I love Tess Jolly’s poems, and I posted my look at her first collection Touchpapers here. Her latest, Thus the blue hour comes from Indigo Pamphlets confirmed the promise of her first pamphlet with what is, in my view, a beautifully coherent and even stronger collection.
I saw the collection before it went to print, and was asked for a quote for the back cover. I still stand by what I said then, which was: The mysterious, almost unnerving, quality of Tess Jolly’s poetry carries a cold fire into recesses of the imagination — and when we dare look with her, we glimpse treasures gleaming in the dark. For, as I noted with her first collection, Tess Jolly’s poetry contains magic. In her poems you will find yourself stumbling into wonder. Frequently too, you’ll encounter a mood of genuine gothic creepiness, where objects are supercharged with a magnetic significance.
In this collection, Tess Jolly employs some traditional symbols, but in a way that makes your hair stained on end. The moon, a symbol freighted with associations and often traditionally associated with the feminine, fertility, and the subconscious mind, is here compared to bone.
Moon is no longer moon.
It is a spinal cord of light pulsing dark water
in which the counting sheep have drowned.
(The Night Light)
Bone-shadow, skelton moon,
echo of the beat breaking through me
she settles into the eiderdown –
a bird on its nest – opens
the ragged canopy of its wings.
The ‘She’ of the poems takes on many forms, she observes the act of vomiting,
Her favourite view
is of the back
of my head
as seen from above.
Something about the way
my long hair
parts at the neck
and the sounds I make
when bowed like this –
acidy, guttural –
the dark little hairs
on my nape
like cut glass.
(The back of my head as seen from above)
She is intimately aware of changes in the body.
She strokes the bloom of hair on my back.
Praises the absence of blood.
This accumulation of physical details and gaunt, skeletal imagery, strongly suggest that we are dealing with the experience of anorexia. The word anorexia never appears in the collection, however, and the poems achieve a kind of universality in their depiction of a battle for survival and control over a subtle enemy. For there are temptations of this gaunt other:
She throws me diamonds, pearls,
Teaches me the art
The poem The Cliff Path, which I quote in full, is chillingly brilliant. The temptation to follow the path till the end is so evident.
The Cliff Path
She tells me it’s my turn.
I follow her down long corridors
past scapula, clavicle, pelvis, rib
woven into wreaths hanging
on every door, through the trees
onto the cliff path.
Shadows lengthen before us:
creatures disturbed in magic mirrors,
genies summoned from bottles.
I can see the house in the distance,
the ghosts lingering
like breath on its windows.
In my opinion Tess Jolly is one of the UK’s most exciting poets, writing in a way that is full of otherworldly beauty and terror. Her poems remind me of Rilke’s lines from the first of the Duino Elegies:
For Beauty’s nothing
but the beginning of Terror we’re still able to bear,
and why we adore it so is because it serenely
disdains to destroy us.
(Tr. J.B.Leishman and Steven Spender)
In my view, Tess Jolly walks the tightrope strung between beauty and terror with absolute bravura.