Josh Jones reviews
by Jenna Butler
I’ll come straight out with it – Jenna Butler’s Aphelion is one of the strongest, most assured and most promising debuts I have read. It begins with epigraphs from Denise Riley – not the easiest thing to follow – and never looks back. Which is telling in regards to the poems themselves: they are focused as much on movement as they are stasis and definable place, are acknowledgments of the impossibility of the present moment ever truly being represented, that refuse to be controlled or dictated to by the past or the future.
Take, for example, ‘Heatwave’, the opener. It begins by situating itself in present tense, narrating the past:
She almost makes it
through the first week.
The poem then proceeds to recount metonymically the various possessions of whomever ‘she’ is leaving:
his set of Vonnegut;
damp pages clinging
like tentative hands.
And so on, leading us back to the locatable ‘now’ in which the poem began. Only now we leave the realm of that which can be structured and ordered and enter the world of desire, in which she is both elegising the loss and bemoaning the part ‘he’ played in it, the “heat” he “doesn’t understand”, before revealing to the reader in a kind of anti-epiphany that it is precisely this not understandable heat, the sunlight that cuts “whitely through unsashed windows”, that leads her to where she wants to be – a non-place that “[strips] her clean” and “[asks] nothing”. It is this sense of unobtainable presence, or absence, that informs Aphelion and permits its confident, unforced philosophical considerations; that allows these poems to transcend being simply pretty, often beautiful images of an individual in a state of travel, of movement.
The book is split into three sections: North America, Europe and The Red Ghazals, the latter being an extended sequence, an idiosyncratic take on the ghazal (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghazal). There are no radical departures in form and content from part to part (loose incorporation of the ghazal notwithstanding), more a vague shift in focus.
Butler’s poetry is characterised by how its glance disrupts the space between looking outwards and looking in. The poems yearn for objects, things, the world, and portray them lovingly. They aim less for narrative than imagistic clarity, a kind of photographing, marvelling at
this patient sunlight
its citrine crawl
how it obscures
some things reveals
(‘Petroglyph Trail’, p. 26)
Yet it quickly becomes apparent that while the poems depend upon the things of the world, the majority of the action is internal. The external world is repeatedly characterised, explained in terms usually applied to people: “skin of water”, “bruised grass”, a spare tire “stuttering like/a second-rate heart”. While the sheer volume of personification in the first part, let alone the whole collection, can get a bit frustrating, it is always purposeful, always vital to the specific image, specific poem. Through these applications of the human to nature, the speakers’ (for the most part first- or second-person) perceptions are presented to the reader. These aren’t epiphany poems so much as realised moments – no, unrealised moments, moments turned into fictive, aesthetically gorgeous artefacts, as ‘truly’ representative of what they depict as are photographs. And it is in this failure to represent that the poems revel – the form, full of white space, the lack of punctuation and caps, the fractured syntax all aim to create impressions, to stroke the edges of the observable world as lyrically as and as accurately as possible, all the while aware of the impossibility of capturing the thing in itself as it is. The subject matter mimics this, so many poems throughout being concerned with “sudden absence”, with “reconfiguring absence”, learning
[...]to see you
less clearly more truly
(‘Salt Spring Island’, p. 24)
While there are possibly a few too many poems that have the presentation of an absence as their main subject, they can, as with the persistent personification, be justified by the impressive control that runs through this collection, the astute extending and reinterpreting of its main themes and motifs from beginning to end.
Perhaps my favourite thing about Aphelion is its musicality, which is mirrored in Butler’s use of jazz to portray the tone of city observation. It recurs notably in two poems: ‘Granville Island, 1997’, in which “blue jazz over a harbour/traced in lights” describes, in a sense, the feel of what her poetry is trying to do, i.e. change the things being observed as they are inscribed in order to create an impression, while attempting to retain some ‘essence’ of the natural world; and in aptly named ‘Jazz’, maybe the most immediately satisfying piece of the lot, in which music becomes everything, the time and space between event and recollection, memory, the world in and out: “its scope/the heart’s estranged melody”.
This is a brilliant and important debut, one that deserves to be widely read. Butler’s light experimentation with form, her vivid lyrical touch and her pervasive philosophical compressions are a pleasure to read, and will linger with you. It demands, through engagement with it, a re-evaluation of the interaction between self/selves and world. I advise all to pick up a copy of Aphelion as soon as possible.
Josh Jones is a British poet currently studying at UEA, Norwich