It would be too easy to point to the Evan Jones’ autobiography to find the dynamic for this book: a Canadian-Greek, resident in Manchester, married to a German. What would be more natural than for Jones to look at the world askew? And to view it from the various kinds of transport that take the poet between the ‘fixed’ points of his life? ‘Because: // If something holds onto us, we can’t take it in our arms./Which suggests just one conclusion: see Gunzburg from the train.// and not only Gunzburg’ (The Intercity Express Passes Gunzburg). And there’s a quote by the Canadian critic, Northrop Frye that comes to mind: ‘The Canadian sensibility…is less perplexed by the question “Who am I?” than by some such riddle as “Where is here?”’
Jones’ apothegms embrace the transient by sending it up and pretending to throw fixity at it. And that transience is at one with Jones’ relationship with surrealism. The surrealism which imbues so much of this writing, he takes from Greek models such as Seferis and Elytis. And they took their adoption of French surrealism into a Greek world which nodded back to the Ancients. But these poets also sought to discuss Greek society which was still in the throes of escaping the legacy of Ottoman hegemony, and had yet to fully embrace a full identity in the twentieth century.
Jones does not have the agenda of cultural politics of Seferis and Elytis. But he does see the world as quietly absurd, so pretensions are deftly skewered, alongside the way an ‘artist’ will claim allegiance and identity where none such exists; ‘Take a Spanish painter and put him in Paris. Take a Greek painter and put him in Madrid. Take a Quebecois painter and put him in Paris, too, and a German and a couple more Spaniards and also a Greek-born Italian. You wouldn’t believe what I’m doing now. I’m up very late. […] The mattress is filling with honey and the box spring is humming like bees; my hand is in my pyjama bottoms. I stop and say, it isn’t love that makes you weak, to the night table and maybe the bed frame. Take an Italian Futurist for example.’ (Little Notes on Painting)
Jones ends the book with a long, picaresque sequence ‘Constantine and Arete: an autobiography’. The poem purports to be a nod towards a medieval Greek ballad ‘The Song of the Dead Brother’. Constantine and Arete appear, respectively, to be male and female characters on a journey in which, loosely, Constantine brings his sister back from matchmakers. And in the course of the poem, the characters die, reappear and disappear again. They also visit the Reading Room of the British Museum, listen to Sigur Ros and Thelma Houston, and are present in Constantinople in 1453, as the city falls to the Ottomans. But the poem is subtitled ‘an autobiography’. Thus, the first person here appears as part of an Audenesque dialogue; Jones the Greek speaker would know the meanings of ‘Constantine’ and ‘Arete’, in English as ‘constancy’ and ‘virtue’. ‘Evan’ himself appears towards the end of the poem, of whom ‘Not one [of his family] knows where you are’.
However, that fluidity is embraced with such a warm, beguiling tone that we might all embrace it. And Jones’ control of these fluidities is so, ironically, firm and strong that the reader accepts them as part of the general triumph of the outlook of the book. The words ‘exciting’ and ‘necessary’ are too often bandied about when a new(-ish) writer surfaces, but this book is both of these things. Jones reintroduces surrealism back into the mainstream of British poetry, but he also does something new. He shows that surrealism can deal with identity in a way which is contemporary and responsive to the internationalised lives which are lead in the twenty-first century. And Jones does this with wit, warmth and a sweet, suave irony.