When we constantly ask for miracles, we’re unravelling the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would not be a world, it would be a cartoon. – Douglas Coupland
That ‘difficult’ second album has been the bane of a great many recording artistes over the years. The first album contains eleven or so tracks that they’ve probably honed to perfection over years and then, overnight, they’re discovered and, after the initial flush of success and two or three hit singles, reality dawns: the pressing need for a follow-up and sooner rather than later which, because of performing commitments they end up having to write on tour buses, in corners of dressing rooms and sprawled across anonymous hotel room beds. And the pressure is on: Do they have anything else to offer? Bob Dylan certainly did with The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan as did Nirvana with Nevermind and Oasis with (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?
And just as there are ‘difficult’ second albums there are ‘difficult’ second novels, seasons (I’m thinking TV shows), terms (politicians), films (The Matrix Reloaded anyone?) and poetry collections. A year ago Jessica Bell published her first collection of poetry entitled Twisted Velvet Chains which I reviewed quite favourably here. Towards the end of the review I inserted a comment made about the Australian poet Gwen Harwood—“ Whether the poems are written in formal metres and structures, or whether constructed in freer forms, they offer delights at the primal levels of their musicality and their ability to shift the boundaries between the verbal and the oral.”—and I followed this with: “I could well say something similar about Jessica. I’d love to underline that statement in twenty years time if she manages to broaden her palette but this is a decent start…”
I am pleased to report that with the publication of her second collection Fabric I see evidence that she has attempted to broaden her palette. The most noticeable difference is a veering away from “the kind of straight-talking poetry that I like” with solid punch lines that hammer home the points she has to make; there are Is and mes but these don’t feel like the earlier biographical or confessional poems. There was a narrative to Twisted Velvet Chains—the mother/daughter theme was strong, palpable—but this is missing with Fabric. That does not mean that Fabric lacks order because it’s very clear even from the most cursory flick through that this book is structured.
In the author’s note at the end of the book Jessica offers some thoughts. She opens with:
When trying to look at the bigger picture we tend to forget the individual. We also tend to forget that it is the individual that contributes to the bigger picture. We, each and every one of us, uniquely influence the moral fabric of society. The “framework” of society is us, the choices we make, the actions we take, and the beliefs we embrace. They may be significant to some, and not so significant to others, but they nevertheless weave the fabric of our world together, creating perpetual causes and effects, both big and small. We contribute to one big massive cycle of life. And we are important. We matter.
To this end the book is divided into four sections:
The language is Greek and the frequent references to Grecian culture and society are deliberate; although born in Australia Jessica has lived in Greece for a number of years.
Each section begins with a graphic showing a building with seven empty windows (the eighth has someone looking out at us) followed by seven haiku in a 4 x 3 grid. In her notes Jessica talks a lot about numerology specifically how she views the number seven:
To me, seven represents symmetry, reason, and order within the Universe. Even when life seems chaotic, there is an omnipresent fabric that is reassuringly homogeneous in its behaviour. We are all imperfect humans. We will be what we will be. And we are perfect just the way we are.
I know a little about numbers and I expect there will be a few who will nitpick at the particular significance she places on the number seven—most Christian groups accept one Archangel, not seven—but let’s not be petty; we’ll just call it poetic licence and leave it there. There were several instances she could have used from the Bible like the seven congregations in Revelation or the fact that the Israelites were said to have marched around the wall of Jericho seven times before they collapsed. It’s not a number I associate with perfection but rather with completeness which ties in with what she is saying. So, in what way are these 28 poems and 28 haiku complete?
As I mention above there are four sections to the book; in English, me, you, us and them. I therefore expected to find the first section full of poems in the first person, personal poems, and yet the third poem, ‘Mama’s Confession’ seems more suited to the second section since it’s a mother writing to her son in prison. The same with the third section; I only found one ‘us’ in ‘Goat Skin Beer Holder’ although three of the poems contained ‘we’ which made me wonder why the other poems were there. There was only one ‘they’ in the final section and it’s referring to tears, not people, and no uses of ‘them’ but on closer inspection the ‘they’ are represented by ‘hes’ and ‘shes’, ‘soot-dusted men’, Mamas, Papas, babies, an Athenian and a certain Mrs. Cuthbert. It’s a good way of structuring a book like this. Of course there is overlap and although personally I might have preferred ‘Mama’s Confession’ in the second section it also works okay in the first, especially given its title. As kids we learn how to conjugate verbs without realising that as we rattle them off by rote—assuming that’s still done—we are also learning about the four ways we are capable of perceiving the world.
