Reviewed by Alison Clifton, StylusLit
Rebecca Jessen’s debut collection of poetry, Ask Me About the Future, shows this important poet developing an assured voice six years on from the publication of her award-winning verse novel, Gap (2014). Jessen’s is a vital voice in the queersphere. This collection explores the experience of a young gay woman in poignant detail, and there is also a sequence of poems on the birth of her sister’s child which is different in feel: sparser and somehow more organic.
The collection opens strongly, loud and proud, with the clever, telling wordplay of “Self Portrait 2017” (3-4) which responds to Margaret Preston’s 1930 declaration that “I am a flower painter – I am not a flower.” The poem is comprised of a series of call and response affirmations and assertions: “I am a homely vessel,” Jessen states, “I am not home,” and “I am the domestic impulse,” she says, “I am not domesticated.” These statements signal a preoccupation with the domestic sphere and what “home” means that will run through the collection sometimes subtly, catching the light like gossamer threads in a gold-flecked wool scarf, at other times urgently like an arterial road thick and red lancing through a map of suburbia.
This is a thrilling poem to read as it unfolds so many possible meanings, with its delight in the multiplicity of word meanings juxtaposed with the seriousness of each statement:
I am highly civilised and unaesthetic—
I am not civil
I am the tangible symbol of the spirit—
I am not a tangent
I am the earthly relic—
I am not the earth
I am the natural enemy of the dull—
I am not natural (3)
Finally, “I am queer,” she asserts, but “I am not yet here.” Certainly, there is a quality of nascent identity formation in much of this poetry, but there is another meaning to “I am not yet here.”
The line is echoed in “Triage” (9): a poem about a distressed young person calling a suicide-prevention helpline. The lines in question read: “someone will be here for you. those words echo / into the past and future and ring untrue. there is no here. not for you.” Uncertainty of location, absence of home, erasure of identity: these are problems often faced by young people when they first come out. Caesura is used in this poem to heartbreaking effect, the pauses seeming to indicate the loss of words of the speaker who is on the brink of taking her own life, her emotions too overwhelming to be expressed in words.
The next poem injects some levity at the same time as it speaks of loss. It is also a highlight of the collection. In “(after) HER: dating app adventures” (10-12), the speaker dives headfirst into the realm of lesbian dating apps before wading back to the shallow end for safety:
what happens when the girl says
I’m looking for that special someone
and some unburied feeling
I am not looking for that special someone
I am not looking for that
I am not looking (12)
These last three lines show Jessen’s gift for eloquence in brevity and her trademark use of truncation and erasure.
Elsewhere, “The Late September Dogs” (13) also treats the subject of depression: this time, the lack of help for those who are in distress and suffering from a low mood but deemed not to be in extremis enough for medical or psychiatric help. It is difficult reading that is deftly handled by the poet. “Vote Yes: a found poem” (14-16) is masterfully put-together. In turns humorous and horrifying to read, it is a farce the stakes of which are life and death for those who were put in danger by the debate over same-sex marriage.
Jessen is adept at writing powerful endings to poems. “The good wife’s guide” (17) is a brilliantly-observed erasure poem, ending with the lines “a good wife knows / Gather up books, / and then run.” Here, the implication of escaping domestic violence is disconcertingly apparent. The achingly lovely “time-lapse” (18) ends with:
now you collect girls like loneliness,
and it is not the future
folding out beneath you, but an afterlife,
where the cold clear no of her
leaving becomes a lifetime refrain.
Any reader who has known heartbreak and the concomitant feeling of being decentred will empathise. Another standout poem, “after Brokeback” (21), also ends strongly with a physical disintegration that symbolises the breaking up of a relationship and the breaking down of the self in the aftermath.
The series of poems on the birth of Jessen’s nephew deal with the feelings of unreality experienced when returning home as an adult: the unheimlich and the sense of disjuncture. These are a different pace of poem to the rest of the collection, unfolding in a dreamscape-like reality beyond the inner-city / outer-suburb divide.
Overall, Ask Me About the Future is a bold declaration of selfhood even as it is a modest affirmation of the self. Jessen’s poetry covers important ground for young queer Australians, especially those living with mental illness. Her work reveals a seminal truth. If writing is empowering; reading is realisation: the realisation that one is not aloneand that we are all one. There is something universal in this poetry even as Jessen’s voice is distinct and unique. This is essential poetry, not just for the future, but for the here and now.