The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping: Russell Jones, Freight Books
Russell Jones is a young Edinburgh-based poet who has published three pamphlets and whose recent debut collection, The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping, displays a facility with differing forms, from sonnet sequences to one-word poems, from concrete poetry to haiku. There is an impressive versatility in this collection, but there is substance and feeling and meaning there, too.
There are the high spirits of ‘Hurricane Bawbag,’ in which an old man lets the gale take him down the hill in his wheelchair - and the other side of the coin in ‘Last Orders’: “We ask where you’re going / tonight, if you’ve someone to see, / somewhere to stay, other than under / another doorway.”
There are a number of poems that linger In this territory, which, if not peculiarly Scottish, carries certain cultural resonances that you don’t necessarily find in Surrey. Not so much, anyway. In ‘Apologies to My Body’ the poet counts the ways in which he gone downhill, in a kind of “out-of-body” confession, listing the beer, cider, sherry, vodka, tequila, and kebabs, before concluding with fatalism and some anticipation: “Let’s go now, / Body, round and viscous: / It’s last orders / and we’ve work to do.”
This approach doesn’t always goes to plan, though. ‘Hunger’ finds him, in the “stumble of a cider night”, looking for somewhere to eat without success – the chippy, the Chinese , the curry house, the Turkish meat emporium are all closed. He tries vainly to forage in nearby woods, before waking up hours later, “half naked, half hammered, in the park.”
Occasionally a poem like ‘Gaze’, about the birth of the Earth, seems to overreach itself, only for Jones for acknowledge that “no slim telescope will show it all … one flower does not aspire to be a meadow”. Another poem, ‘Breathing Space’, addresses the stars, and may have been born from the same prompt or exercise: “This is our canopy, our cloth / between your vastness / and the immediate universe / of our eyes.”
Much more effective is ‘Haunting’, which might be read out at funerals, in the right circumstances. (This is intended as a compliment): “Do not think of me / as unmade, unkissed, unchanging, / unfaltering, unhated, unloved.”
In ‘The Bang’ the poet imagines the fatalistic yet romantic conversation between Alice and Atlas, the opposing protons in the Large Hadron Collider in the moments before they meet. And ‘The First Kiss’, from its beginning – “What a disappointment. Nothing like the moves, / nothing like the mind” - to conclusion – “be thankful for the imperfection / of love and that the first kiss is nothing/ like you expected” - is an examination of the failure of words to describe that particular moment. Jones doesn’t do so bad, though.
‘On Waiting For Milk’ describes the kind of poem that could be written, “I hear two milk boys come … I invent the hunch of their delivery … cream my tongue for the voice of morning work”, before apparently rejecting the artifice of this approach: “I say nothing, move nothing, go inside.” Another poem that observes people at work is ‘On Old Fishmarket Close’. It is clever and crafted, but again the poet is detached, one step removed: “I pack the poem, clear the air, scatty from the salt and smoke, / the fish lingering, old men evaporating, as I leave the close.”
‘Our Terraced Hum’ is an impressive collection of 10 sonnets, of which my favourite, I have to confess, is the voyeuristic ‘The Flat Opposite’, in which the poet watches a woman across the street take a bath, while her companion appears indifferent: “He flicks through channels as though / he’s never seen the goddess through my window.”
There are 26 one-word poems, which have some curiosity value: “Appetiser” (‘Another Bite and Then The Diet Starts’), “Granola” (‘Gravediggings for Breakfast’), and “Vice” (Versa’) will have to suffice as samplers. There is also a reflective, concrete poem called ‘Star’, which is shaped as you might expect.
But there is a lot more to this collection than tricksiness. Jones demonstrates a range of poetic skills, and shows maturity in his observations and judgments. It will be very interesting to see where he goes from here.