The seven poems in the first section are an odd group. The seven ‘mes’ are an artist, a writer who has been suffering from writer’s block, the mother of a serial killer, “today’s personality”, the town of Monemvasia personified and the wife component of an eternal triangle. If you’re counting that makes six because I think that the mother in ‘Flesh’ is the same woman who narrates ‘Mama’s Confession’:
I drop my wedding ring
in holy water.
I hope it repels;
so I can finally relate
to the son we made.
It doesn’t have to be but as it’s the very next poem in that section it’s hard not to make the connection. I like this poem a lot. Not sure the semicolon and comma are absolutely needed but I’m not going to make an issue. Actually she’s a poet after my own heart in that respect and uses punctuation marks a-plenty. This is the most straightforward poem in the entire collection and probably my favourite. There are some stories here but much is missing and quite deliberately, I’m sure; these are postcards, not home movies. (She likes the word ‘vignette’.) Why the shift though towards a more lyrical, seemingly ambiguous style?
I’m not sure it was intentional. When introducing the book on her blog Jessica writes:
My poetry will not baffle you with phrasing that scholars award for academic genius and that can only be understood by those who wrote it. My poetry is for the everyday reader. In fact, it is even for those who don’t like to read poetry at all. Because it is real, stark and simple.
Some of it is but not all. Indeed the very first poem in the collection caused me no end of bother. I simply couldn’t get it and it wasn’t for want of trying. So I wrote to Jessica and asked her what she was getting at. I then sent the poem to my wife, who was in America at the time, and asked her what she got from the poem. She got something else entirely. Here’s that opening poem:
Feelings can be broken
when layered paint cracks—
white noise calcified to the tune
of poise and pleasure—Socialism
perched on a paint brush;
an election on canvas.
I snack on written woes;
electronic black mail slips
through automated slots—a grant
to an artist who sells reclusivism
to hermits in dusty boxes.
I cut one open at breakfast,
patterns of hope discoloured
with yoke. And tears.
I purchased my own work.
Hung it on my wall.
Sometimes I like to touch it
with my eyes closed.
I spent a long time looking at this poem, a long time; days in fact. Briefly this is what Jessica said it was about in her first e-mail:
In a nutshell, it's about a painter, a recluse, who refuses to market himself because he's agoraphobic, and despite being granted money to paint no one ever buys his work, so he buys it himself and pretends it not his.
My wife thought this was a “decoder ring” poem and that all she needed was the key and it would all make sense. On receipt of that ‘key’ she found it didn’t. Carrie thought it was allegorical, that Jessica was talking about herself about how she felt about her work being neglected and rejected. I too got misdirected, in my case by the word ‘Socialism’ and assumed that this was a poem referencing the current economic and political crisis in Greece. Neither of us saw the artist as being agoraphobic; his clientele, perhaps. Also if he sells to hermits, who is it that’s not buying his paintings that he needs to buy back? Now there will be those who will say that both of these are valid interpretations but I disagree. I don’t think poetry is so different from prose that an author’s original intent can be so easily disregarded. Later Jessica sent me a detailed almost word for word breakdown of the poem and it’s clear that a great deal of thought went into it—‘black mail’ is two words for a reason, for example, and ‘yoke’ is not misspelled—but I suspect most “everyday readers” will struggle with this one; this is exactly the kind of poem I remember getting handed out when I was at school which I only understood after it was explained to me. The problem with poetry, and this is not just Jessica’s poetry, is that no one ever tells us if we’ve got it wrong and it’s easy to think that whatever we think a poem means is what it means. So how do you know when a poem is a bad poem?
I want more people to understand that not all poetry is scary and complex. Not all poetry is going to take you back to high school English, and not all poetry is going make you feel “stupid”.
I commend her goals. They’re mine too. But we writers are the worst judges of our own poems because everything that’s missing from a poorly constructed poem is in our heads and so, when we look at them, they all make complete sense.
