I did not know a lot about Diana Wynne Jones before I received her poetry collection, simply titled Poems. According to a professor in my undergrad, Jones was the creator behind Howl's Moving Castle (2004) and a leading figure in children's fantasy literature. I went into the collection with these two details in mind, along with an awareness that the poet had already died in 2011 (this collection is a posthumous publication, edited by Isobel Armstrong). My expectations, then, were limited—yet open to being pleased, and pleased I was. Poems is a beautiful collection which embodies many of the things about fantasy I enjoy, along with a portrait of a woman who created these works. The last image—that of Diana Wynne Jones as poet, as author, fantasist, fabulist, mother, creator—is my lingering impression of the work as a whole, and the one I enjoyed the most.
I was struck by the image of Jones as a writer contained in the collection’s introduction. While I agree with Lisa Bradley's assessments that introductions can be like "literary speed bumps" and will, no doubt, affect the reading experience—for the good or for the better—I thought it was imperative to read the introduction of this work because the collection truly is a collected version of the poet’s life and writing. Poems opens with Jones’s first poem, written as juvenilia (“How Many Miles Until Babylon?”), and her last poem (“Blackbirds”), written a few weeks before she died. To fully appreciate the breadth of her life in poetry, I needed to know more. Rather than scouring Google for a piecemeal image of the woman (or relying solely on my professor’s impression of her work), I referred to Isobel Armstrong's assessment of Jones. Armstrong’s does the work which most good introductions do, and gave me a brief glimpse of how to read some of these works (especially with biographic details, such as Jones's experience of motherhood in “Benediction”), but she also gave me a stark image of the woman herself. Armstrong writes that she:
sorted the manuscripts she [Diana] gave me just before she died, poems scribbled on children’s drawings, shopping lists, some scorched with cigarette marks—she was an incessant smoker while she worked—the fierce energy of her imagination was everywhere apparent. It was survivor’s energy, and the poems are testimony to it.
And if Jones’s poems are testimony to her fierce energy, Armstrong’s depiction of the writer is just as strong, moving, and utterly evocative. I can practically hear the crinkling of paper, of shopping lists, and the quiet drift of thought as pens dart across the page’s surface. Then the click of a light or hiss of matches as the poet lights up. I can smell it, hear it, and practically taste the dust and tar of the room of creation. It is this image of Diana Wynne Jones constantly smoking that captivated me from the start.
And it is a fairly standard image, isn't it? We see the black coffee and cigarette image of a poet repeated over and over again in literature and art house films; we also get the image of a smoking wizard played out again and again in most fantasy fiction. Yet this image of Diana Wynne Jones, children's fantasy author, mother who wrote about motherhood in her poems, and feminist fantasy author and academic (an image she depicts comically—yet seriously—in her poem about going to a conference as the only woman author called “The Moderator’s Song”), seems so strange next to the image of her smoking. So contradictory.
Before I even dove into the wonderful poems, then, I had to confront something that utterly captivated me, but didn’t quite fit. Jones’s smoking made me realize that women with cigarettes are not seen as much in film or literature—or at least, they are not portrayed in the same way as men. Women are not the typical wizards of fantasy stories with pipes, either. Cigarettes seem forbidden among women, especially in children’s literature, especially where they are also depicted as “good” mothers. The alluring qualities of smoking, its artistic and aesthetic elements championed by so many men in black turtlenecks, become eliminated when a woman does it; all negative attributes of smoking become transparent when held by a woman, because of her presumed association with children. The incongruence of the woman-smoker-as-artist image is especially strained (or no less complicated) as Jones’s death from lung cancer becomes apparent. Her smoking shouldn’t be seen as good, as artistic, as anything but tragic.
Yet this image of Diana Wynne Jones smoking as she worked on a project is one of the most radical and compelling images in the collection to me. Armstrong’s beginning vignette gave me a stark picture of a woman of whom I had limited knowledge, and yet a woman that I somehow could see in my mind's eye so clearly—an image that only became clearer as I went through the whole collection. I am so happy that Isobel Armstrong portrays this image with such honesty, too, instead of shying away from these complicating elements.
I say all of this about smoking and its associations because Diana Wynne Jones was a radical author, insofar as her work cut right to the roots. Her books have won awards, reshaped the genre, become popularized through film adaptation … but she also doesn’t forget the previous iterations of tropes, past authors, or classic novels within fantasy which came before her. The images which fill her poems display this honouring and reshaping of history most clearly; each poem presents a narrative structure which is stunning, evocative, yet classic. She portrays and draws upon a wealth of figures from Nordic mythology, such as Woden (see “Grim, The High One” and “If I Were Erda”), alongside Greek and Celtic myth (in “I Found the Cauldron of Ceridwen” and “Ceres” respectively). She mixes in elements of the fairy tale, such as castles, magic, and animals (such as “Fish”), and demonstrates more sensitive portrayals of feminine figures, like Persephone (in “Persephone”) and the women who fought over the Golden Apple (“The Judgement of Paris”).
Indeed, it is this staunchly feminist—or at least feminine-oriented—perspective which I enjoyed the most in her work. As mentioned earlier, “The Moderator’s Song” is a must for any academic involved in fantasy, or any fantasy author who identifies as a woman and a feminist, or everyone, literally everyone, who has ever attended a conference. I had no idea the bickering at conferences could be depicted in a poem with such great delight, rather than tedium and boredom. Jones does this, however, and does so without sounding like a bore or a pundit, and I am amazed. I know that at my next conference, especially as someone asks a question which is really an opportunity to air their grievances, I’ll have her refrains of “O pity the poor moderator” going through my head.
