April 2009

Arts & Letters

‘The Striped World’ by Emma Jones

By Alexandra Coghlan

Awarded Australia's prestigious Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2005 for her poem ‘Zoos for the Dead', it is with the publication of her debut collection, The Striped World, that Emma Jones makes her first inroads into the broader poetic consciousness. She also becomes the first Australian poet to be published by literary kingmakers Faber & Faber. Eliot, Larkin, Plath and Hughes all made their home and their mark between Faber's trademark cardboard covers, and this collection finds Jones not only being situated but aesthetically situating herself in this tradition.

The poems speak of Australia, of the uncertain orphan autonomy and historical ambivalence of the postcolonial world, but they refract these concerns through a recognisably Eurocentric framework. Jones is a highly educated and skilled ventriloquist; through the collection you hear her trying out different voices, whether the conversational lyricism of Larkin, in ‘Window', or the playful irreverence of Eliot, in ‘A Literary History'. If the result is a little frenetic, a little unfocused in tone, it also (consciously or unconsciously) vividly enacts the painstaking sculpting of self, a process undertaken daily by Australia's artists.

Jones's striped world pulses, shifts and ticks with the impatient energy of transition and gestation. We are stalked by caged tigers - "the bars were the lashes of the stripes / the stripes were the lashes of the bars" - and lulled by the "grey babel tongues" of parrots; yet, just as we are in danger of losing ourselves in words, we are brought up short: "I prefer the word / for the thing to the thing itself." Jones's confession recalls Adrienne Rich's ‘Diving into the Wreck' (a poem echoed in Jones's ‘Zoos for the Dead') and her quest for "the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth". For Rich, "words are maps", ciphers through which to read the world rather than destinations; if Jones's poems are still largely concerned with their own poetic processes, with the "story of the wreck" and not the wreck itself, it's only a matter of time before her bold writing finds its own voice, and with it the ability to journey beyond itself. Until that journey begins, you could do worse than sojourn in the dynamic verbal landscapes of The Striped World.

Alexandra Coghlan

Alexandra Coghlan is the classical music critic for the New Statesman. She has written on the arts for the Guardian and Prospect.

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