Linda Weste reviews The Sunlit Zone by Lisa Jacobson
5 Islands Press, Melbourne, AUS 2012
Reviewed by LINDA WESTE
In each verse novel, the unique relationship of poetic and narrative elements leads to a dynamic duality of design. Lisa Jacobson’s verse novel, The Sunlit Zone, illustrates how productive this interplay of narrative and poetic elements can be, with its compelling narrative, and its meticulous, yet deceptively natural poetic rhythm, honed painstakingly by Jacobson, over several years.
The initial idea for the verse novel came courtesy of a Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship to Israel, where Jacobson, scuba diving in the Red Sea, was struck by the ethereality of being underwater. Jacobson produced a two-page poem after the experience; the poem extended into a series of reflective monologues; and in time the project became bigger than either poem or short story and developed into a speculative verse novel.
The Sunlit Zone is set in a future Melbourne, circa 2050. The main character, North, is a genetic scientist working with mutated creatures, the products of environmental problems. In this speculative world of dream-genes, skinfones, cyberdrugs, thought-coding, and genetically modified species, North must come to terms with loss, and reconcile past and present in her relationships with friends, lovers and family.
The focus on loss and grief is carried by the verse novel’s metaphor of the ocean’s layers, which in layman’s terms are known as the sunlit zone, the twilight zone and the midnight zone. The latter, the depths, are associated with North’s past; through resolving loss she returns to the sunlit zone.
The Sunlit Zone is replete with ocean and sea imagery; marine conservation is central in its themes; yet the impact of the ocean on the work arguably extends to its free verse form and fluid storytelling — the sense of the ocean’s rhythm in the ebb and flow of the narrative — and its influence on character, most obviously that of Finn, North’s twin sister with gills who is obsessed with water.
The Sunlit Zone illustrates the capacity of the verse novel form to be as diverse and innovative as the prose novel. Nevertheless, the verse novel, by virtue of its constitutive and inherent doubleness, is a narrative poem; a category it shares with epic; narrative autobiography in verse; Medieval and Renaissance verse romances; mock epic poems; and ballads and their literary imitations. The Sunlit Zone changed Jacobson’s view of the verse novel as a ‘hybrid’ form: “It’s not a hybrid, it has its own form, and its own history over hundreds of years,” she maintains.
Jacobson read quite a lot of verse novels during the writing of The Sunlit Zone including Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and young adult verse novels by Catherine Bateson and Steven Herrick. Some of the verse novels in metered form that Jacobson read felt relentless; “prison-house-ish”: in contrast, Jacobson “wanted to open form up: the ocean was flowing” (Interview). The search for poetic models that could enable such fluidity led Jacobson to the sound word echoes in W H Auden’s poem about Icarus falling, “Musée des Beaux Arts”, which has rhyme, “but spaced out within the poem unpredictably, for instance, in lines two and seven. Such poetry is actually carefully wrought although it looks completely free; it’s not metrical but it has a rigorous application of sound” (Interview).
To ensure that form followed theme in The Sunlit Zone, Jacobson devised a free verse form comprising 313 poetry ‘passages’ — one is inclined to refer to passages rather than stanzas when they vary in line length and their number of lines — and of these, only a few passages have as many as twenty-three lines, while most have between eight and fifteen. In each passage, the syntax preserves the natural stresses found in speech. There is no template by which all stresses are replicated and gain uniformity or regularity in an imposed pattern, nevertheless a close analysis of the passages reveals their coherence and rhythmic integrity.
Each passage is meticulously patterned with rhyme. At the line level, most obvious to readers are the infrequent end-stopped rhymes. Most commonly deployed, however, are the rhymes that fall mid-line, the predominant assonant vowel rhymes and occasional final consonant rhymes, as well as rhymes of root-words with endings. The “sea” theme not only offers up a bountiful lexicon; it also gives the verse novel buoyancy at a phonemic level, at the smallest unit of sound. Its digraph “ea” recurs plentifully in passage after passage, for instance, in “meat” and “cease”, enabling a plethora of rhyme as diverse as: “secretes”, “Waverley”, “ropey”, “everything”, “empties”, “recedes”. Jacobson employs light rhyme, rhyming words with syllables stressed in speech, for instance, “chill”, “smell”, “tell”, “expelling”, “all”, “still”, “pulled” with words with secondary or unstressed syllable, such as “sorrowful” and “exhalations”. The syllable rhyme in “exhalations” produces a further ‘chime’ when brought together with one or two syllable long “a” rhymes (“whale”, “bait”, “grey”, “fray”, “lake”, “waves”, “opaqueness”) in the following passage of The Sunlit Zone:
The whale’s vast flank feels smooth
and chill as long-life meat. The skin
secretes a fishy smell that’s just a bit
too strong, like bait in buckets
stewing on the pier. It’s just a clone,
I tell myself again. Waverley strokes
its big grey head, the spout expelling
ropey exhalations that diminish,
fray and thin. Then, nothing.
