So I’ve already moaned about the pre-publicity for The Sunlit Zone, by Lisa Jacobson. Three meaningless statements, which have now morphed into the blurb on the back cover and seem to suggest the publisher is not interested in attracting anyone’s attention to this book, which is a pity.
To sum up the blurb, The Sunlit Zone is apparently “A risk taking novel in verse with pure poetry in which romance joins hands with science and takes to the water.”
But “novel in verse” implies a narrative, and the minimum information a prospective buyer might want would be characters, plot and setting. Imagine putting The Da Vinci Code, The Brothers Karamazov and The Story of O down on the table and saying: “three novels in prose, and that’s all the information you need, so pick one.”
A first person female narrator relates her autobiography, alternating between Present tense (2050/51) and her past (literally from the act of her conception in 2020 . Ab Ovo in deed). In doing so she comes to terms with her twin sister’s death, her awkward relationships with her friends and family, the ghostly boyfriend who returns, and after the father’s death and her mother’s art exhibition, finds happiness and, if not love, then satisfying sex with the no longer ghostly boyfriend. Coherence is primarily the fictional narrator’s autobiography.
It’s set in a faintly dystopian future Australia with many technical widgets and gadgets and cloned whales and other mutant sea creatures.
There’s nothing here that wouldn’t attract the average reader of modern prose. The publishers could have put tongue firmly in cheek and promoted it as Sci-Fi Chick-Lit (although that would have been unfair). It feels like a softer version of some of the stories Ellison was publishing in the Dangerous Visions series, or Ursula Le Guin’s writing for adults. Or, stripped of the SF trappings and closer to home, like Stephen Herrick’s ‘A place like this’.
There’s nothing here in the poetry either to alienate a prose reader. No Post Modern Avant-Garde experimental Language games. (This is neither criticism nor praise, just a comment) The story is told in a series of tightly controlled stanzas, almost all of which are end stopped. The result is that the text mimics a rhythmically organised speaking voice, though the formal quality of the stanza shifts the voice away from the impression of a natural speaker which can sometimes be produced in good first person prose. The sections alternate between the now of telling and past phases of the narrator’s life.
Although lacking the pace of The Monkeys’ Mask or the technical virtuosity of ‘Freddy Neptune’, the rhythmic control keeps the story moving. Whether or not it’s “Pure poetry” depends on your definition of that vacuous term. As Clare Kinney pointed out, narrative poetry has to negotiate two binaries: Narrative/Poetry and Narrative/Lyric. Modern readers (and critics) tend to assume narrative will be in prose. ‘The Sunlit Zone” doesn’t dissolve the binaries but tends to sit firmly on the narrative side of both of them. Pace is perhaps won at the cost of the absence of the kind of image or phrase that might make a reader pause and reread it. Whether that means the book won’t reward rereading is no more an issue than it is with any other narrative.
Is it risk taking? Perhaps it is, though if it is, it’s a sad comment on modern poetry. By narrating them; sex, birth, death, loss, family, develop contexts. The narrative returns the human subject and human concerns to poems in a way lyric poems on these subjects don’t. It also takes the obvious narrative risk. Just as with any novel, if a reader doesn’t like the characters, or the plot, or the setting, he or she will stop reading.
But this book should attract a much larger readership than it is probably going to. It could escape the narrow confines of Poetry World and find a wider range of readers than the usual buyers of poetry books.