First, this, from James Merrill‘s great poem “The Thousand and Second Night:” “Form’s what affirms.” If Merrill is right, then Alice Jones‘ Plunge (Apogee) is superlatively affirmative. Jones’ fourth collection reads as if chiseled from stone, or, why not, diamond. That is, from a formal standpoint, the slimmish volume is perfect. The poet weaves a pattern and carries out its logic to the very last stitch. That pattern is a sequence of accumulation and dissolution, of building-up and breaking-down, of “being swept up into something more” (“Real Time”), then being swept away like dust. The end result is an homage to formality, an intricately interwoven, lovingly handmade lifeform that starts as a seed, roots, grows, and blossoms with clarity but complexly.
In this world, words, meaning, and music accrete, climax, and dissolve, accrete, climax, and dissolve, and the sequence repeats. Specifically, the sequence looks like this: First comes a haiku, a hyper-concentrated jewel-nugget of imagery. Next, a kind of double haiku that recalls and contributes to the language of the first. Next, a poem made of couplets, and so on, until finally, a sestina, the climax moment, wherein associative stars constellate, imagistic jokes are given punchlines, metaphoric sundaes cherries, etc., in a particularly satisfying, in a downright delicious way. Otherwise, the sequence is reversed. In either case, the underlying governing principle is the wave. Not only does the form itself become reliable as the tide, but meaning also begins as a ripple, builds, breaks, washes up and recedes. I keep using naturalistic analogies because there is a naturalness, an inarguable elegance to the skeleton of this body of work… and boy do the bones delight.
One way in which the book is instructive or didactic or makes its reader smarter is how it rewards readerly traits like sharp attention and active working memory. “Memory is a language of echoes” (“The Forest”). Indeed, the more a reader can remember from previous poems, the more meaningful and resonant the ensuing poems become. There is the sense that one cannot remember enough, that there are connections being drawn one is missing. Such is the ornateness of the “braid-patterned lines” (“Muddy Hollow”). It lends the book a kind of depthless or infinite quality, or, at the very least, it makes the reader want to read the book twice or thrice or more to make sure s/he appreciated it fully. Alan Gillis, the great Irish poet and once a teacher of mine, sometimes defined poetry as writing one wants to read more than once. Plunge qualifies.
At last, best of all, the selflessness. In fact, the pronoun “I” appears one time in all Plunge’s 67 pp. Try counting the I’s in other American verse. As a rule, the American I abounds. But in Plunge, when the pronoun appears as it does in the “Burial” and “Postcard” sequences, it appears as a “we.” In this way, Jones is able to achieve something perhaps profound and probably unique – a selfless confessional mode, a subjectless but subjective voice, which, though directed outward, nonetheless reflects the special individuality of its creator. As I reread the poems, this idea kept cropping up in my mind to be the book’s larger project, central conceit, main thrust, etc., to the point where the opening sequence “Departure” and the justmentioned “Burial” immediately become “Departure from self” and “Burial of self” inside my head.
To conclude, a little personal thing to back up and segue to my bottom line. Over the last few months, I’ve become one of those San Francisco yoga freaks. If you’re not from here, picture it: as many people walk around these streets with rolled-up foam under their arms as iPhones in their hands. Usually it’s women, least often it’s youngish men as myself. Anyway, I started with YouTube, where so many new ventures these days start. I’d do a twenty or thirty minute class, often getting really mad at the digital instructor for choosing too easy poses or cooing encouragement too spiritually mushy-gushily, or some other silly annoyance, and eventually these little frustrations built until I couldn’t take them ruffling my feathers another day and quit the whole dumb yoga thing altogether. After quitting, I was less hungry at meals, less focused when writing, less relaxed with others, less patient always, etc. It was not until I learned an easy if occult-seeming trick that I could get back into the practice. That trick was this: the ability to tell yourself to shut the fuck up. These days, having learned its benefits, I try to practice yoga daily. I do, and “feel great,” and the only reason I can do it is because when that little bitch inside my head and/or heart goes “but I don’t waaaaant to exercise. I’m too tiiiiiiiiired. Plus you did it yesterdayyyyyyy. You should should just watch an episode or whole season of ‘Madmen’ or ‘Louis’ and drink some beeeeeeeeers,” or whatever the temptation is, there’s this other side, this dictatorial alter I invented, who goes “No. Shut up. Little bitch.” And I sit my ass on the mat and breathe super deeply until the whirring wilderness of machinery upstairs just chills or fucks off for a while. When that happens, peace happens. Yoga is something to give in to. After the session, when I bend over my lotus legs and whisper “Namaste” to the ground, I do not so much “bow to you,” as the word’s translation dictates, but rather I bow to the ability to listen when something in me but bigger than me looks at my selfish side levelly in the eye and says, firmly, almost aloud, “Not another word.”
Jones’ “Plunge” seems a kind of shutting-up-the-self manifesto. Again and again, the voice allows itself to submit to “a governed darkness – this order, this beyond” (“Muddy Hollow”). Meaning exists secondarily to form; it only strikes when the form allows. What my (and what I expect will be others’) appreciation of such a formally strict, strictly formal kind of poetry represents is a retreat from the broken experimental and a return to the intact traditional. I will be so bold (again, why not?) as to state that what poetry needs today is an injection of the total formality that Jones so totally exhibits. The open-mics and young-writer-readings I go to upset and annoy me least when I hear stuff that is interested in making meaning from pattern. Somewhere Wittgenstein writes about “the meaning that exists in connections made” or something close enough. That is what I mean. Too often, I hear young writers deliver blurty polemics, artless chaos, onsloughts of unfollowable signage. Nothing is heard, much less remembered, by audiences of such stuff. The complicating factor is that a certain level of chaos, of lingual looseness, of letting-things-come-as-they-will-and-then-be, is absolutely necessary to all good poetry. The problem, maybe, is young writers today value this value too highly. Without an equal measure of order, chaos is just chaos. Since language is chaotic enough as-is, today’s poet’s job is to whip it into shape, without losing the beauty with which chaos can come.
Alex Williams writes poems and stories and things. He has lived in D.C. and Maine and Scotland and the Tenderloin District. Now he lives in a cottage in Cole Valley. He serves in the service industry, and also likes to paint and draw.