The whale’s eye, dark as a lake
and sorrowful. Everything stops.
Even the waves cease muttering
and all is still. The eye empties
as if a plug’s been pulled.
We watch as it recedes
into opaqueness. (14)
To foreground fluidity in The Sunlit Zone, Jacobson preserves the natural stresses found in speech with the combined aid of typography — which introduces directly quoted dialogue with ‘em dashes’, as is common in prose fiction — and by breaking lines of dialogue midway through the syntactic unit, be it phrase, clause or sentence. Protracted dialogue is commonly longer than a line, and enjambs from one line to the next, or over several. Jacobson controls the pace or speed with which sentences enjamb, modifying syntax to accelerate or decelerate the narrative.
The interplay of poetic and narrative elements is instrumental in managing this tension, or “tugging” (Kinzie 470). While Jacobson renders less emphasis on artificial techniques such as alliteration, these do not recede completely; rather they are modified. When alliteration is given a caesural pause, for instance, its impact on diction is muted: “Volunteers stream/in like diaspora, dissipate” (11); “Bonsais stand in pots; poised, balletic” (33). Jacobson varies the frequency and complexity of trope — simile and metaphor —from passage to passage, to intensify, or conversely, to delimit meaning. Personification imbues the abstract or inanimate with psychological motivation or embodied gesture, and enlivens or dramatises the material world of the narrative. Jacobson’s considered attention to syntax, word choice, and placement creates rhetorical effects, such as when line breaks end with modifiers that help passages convey aporia by expressing doubt or uncertainty.
Jacobson also has a facility for varying speech to nuance each character’s idiolect, and to convey the English syntactical approximations of Raoul, whose mother tongue is French: “Excuse us please/but Cello insists she be in her own skin” (77); “Thank you. Now go, he says, /and find some sleep. You lovely/lady. You’re good, you know, /to stay. She’s difficult, no?” (103).
Perhaps the only disjuncture to form following theme in The Sunlit Zone is the uniformity in its collective arrangement of passages: free verse it may be, but the poetry remains conscious of its placement on the page. The passages are aligned down the middle, surrounded by ample white space. The passage breaks are generous and exacting, and each passage is consecutively numbered, its lineation compact.
The Sunlit Zone was Jacobson’s first foray into writing a novel-length project, and she was mindful that it needed to have the qualities of strong fiction. Initially Jacobson considered publishing The Sunlit Zone as a young adult verse novel, “but some parts of the story weren’t suitable for younger adolescents” (Interview). Instead she decided it had more potential as a crossover novel; that is, a novel for adults that older teenagers could also read. Jacobson stands by her choice to write The Sunlit Zone as a verse novel. One of the joys of the verse novel for Jacobson is the white space, signifying “things unspoken, yet part of the poem itself” (Interview).
Jacobson remembers wrestling over phrases, over lines: “the fiction wants to gallop on and the poetry reins it back” (Interview). Yet Jacobson doesn’t view the relationship between poetic and narrative strategies as ‘competing urges’; rather, she considers there’s a playful natural interaction between the two forms: “One only becomes subsidiary to the other if you neglect to do both things at once; that is, to be a poet and a novelist” (Interview). But given the relationship of poetic and narrative strategies in each verse novel is unique, she acknowledges, notions of how verse novels achieve stylistic tension could be less circumscribed.
Well regarded as a poet, Jacobson has been awarded the 2011 Bruce Dawe Poetry Prize and the HQ/Harper Collins Short Story Prize. The Sunlit Zone was shortlisted for the 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. Since publication, The Sunlit Zone has been selected for the set reading list for Victoria University’s Studying Poetry and Poetics course and Bendigo TAFE’s Professional Writing and Editing course. It has also been short-listed for the prestigious Wesley Michel Wright Prize for Poetry 2012 and has just been listed as one out of twelve contenders for the Stella Prize 2013, a new major literary award for Australian Women’s Writing.
Jacobson has gathered some ideas for another verse novel in the future. In the meantime she has just completed a new collection of poetry, South in the World, as the recipient of a 2012 Australia Council Grant.
Jacobson likes the idea of verse novels making poetry more accessible. The Sunlit Zone, with its compelling narrative and meticulous poetic rhythm, offers a timely reassurance to publishers of the concentrated power of the verse novel form.
Jacobson, Lisa. Interview by Linda Weste, 2 February 2011.
—. The Sunlit Zone. Melbourne: Five Islands Press, 2012.
Kinzie, Mary. A Poet’s Guide to Poetry. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 199
LINDA WESTE is a poet, editor and teacher of Creative Writing. Her PhD, completed at The University of Melbourne, researched late-20th and early-21st-century verse novels. Her first verse novel fictionalised the late Roman Republic; the experiences of German Australians in 1940s Melbourne are the subject of the second, in progress.