Brother Gums and his partner, who live in our southernmost state, Tasmania, often give me books by local writers, many of whom I may not easily come across on “the mainland”. Their offering last Christmas was one of these, The still deceived, a collection of poems by Ginny Jackson. It was published by one of Australia’s wonderful, small independent presses, the Ginninderra Press. Tragically, Jackson died before the book was launched, though she did, I am told, see a copy. The cover image is a somewhat cryptic lithograph titled “High noses” by Jackson – a talented woman clearly – and the cover design is by her son Evan Dowling.
The title is that of the last poem of the book, and it puts a seal on the overall theme of the collection which has to do with the challenges we humans face in trying to understand, to make sense of, the life we find ourselves in. The last three lines are:
Even the less deceived
don’t seem to get it –
There is a melancholic (“the slow crank of a melancholic tune”), even bleak, thread running through the poems. I don’t think this means that all the poems were written in the shadow of her imminent death. However, the last poems in the book do confront mortality head on, which could suggest that the 65 poems are presented chronologically in the order they were written. But maybe not. The idea of death is also a logical way to conclude a collection that deals, as this one does, with the challenges of existence.
And so to look at the collection a little more closely. The first poems could be loosely described as vignettes from a life though they are not so much about particular experiences as about the ideas and feelings engendered by the things we experience. The first poem, “Scientific method”, rather archly sets the scene for her exploration of the ways we humans misunderstand or misinterpret the things we see and experience:
When you’re first sent to the frontier
the sketches you bring back
will really be of your own world
and in doing so we “miss the hum of truths”.
The middle poems are about life cycle – about love, pregnancy, motherhood, and middle age, and about aging relatives. Some of her lightest poems are here, such as in her descriptions of babies (“Joy comes combing up your limbs” in “Baby love”) and children. “Domestic” conveys the monotony of housework in a nursery-rhyme-like jingle: “In the kitchen with the grimy doors/the pot is calling the kettle black”.
And then of course are the final poems which deal very specifically with death. I particularly like “Getting off the bus”:
It’s hard to get off right,
with dignity, it’s hard to leave
as they pull off from the curb,
a swaying cargo, brightly lit
of all the living, trundling on,
into their future lives.
What a devastatingly apposite image. And “Moths” whose behaviour is described as:
Like the story of this life
which flings itself at timelessness
while overhead the speedy flash
of multiple sunrises clash
with quick uncomprehended dusks.
There is a welcome and refreshing variety in the poems – in form and tone, as well as in subject. She uses rhyme at times – including, even, rhyming couplets – which provides a lovely change of pace. Much of her imagery draws from nature (“even the flight of a bee/forms a tacking jig with destiny”) and several poems describe Tasmania albeit often contrasting the power and permanence of nature (“and yet the tree’s roots grasp the rock,/the sea forever smashes on the shore”) with change wrought by humans (“where forests, still, are daily trashed”) and “our insect brevities”. But then there’s the occasional more industrial image, as in “Metal”. There are poems that don’t quite work, which may be because the image is too obscure or the logic not quite right, or simply because the connections don’t work for me. Poetry is such a personal thing. I enjoyed this collection for its world view, its intriguing imagery and the challenges it offered me.
I’m tempted to compare Jackson with Dorothy Porter who put her collection, The bee hut, together as she, too, was dying of cancer, but they are different. There’s more action and anger, and, paradoxically, also more joy in Porter’s poems, than in Jackson’s quieter, more resigned poems which see humans as either powerless (at best) or foolish (at worst). I’ll end though on a positive image. It’s a poem (“On planting”) praising trees, and it ends thus:
I wish we could all be as loyal.
If we could talk
only as that bright rush of leaves,
a haze of sun or moonlight
on our heads, softly embracing
one another and the sky.
If indeed …
The still deceived
Port Adelaide: Ginninderra Press, 2010