of them. In the next sentence she has become one of these natives, “we tilt our masked faces to the cloudless sky as the giant metal bird passes overhead . . . “ – a fine example of a poem stepping out in unpredictable but ultimately satisfying directions.

Surprise, unpredictability and the uncanny that results from defamiliarizing tend to be a fraction cerebral – perhaps it’s no accident that so many of them appear in prose poems, a form suited to conveying the twists that the mind enjoys. One of the best poems in Parts of the Main shows that they can have a powerful emotional charge. “Days of Blue and Banter” begins with “a routine walk” in Ireland which is interrupted by a chance encounter with a neighbour. Unpredictably and embarrassingly a set of social clichés prompts a rush of words “rising unbidden / from the untold depth of you”:

. . . . . 
When you worry that you’ve said to much,
it’s the old man who gently closes the divide;
six sisters who never knew how to speak
to each other or anyone
about anything that mattered.
No blue bright enough to keep them buoyed.
How they’re all, each one dead now,
from the cancer. No more to say. So you talk,
he implores, you talk away . . .

The old man’s final words are imperative rather than indicative (“Go ahead and talk . . .” rather than “So we talk . . .) and his assumption is the old (perhaps to-be-expected) one that silence is a self-repression that grows cancerous, but this doesn’t lessen the emotional impact that the unexpected – the sudden upwelling of confessions made to a chance acquaintance – has here.