In addition to “The Moderator’s Song,” some of my favourite poems are the ones about the moon, such as “Moon Haikus” and “Luna.” There is no shortage of moon poems to choose from, though, as the word moon itself appears at least two dozen times across the collection. The moon is an obvious symbol of feminine empowerment, but it goes a step further with Jones's work. The moon is a friend; a lover; a feminine-centred orientation of the world where she as poet, as woman, is acknowledged under the moon's light, yet also visible in the daylight-blue brightness.
Women are seen as powerful in Jones's poetry, but this power is often doubted by others. These poems—such as the clever retelling of the tale of the Golden Apples in Greek mythology—walk a fine line between victimization and martyrdom while also representing the very real limitations of the feminine body and social position. Jones manages to portray how sometimes even the greatest gods get it wrong, and women are seen as inferior; but she does so without believing in the hype. This is especially so in “The Judgement of Paris,” which ends with the lines:
Goddesses three he left behind
With godhead dropping from them as they stood
In tears of shame, bewildered in mind,
Demoted by this to mere womanhood.
This is heartbreaking—yet, is also not the end in total. Jones’s moon poems, and the ones that portray feminine figures, act as the pick-me-up to such hostile misogyny. In “Villanelle” Jones writes:
Who brings the tablets to the tribes, the scheme
Of sundown and moonphase, if not me?
I am the salmon vaulting up the stream,
I am the spark igniting thought from dream
After the hostility of “The Judgement of Paris” and the funny—yet still no-less-present—bad aftertaste of sexism in “The Moderator’s Song,” these lines are a dream. After all, Jones seems to suggest, the moon is still present in the daylight hour, even if everyone else is after the sun. Women still matter, along with their perspectives and experiences, even if the world (in some parts, at least) seems so utterly behind.
Even when her poems do not portray the moon, many portray water; the tides; seashells; and deep underwater caves, all tropes and elements that put the feminine front and centre. This veers dangerously close to solely cisgender sisterhood, I know, and I can certainly see critiques in this rendering and my reading of Jones’s work, but I don't get an essentialist perspective of womanhood from this collection. I’ve gotten it from other writers of this time period, and trust me, as much as I love Angela Carter, she is one of the worst ones for this type of cissexism within the speculative genre—but again, I don’t get the same sense from Jones. In her work, I merely see a feminine-centred thinking, which allows for many different types of womanhood to fill in the gaps of meaning and interpretation.
I can even apply this open reading to the series of poems labelled "Children” in the middle of the work. One of these poems, as Armstrong points out in the introduction, is about the quickening of a child felt in utero by Jones. Yet I don't know—not having had this experience personally—if I would have "gotten" that point of the poem had I not been guided there from the word go. The gaps in language lead me to read in my own experience to Jones’s words, and so my own perceptions of my body coloured a different meaning of my own experience. And while that experience is still relatively normatively gendered, I still think there is room for a variation in that particular piece—and in Jones’s work more generally.
Indeed, variation is what Jones does exceptionally well. From her typical fantasy poetry in the first half of the collection (in the sections labelled “Myths” and “The Living World”), which are descriptive and haunting, she shifts to the deeply structured use of the villanelle and sestina in later sections. I have only been trained in poetry in a minor way (through an undergrad poetry class with a poet who also enjoyed these forms), but even with this limited education, I can still appreciate Jones's use. The villanelle is just a fun structure. It's the same one that Dylan Thomas uses for "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and, as such, each one of Jones's poems has a similarly strong and undying feel to it. These villanelles are rallying cries; they are storytelling as survival, which will live (and already have lived) far beyond Jones's own life.
A few more mentions before I get to that last poem, and the inevitable ending of this poetry collection, which is the end of Jones's life: I want to note that the section of poems called "Comic Poems" is quite possibly my favourite. These are the humorous poems; the ones that are clever rewrites of Christmas carols (“The Days of Christmas”) or fantasy characters (“What I Like”; “The Sad Tale”); they are the ones that are supposed to make us laugh. I admit, when I first saw the mention of comic poems, I got my hopes up for Comedy in the classical Greek sense. I wanted these poems to be about banquets and bawdy revelry; I wanted to see disguises and revealing; I wanted the later aspect of Comedy, too, that of romance and changes in fortune. These poems, though, were comedy in the humorous sense, the kind that make you laugh. And they achieved their aim.
Yet I think in many ways this work—the entire collection of poems—is a sort of Comedy. Each poem proceeds from the other, and as such, each one is the unfolding of Jones's life, from her first poem to her last; and, in between these two points, there are a lot of banquets. It's a fantasy feast; there are tricks and revelries; kings and queens who become inverted for the day; there is laughter and sexuality and happily-ever-afters spread out among the poems. There is a celebration of life, which has come to an end, yes, but it is not a tragic ending. This is truly a comedy collection of poetry in that classical—or at the very least Shakespearean—sense. Not every single work in this collection will make you laugh, and you may not like all of them, but each one presents the ideals of Comedy, and that is that there will always be something to celebrate.
In this case, that celebration is of Diana Wynne Jones herself. I like to think of the experience of reading this collection as joining a long table filled with her work. It is a literal feast of fantasy—yet what I am wowed by the most is not each different dish, each different poem, but Diana herself at the head of the table. She is the author who was so often an observer in her poems; she sits back and watches and thinks and creates and conjures and develops wonderful worlds, but she so often fades into the background. Diana has died, and died after penning the poignant "Blackbirds," in which it seems that there are “Always people dying / While these songs stab / The clearing gloaming / Precise here and now”—but her life itself has not faded. Rather, she is kept alive, immortal through this ever-lasting banquet.
At that head of the table, I like to imagine her smoking.
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