Photographs and Frisbees

Inroads, Carolyn Jess-Cooke (64pp, 7.99, Seren)

Seren's producing lovely books these days. Inroads has one of the most striking covers I've seen on a poetry book, using an image by the American photographer Jamie Baldridge. 'Ten-Penny Prophet', as the image is called, isn't anything to do with the title poem (about giving blood), so I assume it's offered as an image 'about' the process of writing poetry. A young woman at a table set with an immaculate cloth, her head in a birdcage, manipulates quills over a parchment by fine threads attached to her thumbs and forefingers, with some difficulty it appears. She's wearing a virginal corset. Or maybe it's a ballet dress.

Of course as soon as you convert an image to Heavy Metaphor like this, you lose sight of what was so striking about it in the first place, its visual
power, the immaculate mysteriousness of it, with its restricted colour range, (which is offset well against the burgundy of the rest of the cover), the smoothness of the cloth and how its white tones are beautifully graded as your eye slips left to right across the image and then back to the figure, the ambiguous brown darkness of the space and the delicacy of what's set against it. Like many of Jamie Baldridge's images, it plays with the difference between the 'reality' a camera can give you and a more dreamlike 'truth' beyond it.

I'm spending time thinking about the cover because it raises a surprising question: can a cover be too
striking? That looks interesting, friends say, picking it out from the piles on my table. It makes for very high expectations. Can I think of anyone writing up to this polish and sophistication? I'm not sure I can.


I keep coming across sestinas, an outbreak for which I hold creative writing courses responsible. Carolyn Jess-Cooke comes through the trial by sestina with flying colours in 'Jet Lag', her end-words slipping delightfully between 'coax' and 'Cokes' for example, or 'touch-down' substituted for 'landing'. And, by way of a comment on the whole process, she also uses one of her end-words to slip in an extra line to subvert the form: 'Yet jet lag has no predictable pattern.'

Such playful enjoyment of language characterises much of her writing. In 'Pure', she repeats lines, shifting their meaning with punctuation. 'Second-Hand Words', a poem whose epigraph is about finding words to affirm affection, gallops along risking homophones for its end-words. Here's how it opens:

     Today is the day of rogue acceptances, when an ear becomes a weir
     for the winning word. So watch your syntax. We're
     playing frisbee with linguistics on the construction site
     of authenticity. It's too late to bolt at the sight
     of roses.

This is not one-read writing of course. But after a few reads I find I'm wanting something a bit easier on the ear: fun with language is all very well, but not something I take to if it's at the expense of music like that 'lingistics on the construction site of authenticity'. (Try saying it!) And maybe something a bit more visual for the imagination too: that frisbee's head stuff. As is this, from 'First Time Buyer':

     I'm only buying because I know
     I can sell, you know, because this ladder
     is apparently a one way street
     for those in the know, and because I woke up one morning
     and realised that the word home
had no image behind it,
     that I'd attributed one word and one dialect
     to countless continents, countries streets people.
     Surely this would result eventually in a crisis of identity?

Carolyn Jess-Cooke's playful intelligence ranges over Turkey, Japan, Australia, karaoke, Orpheus, childhood memory... Her register shifts, and slows, in her poems of pregnancy and mothering. In '5 Months' she writes of

     A small blue crown
     on the gas hob
     unnoticed all day.
     Shoes stacked
     in the fridge.
          Focus     flapping
     in the mind's lampshade.

Her voice is movingly tender in 'Newborn', answering her own question 'What are you like?' with a whole poemful of images like 'a nub of warm dough' and 'a slow waving field fattening with wheat'. In her prose poem, 'A Poem Without Any Vegetables' she can also catch the desperation of a parent in a supermarket with a child who 'roots herself to the spot', but even in this circumstance, she doesn't lose her good humour and wit.

         Jane Routh 2010