The poems in Jones' [The Sun Is Axeman] depend delicately from the top of the page, reminding me of that excellent poem which opened his first book, Frost on the Sun, with the question, "Do poems too have backbones?" In that book, D. G. Jones explained that his poems were
… attempts to apprehend and understand fragments of experience … to capture and suggest the sense that the universe is a vast pool, globe, or continuum of energy—mysterious and potent—in which the individual thing or creature participates, changes, or dies.
The dominant sun of his poetry symbolizes that continuum of energy, with its creative and destructive potential. The sun is axeman, "it crashes in the alders," but it also produces dazzling protective revelations…. (p. 58)
The sun and weather, birds and girls are centring images in this carefully crafted work. The clarity, control, and music of these poems reveal the benevolent influences of W. C. Williams and Pound, influences which have been absorbed and used towards a personal utterance…. (pp. 58-9)
For a poet whose imaginative range is somewhat limited, Jones appears remarkably at home in … longer poems. The reasons for this security are not hard to find, for his poetic aims are as lucid as his poetic line:
So let my mind
be, like this river,
thin as glass
that thunder, dark clouds, rain,
the violent winds, may pass
and leave no lasting darkness in their wake….
Occasionally the fear of leaving a "lasting darkness" results in a dodge into coyness. "Clotheslines", for instance, which begins with a tone I can describe only as a normal nobility, promising Williamsesque truths from common things, drops down into coy self-consciousness…. The overall achievement of The Sun Is Axeman results in a distinctive voice, a poetry of lovely assonances, syllabic grace, of insights glancing from a landscape "in which the birds or trees / Find all their palpable relations with the earth." (p. 59)
Phyllis Webb, in Canadian Literature, Spring, 1962.
Beside the meteoric flash of such writers as Leonard Cohen and, now, Margaret Atwood, Jones's subtle brilliance seems a pale fire indeed. This is because Jones is a poet who is penetrating with care and delicate concern many of Canada's more troubling aesthetic preoccupations. He is a poet of courage whose surfacing is always deceptive and often misleading in a country where the search for self and heritage can be so exhausting that most poets would prefer to settle for any mode of irony that would both expose the mysterious folly of self-discovery and, also, prevent whatever fulfillment of exploration might be possible.
This is the poetry of an imagination that was early formed, and such changes as occur are those of a style deepened only by tragic events. It should be remarked, nevertheless, how the centre of Jones's circles of radiation is placed in his first book. As a poet who seems only minimally ready for statement, he enunciated an almost consuming passion in his first poem in Frost On The Sun entitled "John Marin". Jones's passion is for art, form and the artist's ambiguous relation to the world present to the eye. Every volume of his poetry has, in fact, begun with meditations on this problem. The Sun Is Axeman opens reflecting upon Anne Hébert; Phrases From Orpheus moves confidently into the same kind of aesthetic dimension. By the third book, however, the self is no longer a spectator of a simple other; there the spatial order of his early work yields to an interplay, suggested in the course of the second book, of kinds of perceptual events where
The cries of children come on the wind
And are gone. The wild bees come,
And the clouds.
And the mind is not
A place at all,
But a harmony of now,
The necessary angel, slapping
Flied in its own sweat.
The transmutation of "place", which was so much a part of design for the poet to whom Jones here almost to his undoing boldly alludes, is where the ambiguity of speech and its mode of visual revelation focus in his poetry. But Jones, unlike Stevens, never teaches explicity…. The Canadian poet's persona is every part, no part, a picture and absence…. Conjoined, finally, to a love for art and the world seen as theatre, is a need for masks, either tragic or Edenic, whose rôle is to reflect upon how the place of tragedy—a disharmony of then—is at once present, illusory and quick with death.
