A Warning in the Water: Robbie Coburn Reviews ‘The Sunlit Zone’ by Lisa Jacobson

The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson, Five Islands Press, 2012.

the-sunlit-zoneIts no secret the verse novel has a strong tradition in Australian poetry, approached with varied and mixed levels of success. Lisa Jacobson’s strikingly original verse novel, The Sunlit Zone is by all means a successful contribution to this field, using a controlled and accessible writing style that holds appeal beyond the general Australian, poetry-reading public.

Following Jacobson’s excellent earlier collection Hair & Skin & Teeth, published as part of 5 Islands Press’ New Poets series, The Sunlit Zone goes far in asserting her importance as a poet.

Focused primarily on sea change, Jacobson presents the reader with a dark and vivid look into the future of a fast changing earth through the eyes of North, a researcher at a Melbourne marine laboratory, exploring love, loss and the different aspects and dynamics of her past and family. Through her visionary imagination and extensive research, Jacobson reflects on the concerns of our modern world, such as the drastic alterations to technology and the environment, and in The Sunlit Zone, these fears have been fully realised, shaping the day to day lives of her characters’ generation. The verse novel’s warning is all the more haunting as the reader begins to comprehend the realistic nature of the vision Jacobson is presenting.

The Sunlit Zone stands out immediately due to its future setting and fuse of accessible, everyday language and evocative sea imagery, with a strong narrative drive. Using the constant lapping of waves to represent each verse, the ocean is present throughout the book, and reading the lines becomes a memorable visual experience as well as a written one. The ever-changing rips and tides are present in the water as North’s mind traces her memories, throwing her into different emotional states.

The poet’s personified voice is honest and personal, drawing the reader into her world immediately:

all Saturday afternoon I watch
through my front window
the blue whale that’s beached itself
amidst drifts of kelp on the foreshore
of Angler’s Bay…

The Sunlit Zone is described in the front of the book as “a shallow but complex layer of ocean in which vegetation flourishes most prolifically, and which the deep sea diver must keep in her sights if she is to return to it”.

Jacobson cleverly uses this as a metaphorical basis to structure her complex narrative.

The metaphor is powerful and extremely evocative, and it appears this future, and North herself, has lost sight of the sunlit zone, and must return to it before it is too late.

The sequences incorporate modern devices such as mobile phones, significantly advanced in this future, while still upholding consistent and effective poetic form:

Then my skinfone rings.
-Cello, I groan and answer it
through a fog of sleep. Silence, except
for the exhalation of someone’s breath.

Jacobson’s description of the damaged natural world in this future is a disturbing warning to our developing civilization, reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984. There is an emotional numbness that runs through the characters, as hopelessness wrestles with resilience throughout the journey. In this future, manufactured humans, genetically modelled and enhanced, exist along with “Dream Babies” (designer embryos) creating a paradoxical paranoia of what is truly reality, causing the atmosphere to often be haunting in Jacobson’s lines:

Dream Babes, they called them on iTV.
Fertility Clinic and other soaps like this
sprang up quickly. On Quantum
and 60 Minutes, the older scientists
thrashed it out with the newest wave
of graduates, already rich on GM profit.
Genetic, Robotic, Nano, InfoTech.
Whatever it was, my mother ignored it.

The verse focuses largely on trauma and its persistent effects: the silent and taxing pull of the past as it follows North throughout the text. She relives memories of her twin sister Finn, born with a series of fish-like physical traits, such as gills and webbed feet, needing “water the way most of us need air”, and her first love, Jack. This is primarily the source of North’s numbness and seeming emotional detachment, as she feels guilt for the loss of her sister, recounting the early months of her sister’s life as she was analysed and reviled due to her mutations. Her memories of Jack are also significant, light thrown back on their shared youth as North is reunited with him. His appearance has altered from her memory, and he has since become a husband and father, but the sting of their former relationship is still present in North’s mind as she relives their intimacy, emotional connection and experiences together:

waves tossed the dinghy up like a paper
boat, a cheap trinket, the oars useless
as two matchsticks. So I did what I had
not done for years: I prayed.
-Please keep him safe, God. I’ll do anything.

There is distinct desperation present in the lines that addresses the inability of the present to alter the past, and the inability to escape haunting reminiscence. Jacobson explores inevitable cycles of life through North’s eyes, and the reader is drawn into her internal pain and fear:

At home the past floods me too fast
to combat it. What the sea takes out
it washes in; mottled, gaping, fish-like
things that fall apart as I grasp at them.

Jacobson’s tale of longing is a powerful and compelling book, and an essential warning to humanity. It is defined by its gripping accessibility that bridges the allusive gap between prose and poetry, although the true accomplishment in the work is its consistent control and balance. The narrative and message is gripping and affecting, and the poetry, simply as poetry, stands on its own as powerful work.

The Sunlit Zone is an important contribution to both the fields of Australian poetry and fiction.

– Robbie Coburn


Robbie Coburn is a poet and writer from country Victoria. His first chapbook Human Batteries was published by Picaro Press in 2012. He can be found at  www.robbiecoburn.com

The Sunlit Zone is available from http://fiveislandspress.com/catalogue/the-sunlit-zone.

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