Edinburgh-based poet Russell Jones has published three pamphlets and edited Where Rockets Burn: Contemporary Science Fiction Poetry from the UK. The Green Dress Whose Girl Is Sleeping marks his debut book-length collection. The titles of the poems point towards idiosyncrasy and diversity — ‘My Secrets as a God’, ‘My Adoration of Tiramisu’, ‘Random Sample from the School Career Library Classification Index’, ‘Above the “100% Human Hair Extensions” Beauty Salon’. Jones experiments with feeling and form, style and subject, and the poems that emerge are generally the result of a sensitive, questioning mind unafraid to reveal big questions in small moments:
[…] You ask for the earth
to break and it does.
I’ll stay with you, then,
as the statue
is painted darker by the rain
for a darker world.
— ‘Apparition in a Storm’
A statue painted darker by the rain — something about that image seems thoroughly Scottish. These poems are far from parochial, though, despite and because of their being influenced by one Scottish writer in particular — Edwin Morgan. ‘The Bang’, for example, is a dialogue between ‘Alice and Atlas: Opposing Protons in the Large Hadron Collider’. The star-shaped poem ‘Star’ mirrors itself, with the left side printed back-to-front. There are sharp, tender sonnets and single-word poems. All of these elements indicate a reverence for Edwin Morgan who would, I think, have enjoyed reading this collection. Who could fail to love lines like ‘Children are gods, too’, or:
At the party the green dress dances
so wild that her hips shake the atmosphere.
— ‘The Insider’
Cosmic and intimate, these poems shine with innate empathy — for a woman who lost her son, for a remorseful dog, for the flower that ‘does not aspire to be a meadow’. Jones attempts not only to understand what it is to be a specific person, but what it is to be the very dress in which she dances (and subsequently sleeps). I love that kind of imaginative impulse.
The scope of subject matter here is impressive, with intellectual and emotional intelligence freely offered, explored, developed. The imagination and resourcefulness evident in The Green Dress Whose Girl Is Sleeping are to be admired. ‘On Her Return from Afghanistan’ opens with an intense and affecting stanza that shows Jones at his best:
My sister told me how she’d sewn
the stomachs of two boys who set off
a land mine whilst playing football near the market;
removed the overcooked
skin, tendons, muscle and cartilage
from the legs of a woman trying to save
her photos during a house fire;
administered the drugs to a man
she had eaten eggs with, knowing
his death was certain.
Poems this emotionally engaging will never grow old.
Not all of the experiments in the collection pay off. I found the ’26 ONE WORD POEMS’ to be flippant, unremarkable and fruitless. They detract from the book as a whole. For example, the ‘one word poem’ entitled ‘What You See Is What You Get’ reads in its entirety: ‘WYSIWYG’. Leaving aside the fact that WYSIWYG is not a word, how does a redundant ‘one word’ ‘poem’ like that earn its way into an otherwise moving and intriguing collection? Unfortunately, most of the so-called one-word poems fall flat. Similarly, the haiku that make up ‘Selection from a Summer Set’ fail to convince. Talented poet though he is, Jones has not mastered the haiku (in fairness, it is inordinately and deceptively difficult to write a true haiku). I can’t help but feel that omitting the one-word poems and the haiku would have made for an even more assured debut.
Still, let’s not be harsh. The Green Dress Whose Girl Is Sleeping is a striking collection and deserves to do well. I look forward to seeing more from such a promising poet.
The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping by Russell Jones is published by Freight Books, 2015.