There is another problem with many of these poems. ‘Mama’s Confession’ opens like this:
My nails aren’t strong enough
to scratch you anymore,
There is nothing to explain ‘Antoni mou’ and that annoyed me; a quick search of Google was not helpful. Okay, once I got to the appendix it was explained but I would have preferred a footnote there and then. Foreign expressions are off-putting. Even when explained, they are off-putting. (I associate them with writers like Ezra Pound—show-offs.) The problem is the damage has been done; we already feel stupid. I felt stupid. Here, by the way, is what the expression means:
Antoni mou: This means “my Antoni”, which is in reference to the serial killer, Antonis Daglis (Greek: Αντώνης Δαγλής, born 1974), who was convicted of the murders of three women, and attempted murder of six others in Athens, Greece, on January 23, 1997. Also known as the “Athens Ripper”, he was sentenced to thirteen terms of life imprisonment, plus 25 years.
I’m a little puzzled how a man can get sentenced to thirteen life sentences for attacks on nine women but who am I to argue with Hellenic jurisprudence?
The second poem in the collection, ‘Breaking the Curse’, is no better than the first containing three expressions—‘Euterpe’, ‘Kolossus’ (no, it’s not a giant) and ‘gnidnib ym no gnitirw’—that all require explanations at the end of the book. Now, had I been reading the paperback, I might not gripe but since I was working from an electronic copy I couldn’t keep my finger in the back of the book. This is not so much of a gripe about ebooks as it is a cogent reminder for authors to bear in mind the limitations they impose on readers. This particular poem opens with:
My words create shawls—
they cloak the crazies
on empty nights
On her blog Jessica writes “if you read Fabric, you’re not reading poetry, you’re reading about people” and although I understand why she might say that, but the fact is this is poetry. When I was about eighteen I remember giving a poem to one of my workmates to read. I’ve tried to find it to get the quote right but I can’t locate it. The poem talked about a man pouring himself a crutch to drink, an expression I thought so blindingly obvious it required no explanation whatsoever, and yet this was where the girl pulled me up: she read the words quite literally and said, “You can’t pour a crutch.” Had she read Jessica’s poem she would have said immediately, “Words can’t knit shawls and who are ‘the crazies’?” I’m not saying that this is bad poetry—I don’t think it is—but what we poets think of as easy, obvious and accessible may not be to people who haven’t looked at a poem since they were forced to do so at school. The twenty-eight pieces of writing in this book are poems and there’s no avoiding that.
Another gripe I had with the ebook is that you can’t—at least I couldn't—turn my tablet sideways to read the grid properly because every time I move the thing it flipped the page; very annoying. Later she sent me the paperback which is lovely, solved all my problems and only marred by a typo on the otherwise charming front cover:
a rich collection of poems that take the reader on a deap tour of the psyche – Magdalena Ball
That would be the Persian flaw then?
Interestingly the poem I think most people-who-don’t-read-poetry will identify with will be this one from the final section of the book, which begins:
“I just can’t bear to lift my head
the world, it seems askew.
One more minute, here in bed,
then I swear I’ll comfort you.”
But baby wailed, hiccupped, cried,
and Mama did not move.
Instead she prayed her son might die,
knowing Papa would disapprove.
I’ve used this form once myself—a nursery rhyme about child abuse in my case—and it’s not an approach I think I’ll ever use again but it is a very powerful way of getting a point across. We’re all familiar with iambic tetrameters, that jolly da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM rhythm of childhood prosody and so it evokes before meaning has a chance to take charge of us. Sentiment, noun, “The emotional import of a passage as distinct from its form of expression.” It’s a word Jessica and I talked a bit about when we were discussing ‘Canvas’. Jessica said, “I know there's no way [a] reader will understand my intentions with it. But surely the sentiment?” This is the only poem in the collection where sentiment hits you before meaning. I believe, certainly as far as the written word goes, that feelings always follow meanings. In this poem though, its soundscape evokes before we have a chance to start interpreting the verses.
The first section of the collection is, as I’ve said, εγώ: me, and so I was surprised to find the poem ‘Monemvasia’ there. Again, unless you’re familiar with Greece, it’s a word that requires some clarification; it’s “a Byzantine town initially constructed on a rock that was separated from the mainland during an earthquake in 375 AD, is located on a small peninsula off the east coast of the Peloponnese in Laconia, Greece.” Not a person then.
