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Derek Sellen reviews Six-Count Jive by Rosie Johnston

Six-Count Jive by Rosie Johnston (Lapwing Publications 2019)

How do you tell the story of a journey from a diagnosis of PTSD to a joyful state of recovery? There are probably as many answers as there are literary forms, from memoir to myth, but Rosie Johnston has found a way – or perhaps the way has found her – which in its rhythms and language powerfully embodies the changes of such a journey. Her solution is a long sequence of seventeen syllable stanzas, three to a group until the final page of four. The thirty sections express the helplessness, resistance, rage, calm, revival of the sufferer, and many other more difficult-to-name emotions and responses to her situation, from the start to the turning point to the end, if such a process can be said to have an end.

The choice of seventeen-syllable stanzas is far from limiting; one of the wonders of this book is the variety and nuance which she imparts in such small packets of verse. These are not ‘haiku’ as such but, like the haiku, they are spare and densely significant, the carriers of reverberations and tensions it is important not to miss. She has used this form before in previous collections and her control of it is impressive. The narrowness of the form forces the writer to make each word count and the readers to pay special attention in our turn.

Listen to these sound-patterns, language-choices and rhythms. First, the opening stanza:

Lie soft, gentle winged creature, roped and dazed,
you’re safe,
unless you struggle.

‘Lie soft’ and ‘gentle’ suggests the compassion of the poet’s later self now writing at a distance of the first pain. ‘Roped and dazed’ monosyllabically evoke the spider’s web with its horror for the victim. There’s the reassurance of ‘safe’, then the comma’s pause followed by the implicit threat of ‘unless you struggle’. Here is a stanza from the last page:

Among tall rococo willow
shadows
bats flit a bold fandango

The dance of the three-syllable words, the confidence of ‘tall’ and ‘bold’, the lightness of ‘flit’ – all combine to express a very different mood. The line-break throws emphasis on ‘shadows’. This might be interpreted as suggesting that shadows do not hold fear but are a place of dance, are no longer the darkness that earlier in the book spoke of ‘weariness and grief’. The changes in rhythm reflect the changes in the rhythms of the writer’s life.
‘Dance’ carries important positivity in the later poems. It is in the title ‘Six-Count Jive’ and in the language – ‘waltz’ and ‘fandango’’ ‘balletic’ and ‘pirouettes’ – and most essentially in these lines, where ‘daze’ is no longer negative (roped and dazed) but positive:

‘Birl me, sway me back to my
girl days –
daze me alive with six-count jive.’

The six footprints on the cover showing the pattern of the jive indicate that surviving PTSD is akin to learning how to dance again.

The natural world is another important signifier in the poems. The image of the ‘roped and dazed’ winged creature is carried through to the turning point in the illness: ‘her pummelled wings / risk tiny flutters’. Elsewhere there are moorchicks, a baby toad, a goldfinch, butterflies, references to the seasons and, of course, landscape and seascape:

Where sea and sky merge in a
thousand pinks
aligns the mind’s horizon.

How brilliantly that final line speaks of the healing effect of the interaction of nature and person.

In the choice of ‘17’ syllables there is an obvious and grateful nod of acknowledgement to the haiku; 16 or 18 syllables might have done as well but perhaps there is some hidden magic in established form and its numbers, whether particle or line or stress, in the 17 of the haiku or the 14 of the sonnet or the 5 of blank verse. I’d encourage you to read Six-Count Jive and to see what magic Rosie Johnston accomplishes with this poetic form.

Derek Sellen lives in Canterbury and is a member of SaveAs Writers. He has recently published a collection of poems inspired by Spanish art, The Other Guernica, with Cultured Llama Publishing. His work has been recognised in many competitions, including first prizes in Poets Meet Politics 2014, O’Bheal 2015 and Poetry Pulse 2017. Some of his work can be seen at http://www.poetrykit.org/CITN/citn%20164.htm

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