Thirteen Poems from the Dead by Rae Desmond Jones, Polar Bear Press 2011
First impressions are always important and in the case of Thirteen Poems From the Dead, first impressions create very high expectations. This is a beautiful book, printed in a very limited run of less than one hundred. It is printed, we are told, on Magnani Velata Avorio and set in Minion and Gill types. And if that isn’t enough there is apparently a deluxe edition on its way – twenty six copies “lettered a-z”, signed by the poet and artist and each with an original print by Michael Fitzjames.
But while it’s all too easy to be seduced by the way this book looks and feels I have, after all, come for the poetry – and fortunately I was not disappointed. Rae Desmond Jones has led a rich and varied life. I first became aware of him as a poet courtesy of Robyn Archer’s 1978 LP The Wild Girl in the Heart. On this album Archer put the poetry of a number of Australian poets to music – among them was Jones’ ‘The Deadshits’. This poem is a fairly graphic account of a pack rape at a suburban party and, at the time, resulted in calls for the entire album to be banned. Jones’ was already an established poet in 1978 and over the ensuring years released a number of books of poetry, two novels, a book of short stories as well as a video. In addition he found time to become involved in local politics, being elected to Ashfield council and serving as mayor from 2004 to 2006.
Jones’ of course is no longer a young poet. Born in 1941it is perhaps understandable that many of the poems in this small collection deal with issues of aging, mortality and death:
body when it is young:
how lush it is when in decay
hanging from the bush too long
‘How sweet the layered blossoming rose’
Like the rose in the title of this poem, Jones’ poetry in this collection is multilayered and and rich. The rose, traditionally a symbol of love, in this poem becomes a metaphor for an aging body that can still remember that it “once tingled/ to the eager hungry touch”.
With age comes the richness of memory and in ‘The Fairies of 520 Williams Street” there is the memory of a childhood home – images of a history that can only exist in the poet’s mind, now committed to the page:
I write to bequeath my part of this history to you –
remake it in images you own.
‘The Fairies of 520 Williams Street”
‘Ash Wednesday’, dedicated to the poet Kerry Leves who died in May 2011, is a stunning poem. Combining a rich Catholic/Christian imagery with everyday observations of Darlinghurst, the poem recalls a visit to the dying Leves at the Scared Heart Hospice. Jones’ states in the poem that he is not Catholic: (forgive me,/ Irish Grandfather), but one suspects that the poet’s grandfather would have found much to appreciate in this poem. The poem opens with the striking imagery of:
the moving stairs at Kings Cross station
groan upwards from deep beneath Victoria street
but to finally leave the darkness of the underground station and emerge into the light of Kings Cross the poet has to pass the barrier, in the same way as a Catholic has to accept the sacraments:
I have a ticket, which allows me
to pass an unlikely Angel at the gate,
a heavy middle aged man in blue
who glowers as the machine
chews my ticket like a broken biscuit
(Give us this day our daily bread)
The unexpectedness of the ticket machine becoming a metaphor for the communion sacrament is effective and surprising and prepares us for the imagery that continues to build up, layer on layer, as the poet nears the Hospice. There is the man with the “Satanic tattoo on the back of each leg” and the “demons revving engines.”
While the sadness that accompanies the process of dying is all to apparent
but you wait with your mind
sharp as ever even while your body
collapses softly, elegantly into the ash
on your forehead
There remains a sense of optimism in the almost Audenesque conclusion:
around us hover those we have helped
& a little distant, those we have failed
their lives assemble quietly,
clothed in light.
Of course the irony is that neither Jones, or Leves was/is Catholic (See Pam Brown’s memory of Leves in The Overland Memorial) adds yet another level to this already rich and complex poem.
While there are only fourteen poems in this collection they are of such quality that it is possible to spend hours reading and reading them. The richness of the imagery, the almost virtuosic display of poetic technique coupled with a beautifully design and produced book makes this limited edition collection one to queue up for.
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