So anthropomorphism: a literary device giving an inanimate object human traits and qualities, such as emotions, desires, sensations, physical gestures and speech. Another perfectly valid poetic technique. But it’s most definitely poetry. The readers have to be willing to accept that a town could talk, cry and possess skin that could crack. And how can years bruise? Personification, similes, internal rhymes (skin/sting/pins) and metaphors, all in seven lines. In other words, poetry. ‘Once’ is a mirror poem, ‘We Need Women’ is an alphabet poem, ‘What You Found’ is a list poem and ‘Postpartum’ is a ballad.
The poems in this collection were written over a comparatively short period of time. In a recent interview she explains:
[I]t started when I printed up all the poems I’d written from the last year and tried to find a concurrent theme in order to put together a new collection. I realised that I had a substantial amount of poems that included a fabric of some kind … “ooh,” I thought, “that’s a pretty cool title.” Of course, a piece of fabric appearing in every poem was not meaty enough to base a collection on, so I brainstormed some symbolic links. That’s when I came up with “the fabric of society”. From then on the collection began to bloom. I wrote new pieces, tweaked old ones, and rewrote some entirely to fit the theme.
Of the twenty-eight poems in the collection, twenty were selected from what she had written in 2011 and eight were written to plug gaps. So the whole book serves as a snapshot. I’ve never written enough poems in one year to do something like this but I do recognise periods in my writing that could, if I was so inclined, be published as a group, that say something about me at a certain time in my life. Only in a few years’ time will we see where these poems fit into the bigger picture that is Jessica Bell.
Bottom line then. As I write this there are eight 5-star reviews on Goodreads and six on Amazon; nothing less and if the hundred-plus people who have it on their to-read shelf actually buy the thing then she can be a very happy lassie. I don’t give stars here. I do on Goodreads (eventually). It’ll be a while before I post a link to my review there, but it won’t be 5-stars. A poetry book is an odd thing. Few people set out to produce a book of poetry; rather they gather poems into a book. Really every single one of these poems needs to be reviewed in isolation because that’s how they were written and that’s how they should be read. Grouping them risks diminishing them. One beautiful woman in a crowd of beautiful women is never going to as eye-catching as she would be on her own, I don’t care who she is. The same goes for the plain Janes; they’re never going to look quite as homely, to use Arthur Miller’s word, in a crowd. There are a couple of stunners here and a few homely girls too. And some that I really couldn’t decide on, strange-looking creatures, unconventional beauties; as much as ‘Canvas’ annoyed me—and it did—I did keep coming back to it; that was not the case with some of the others. I found myself reading the collection in bits, a section at a time, in isolation. The haiku didn’t impress me—I didn’t feel the connection with the four themes although the first two groups work better than the second two—but then I’m not a huge fan of haiku-esque poems. The poets who have reviewed it have gushed over it. It’s nice to be nice and we all like good reviews but I would rather buy a book that had five 4-star reviews that a hundred 5-stars reviews; I wouldn’t trust them. Which makes me seem like a curmudgeon but if I tell any one of you out there that I loved your poem or your article or your book you’d better believe it. I liked this collection; I didn’t love it. I’m not a big fan of love at first sight, though. I prefer an affection that grows over time. I could list a number of great works of literature that I hated the first time I looked at them but grew to love and the same with people.
There is chaos, i.e. true randomness, and there is complexity beyond which humans can fathom any pattern. Jessica acknowledges that the characters depicted within many of the poems in this collection are full of flaws—there are hermits, crazies, murderers, abusers, failed parents, needy people, Nazis, sick people, the suicidal, the depressed—as well as the odd, sweet grandchild so this is no Persian carpet. This is a tatty, old rug, worn and beaten, but it’s our rug; it’s not perfect—far from it—but it does its job.
Let me leave you with the trailer for the book:
The bio at the back of the collection reads:
If Jessica Bell could choose only one creative mentor, she’d give the role to Euterpe, the Greek muse of music and lyrics. And not because she currently lives in Greece, either. The Australian-native author, poet and singer/songwriter/guitarist has her roots firmly planted in music, and admits inspiration often stems from lyrics she’s written.