Vivien Jones, Short of Breath, (Cultured Llama, 2014), £8.00, 84pp, ISBN 978-0-9926485-5-8
Reviewed by Phoebe Walker
[Originally published in LP9, June 2016]
A forensic eye is at work in this collection, Vivien Jones’ second, an acuity that penetrates through the various meditative, idiomatic and nostalgic tones of these poems. Jones’ knack for detail results in poetry with great sensory appeal, from the images of silver salmon boiling in shallow water, of chocolate eaten “slow as ivy”, to the sensation of an elm sucking sap “up my barley sugar ribs”, fingertips “speckled/ with black oak splinters/ sore in skin softened/ by tallow”. Although the poems are grouped into titled sections, there is a sense of disparateness about the collection, as though these poems are curios housed in the same cabinet, rather than a body of holistic work. I think this is reflected in the length of the collection too; at a meaty 84 pages, the reader feels the time that has gone into this writing; the varied seasons and cycles of the poetry it contains.
The peregrinations of these poems take us from Cornwall to Malta via Glasgow, Greenwich, with a few excursions to the remoter reaches of cosmic space, or mythical landscapes where a naiad, “white, wet, naked […] slides/ in and out of vision”. I like the generosity of this vision. Jones leaps from one register to another fairly frequently; some poems are first-person, told with the quasi-clarity of a journal entry, peppered, as you expect, with small voltas:
I’m cooking scones,
twelve minutes in a hot oven.
time enough to hang out the washing,
or wash the dishes, or feed the cat
or phone my son to say hello
the scones will change from raw dough
to lightweight delight – and me?
My hands make brackets
around this warming mug.
through the rising vapour
I look at the café crowd
and wonder, which
has just left a lover
Elsewhere, Jones’ language is denser, more distant but also more nimble, as when she declares the aim “to understand / the fleam and the rake, the kerf debris/ of the saw”, or imagines how:
sea trout wreathe silver coils,
the greyback salmon persist
Until grey November, spent
of life, dying on grey stones,
gargoyles with undershot jaws.
I like Jones’ writing best in the latter vein, at once raw and stylish, and the section entitled ‘Wood and the Making Process’ is my favourite in the collection. Jones writes trees well (that is a compliment, I promise), capturing their intricacy and solidity with flair, leaves “splayed like/ horrified hands”, a branch snapping “with gunshot bedlam”.
With a few exceptions, all these poems, in the confidence and rightness of their rhythms and phrasing, breathe a quiet assurance that you don’t notice unless it’s missing. ’88 – Two Fat Ladies – a Saga’ is one of the few poems that really misfires, as the bathetic ballad of Jane and Janine,/ 88 – two fat ladies” and their hair salon feels slightly clumsy and strained, possibly because it attempts to incorporate to much dialogue, which I think leaves it unbalanced and a little too blatant. True, it is placed in a section titled ‘Literal’, preceded by the ‘Graffiti Tales’ of Murphy and Shanks, seeking sex in bus shelters, and Bella, “Queen of the Prozzies”, (“I like chips, beans, pie and cheese/ and I am Fat as FUCK”), but ‘Graffti Tales’’s exhilarating (and unexpected) crackle serves to make ‘88’ feel like even more of a damp squib. These kind of frustrations, however, are few and far between.
Broadly, although it’s a wandering, wide-armed collection, these are poems with admirable and individual grit.