Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

Stories of Me

Jet Lag – Billy Jones
Angus and Robertson, 1993
ISBN 0 207 17945 X, pb, 144 pp. $16.95

Tickle – Les Wicks
Island Press Cooperative, 1993
ISBN 0 909771 50 2, 80 pp.,

Stories of the self. There is a strong sense of narrative in these new books by Billy Jones and Les Wicks and in both cases the stories developed form a kind of poetic self-portrait. These books create voices that are personal and engaging, accessible and immediate and that speak directly, it seems, of personal experiences.

Though Billy Jones has lived in Australia for twenty-four years, he was born in the United States and this fact echoes through Jet Lag, from the note in the opening: ‘Billy Jones was born in 1935 in Camden, New Jersey, where Walt Whitman died’, to the subject and influence of much of the work. This is a ‘song of myself’, a homage to the expansive rhythms of Whitman and others, some of whom are named:

spent all my spare time
which soon become all my time
reading Dostoyevsky Blake Miller
Van Gogh Hamsun Rimbaud Kerouac
Celine Whitman Melville Kafka
Thomas Thoreau and many others

In some of the best poems of this volume Jones takes up the American journey. The journey for the sake of journeying, the journey as escape from respectability and convention, recognisable enough from Huck to Kerouac. There is a sense of freedom and an intoxication even in the lists of American places Jones incants that somehow only American names can evoke. Much of the book is a celebration of the artist or the rebellious ‘poet presence’ out in the world, fully armed, senses cocked:

no one to answer to
but my own free –

wheeling self:
writing
drawing
painting.

This is Billy Jones on the road, an ‘amigo’ high on grass and poetry, at home in the beer garden or in a Mexican taxi, confronting us with a free spirit which, despite its romanticism and bravado at times, is to be preferred to Billy Jones at home in the supermarket, strangely subdued and milking the mundane:

she says that she’s seen an article on me
and my book in the Melbourne Truth
I didn’t know there was an article
on me in the Melbourne Truth
she must be mistaken
she read it in the Melbourne Truth
at last they walk away
and leave me to the capsicums

The centrepiece of the book is the twenty-six page ‘Laguna Poem’, a strangely compelling mixture of talk, sex, travel, love and drugs, a poem of ‘tattoos / flesh / cartoons’, full of names and details, dates and titles, recalled conversations, quotes, car number plates, the addresses of houses, the incomes of company executives.

Brisbane-bound Spanish champagne
she gives me her loose American change ($22)
no tears though my throat got tight
she got the same seat she had on the flight over (32A)
second from the tail
a window seat
we’re finished
eighteen days on my own in Laguna

At first I found myself puzzling over this strange mix of fast fiction and journal entry, free poetry and travel trivia. But the poem draws you along in its celebratory wake, in its immediacy and its energetic affirmation of life being lived: ‘the blockbuster / of my soul’.

After the wild adventures of ‘Laguna’ the final section of the book, ‘Oz Too, Oz Too’ seems a little tame, though individual poems like ‘Fantail Fire’ and the prize winning ‘Eddy, as in Whirlpool’ transcend the self-centred talk of poetry writing and painting. Jones treads a fine line in places between a genuine celebratory voice and an awkward pastiche of something like the voice of the American beat:

I work
for freedom-honesty-wanton-joy
I work
for nature-love-orgasm-cosmos

The final fragmentary long poem, ‘Back in the Beer Garden’ fails to move much beyond a sense of scribbled impressions on beer and poetry: ‘I drink a few beers / and the world looks good again’, or ‘me and my ability to turn grass / and booze into poetry and art.’ It is a flat and faintly sad ending to a book that starts its journey with such verve.

Less wide ranging geographically than Jones, Les Wicks shares the same kind of edgy unsettledness and defiance of the conventional in Tickle. Wicks is interested in developing a prose poetry with poems that read at times like chapters of an unfinished verse novel. Wicks writes tales of the working man, monologues of the battler, the divorcee, itinerant workers, but is also capable of going off into strange fabulist tangents and dreams. Like Jones, Wicks is capable of celebrating the everyday grit with gusto:

Out on Thomas Bay Road two cars have hit.
Sand edges onto the asphalt. Sirens from Bingorrie and stars
thick in the sky as if trying to force some light on the town. Thomas-bloody Bay. Its people. Just something left alive,
the beat in the sandwich.

Wicks is a poet ‘inspired / by something in the air’, the city and its ‘trashcan of stories’, but he’s also paranoid, uncomfortable and unsettled, not part of the ‘system’: ‘there are files on both of us despite the fact we’re nobodies’. As with Jones’ work there is a kind of innocence and vulnerability even through the detached and alienated voice. There is a longing to keep the flames of passion or rebellion or daring burning and a disdain for the stereotyped suburbanites stuck in relationships without fire:

Twice a year they have sex, it’s like bushwalking,
both wonder, yes,
“must do more often”

There is a collection of
car alarm memories
on CD
The News is a scream.

Let’s stay together
for The Children.

Wicks creates social portraits of the meanness and goodness at the basis of urban life but sometimes lapses into mere disillusionment: ‘The poets sits in a ratty armchair and reads the / miracle cure for wrinkles, other small tabloid miracles.’ At other times he can take that cynicism and, if he can’t quite make it a rallying point, turns it into defiance: ‘Oh, being over 35! / (what a line) / When the alcohol works, I’ll feel / just fine’.

His best poems are like that, happily defiant or funny, or as in ‘La Dole Cheque Vita’ establishing a wryly sardonic tone: ‘Rule Two: / You may as well enjoy your own greed. No one else will.’ So he can celebrate the hopelessness of raging against ageing and mortality with a kind of forced energy as in ‘Hey While the Sun Shines’: ‘Decrepit & loose like waves / we rise to crash again.’

With their recurring mythologising of the poetic self both these poets will be too self-absorbed for some. At times there is the feeling of a journal being read aloud with all the freshness and disorder that implies: of powerful immediacy and domestic talk. There is also an almost sentimental kind of nostalgia in both poets for their own past, for lost loves and lost rebellions. However, at their best they are lively, readable, and unsettlingly optimistic. Billy Jones’ long ‘Laguna Poem’, with its exuberant celebration of the mundane details of a life being lived and its brash American unselfconsciousness, stood out for me.

This review originally appeared in Australian Book Review.

Written by warrick

July 11, 2011 at 3:23 pm

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