If it is true that an exceedingly refined notion of art resides at the centre of Jones's consciousness, it is the sense of the visual relations of things and their deceptions that shades both the imagery and form of the poems. In its approximation to visual art, his poetry in fact illuminates imagery which is by its nature and in its effect illusory and deceptive. Similar to any image cast upon a screen, the "place" where it reflects is a blank, a reminder and menace of absence. The mechanics of beaming light is complicated a fortiori by the poet's ability to blend images. Jones's arrival at such aesthetic positions does not seem to be through an interest in film but rather via an obsession with photographs and painters, not only Marin, but also Klee, Chagall, the Hour Books of the Duke of Berry, Cézanne, Matisse, Hokusai and Chinese art in general…. These interests are [most] likely only aspects of an intensely visual imagination, and a peculiar bent for the way things come and go before the eye. (pp. 159-61)
[This idea is demonstrated in the poem "Antibes: Variations on a Theme".] It has been remarked that this is a kind of nineteenth-century travel poem. Among its few faults, this need not be numbered. Its faults are more technical: an occasional failure of cadence, an unnecessary use of "very" in the next to last line. Its virtues, emerging like flotsam in many of the stanza's final lines, should suggest that little is being described in this poem, but much is thrust delicately into our purview and then removed. The poem has no background other than the repetition of the word "Antibes". The speaker is a demonstrator; his rôle is to thin out the three or four dimensional world to a screen where action is naught, where, "under fallen stars", gods are aligned with "trivial flesh", creation becomes "reproduction", and where all process is a silent corruption. The strength of the poem is not the apparent idea, but the skill with which emptiness becomes a mirror against the reader's eye. The action of the poem has nothing to do with either the speaker or the figures he indicates. The action depends upon a random superimposition of accidentally related images. But the modulation of imagery relentlessly urges upon us the fact that fantasy, memory, noon, night, Nicolas de Staël's suicide, an older painting of Picasso—that all these show us how the world becomes picture steadily emptying itself of centre and depth: time, deceptions of memory, fallen gods, necrosis become positions and azimuths of the visual world.
As a paradox working against the persuasive order of the poem's stanzas, we are urged to believe in the momentary and exclusive validity of every point of reference…. To proportion visual interest is precisely Jones's rôle in the poem. Against the depth-creating properties of line, colour and form, the poet juxtaposes time, plays with the irony of language, remembers the images of other men and, without any suggestion of continuity, allows Antibes to die at noon, at evening and at night, while somebody eats ice-cream. (pp. 163-64)
[For Jones] the form of a poem, particularly a longer one, is a spatial composition in which the tonalities of margins, masks and fragmentary implosions create an interplay of voices whose perspectives mix "background" and "foreground" which, for the unwary, seems inhuman. The persona of these poems may indeed have no precise outline, but the effort to project a shape, to cast a "profile in the birdless air", to shadow forth the labyrinth of the human spirit in the formal design of the poem is what distinguishes Jones from the unexamined romanticism of his contemporaries. The persona, finally, is a creation of a poem's design.
What always characterizes Jones's levelled manner of speech is its reflective pitch. It is at once a meditation and an argument; it surrounds the world witnessed over the shoulders of both Narcissus and Li Po, the Chinese and the classical … pool of the mind playing one reply against another. Sometimes the poet's attitude emerges dry and pure, as in the image chosen as the title for his recent study of themes and images in Canadian literature, Butterfly On Rock. But the larger poems brood almost bizarrely over the water illusions of Narcissus's pool, a place of expected dissolution in expansion, and unforeseen restoration into depth…. (pp. 164-65)
Of façades [in Jones's poetry], the simplest is the mask. But the pathos of masks, as the poet asserts in the form of most of his poems, is their totally amorphous capability: they droop from branches like Dali's dead...
(The entire section is 2981 words.)
The typical setting for a poem by D. G. Jones, in 1953 or 1973, is some rural place in the Canadian Shield at that time of year when it is still winter but perhaps beginning to be spring. The difference between the 1953 poem and the 1973 poem lies in where the poet is situated. In the earlier poems Jones is the interpreter of the landscape. In the later ones he is part of the landscape. It is as difficult as that. To put it another way: during his early career he seemed faced with a dispute—shall he be "realistic" or "mythic"? Later he succeeded in discarding both poses, in favour of being actual. He learned to listen to his own body, the music it was (forced) to make in its environment, and there is the body of his...
(The entire section is 1879 words.)