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Review: Woman's Head as Jug, by Jackie Wills

Alison Brackenbury, Under the Radar, Winter 2014

I found Wills' poems in the first person especially compelling. Modern settings produce sharper emotional- and technical - focus. The 'Saturday Girl', recalling 1974, confesses "All I earned, I spent" on "the dress I never finish and still crave". Wills' longer lines are tauter, their verbs, such as the final, urgent "crave" fiercely active.

This is a rewardingly varied collection. All the women of its first section are defined by work. But in 'Forest Choir', which opens the second section, the poem's subject lives mysteriously. It is a poem of unashamed emotional power: "Her heart opens its sluice gates". It also produces unexpected shocks to the sense. "In the space an axe makes [...] she smells blackcurrants". Wills' art dissolves time, as the "sirens" of the opening lines give way to an "Assyrian priest". I was equally enthralled by the very different assurance of 'Words for Women', a solid block of text from which nouns of insult and praise, literary or colloquial, can be disentangled and reconsidered. [...] Wills can demonstrate variety in a single poem, with a sensuous and witty introduction: "His kisses, soft as anemones, dab linter from my cheeks." [...]

No notes are needed to Wills' most uncompromising accounts of the world, including women's experience, as in a poem which lists objects which are red: "the tip of a tampon, a sore and a crater". With a shrewd and contemporary sense of economics, she notes how a landlord buys a street "metre by metre". Her writing also strengthens when faced with the need for physical survival. In her list of colours, the blackness of diving demands imperatives: "Breathe through your mouth. Trust your hands." I would trust the power of her account of the menopause, "When the blowtorch is on inside her", not least for the wry suggestion that her subject could "supply the city's tumble dryers". Wills is unflinchingly witty about age "the M1, with twisting A roads, / has appeared on her shins". Her short poems may travel furthest in longer lines.

[...] The first person triumphs, too, in the 'The Kitchen Floor' (on which the pregnant speaker lies). It is an almost perfectly physical poem, sensuous, comic and lovely:
'Until then the air is cool and I am still
as a white teapot on a shelf beside a white jug'
Wills shows that a poem remains a deeply human magic. It is a magic which often, as here, rests upon tricks of sound: the mirrored 'I' of the first line, the defining reflection of 'white' in the second. I suspect that her exquisite short poems have helped her to condense so much into two lines. The delicacy and strength of her writing shine out of her colelctions final lines, as 'Funeral Horses', fed titbits by their groom, "lick salt from her palm".

We do not, of course, need poetry. As Wills' working women remind us, to stay alive, we need food and shelter. But as Wills' moving collection also reveals, poetry, our forgotten footnote, can bring all that has come before into a percious clarity.