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April 2018, vol 14 no 1

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Tony Beyer

Review of Noragh Jones, The Dog of Darkness

Noragh Jones, The Dog of Darkness, Alba Publishing, Uxbridge, UK, 2017, 47pp, ISBN 978-1-910185-84-1, RRP $US13.

A posthumous book can raise perplexities for a reviewer committed to honesty regarding both the living and the dead, and, incidentally, expecting nothing less for himself. No such reservations, however, need to be entertained about Noragh Jones’s The Dog of Darkness. This is, in many ways, an essential book, making a valuable contribution to the ongoing process of adapting Japanese short forms into original English-language poetry.

An obvious advantage in her work was Jones’s ability to call upon a third language, Welsh, as an incitement, and the Celtic cultural tradition as an inspiration. Very usefully, Kim Richardson, the editor of this book has reproduced in it the author’s introduction to her earlier volume Stone Circles (Pilgrim Press, 2004). This effectively outlines Noragh Jones’s literary practice and beliefs, culminating in the refreshing reminder: “It helps, I find, to cling to the early Celtic view of poetry as magic”.

In our analytical age, this kind of wisdom can be vital. Not everything we think we understand, or everything the poet tells us, can be relied upon. The world we inhabit is a borderland between dreams and waking, life and death. Sometimes, only the perceptions of our ancestors can guide us. Thus, the first of the twenty-six haibun collected here, ‘War in Iraq’, draws its allusions from, among others, Al-Jazeera, the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’, Saddam Hussein and George Bush, and the Old Testament:

propping up Babel
their warrior words
splinter into shards

What happens now recalls what has happened before; if only we could learn from it.

Not surprisingly, the second haibun explains its own and the book’s title. “In the cefnwlad, the Welsh-speaking folk used to say the Gwyll Gi, the Dog of Darkness, has got hold of you, when a person was down in the dumps”. The elaboration of this arrives in the following haiku:

darker by far
than the wet slates of Blaenau
my mood tonight

An echo here of both landscape and Welsh folk song.

I don’t want to give the impression that the book is sombre or negative in content. The presence of the Welsh language is curiously stimulating, especially another biblical extract (with translation) in ‘Taking a Field Mouse for a Walk’ (an outstandingly beautiful haibun). The two voices, Welsh and English, are two worlds the poetry alternates and resounds between. Otherwise, Jones’s range of references is very wide and very European, rather than English. The paintings of Monet and Rubens, chocolate, musical composition, Moby Dick, a Bronze Age cairn, and encounters between American servicemen and English land girls during World War II, all have their places.

But Noragh Jones is a serious poet, whose themes include the passage of time and its consequences:

car without wheels
a whiff of mildewed leather
and a robin’s nest

Similarly, her ‘Death Haiku’ sequence communicates with both grief and the last experiences of a loved companion:

walking our mid-Wales hills
she turns to share a joke
forgetting he’s gone

These concerns do not preclude humour, as in ‘The Artists’ and ‘The Knitted Giant’ or a salutary admiration for the powers of human endurance: “On her better days, though growing stiff with arthritis, she still goes swimming in the shadowed waters below the cliff” (‘Landscape with Black Rabbits’).

Contrasting with the neglected lessons of human history, the poems often include images of recurrences in nature, the cycle of life that underpins more ephemeral human concerns. “Rainbow trout leap”, “bull frogs bellow/ their courtship songs” and the sun sets beyond “a myriad of midges” in ‘Hebridean Lochs’, a piece derived as much from nature as from paintings by Sandra Kennedy. This is another duality in the book, like those of languages, past and present, reality and imagination.

In modern discourse there are too few writers willing to admit to an awareness that there is more to the world than observable reality or educated opinion. The “magic” Noragh Jones refers to is a volatile substance, requiring careful handling. Its components include humility and faith, neither of which is valued much among contemporary notions of cool. It’s so invigorating, then, to come across the work of a poet unrestrainedly immersed in these matters and much the better for it.

“Seeing with the inner eye that tells resonant truths and transforms the everyday," is another expressed aim in Noragh Jones’s reprinted introduction. The voice of the Old Testament is heard again on the final page of The Dog of Darkness, in ‘By the Waters of the Rheidol’, a disconsolate but also vigorous contemplation of the local, with its “dogs and kids." The last words are:

I climb up the oak clad slopes and disappear into the green yonder.

a morning
so still
you can hear the silence

Noragh Jones died in December 2016. While we regret her passing, we can be none other than grateful for what she achieved for the sake of us all. By compiling and sharing this excellent volume, Kim Richardson has paid due respect to the poet and benefited readers and fellow practitioners everywhere.

Editor's Note:

The Dog of Darkness can be purchased through Alba Publishing.