TEXT review

Prose poetry as an interface between creative genres

review by Ioana Petrescu


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Jen Webb
Sentences from the Archive
Recent Work Press, Canberra ACT 2016
ISBN 9780995353800
Pb 66pp AUD12.95


The newest creative offering from writer and academic Jen Webb works on several levels to establish congruency where it might deceptively seem difficult to achieve. In her volume titled Sentences from the Archive, thoughts and feelings in moments of crisis are recorded through accounts of several lyrical personas, and presented in the form of prose poems because, as the author says in her Afterword, ‘they obey the logic of the sentence rather than the line’ (55).

There are several notions that need to be unpacked before one even attempts to read the poems. This volume is equally a creative, intellectual and social act of writing. Webb’s poems – which stem from Derrida’s interpretation of the etymology of the word ‘archive’ – align with the ‘jussive’ rather than the ‘sequential’ principle residing at the core of recording experience, thus opting for the syntagmatic flow of emotion over the paradigm of time. Actually, time is rarely a determining factor for the lyrical personas in this volume; they are mainly presented in the moment of their crisis, where time is suspended and the only reality is the painful event:

When the doors close against you. When your feet forget to walk. You remember nothing about the weeks and years before, sense has become not-sense, grief a shadow in the corners of your day. (‘Waiting for the phone to ring III’: 13)

The poetic discourse moves into the surreal, with poems such as ‘The minutes of the meeting’ challenging everyday moments lived in realms of the protagonist’s fabrication:

There will be no phone calls, no leaving the room, till the agenda is done. And then a cat strolls in through the cracked-open door, a lizard dangling from its mouth. … The minutes secretary hesitates: floored, flawed. A memory of blood on the walls, of lost socks trying to find their way back home. (23)

The struggle of finding the way back home, that is, to a safe place where the crisis is manageable or irrelevant, is the thought underlying the entire collection of poems. The prose poem form is a challenge; its flow is different from that of poetry, and yet it works here towards creating an interface of familiar words, thoughts and feelings in a world where only the moment feels material and the crisis is real. Time is subject to space and relativity; it is far from familiar and works against finding one’s way back home, whatever that lyrical or physical home might be:

The radio clicks on and now it’s good morning in Perth, where it has just hit six o’clock. In Brisbane it’s mid-morning and rain is falling. … He can’t remember for a moment why he isn’t home; then it comes back to him. Last chance. It is six a.m. in Perth. No one is calling his phone; the rain is still falling. (‘Inside the archive I’: 24)

The phone-not-ringing, as in the example above, is a recurrent symbol throughout this collection of prose poems. Another recurring symbol is that of vehicles that can (or cannot) take people to other places. Crises emerge mainly from the lack of communication or movement. However, an unexpected glimmer of hope comes from a lyrical persona that actually catches her bus and is thus offered another chance:

When she stood up to summon the bus a scrap of paper fluttered from her bag. Milk, it read. Tissues. Firewood. Another chance. The bus stopped; she stepped aboard. (‘Waiting for the bus V’: 48)

While a few other lyrical personas miss their buses or ‘drift like smoke into history’ (51), the collection ends by restoring calm after crises, which in this last poem, ‘Da capo’, happen to be small crises that are easily fixed. Existence is mundane here, working around a schedule prescribed by the perfect motions of the sun:

Inside is all shudder, and you need to sign that form and you find that dammit you’ve bought only purple garlic, not white, and the cat has trapped herself in the cupboard again, and no one has emptied the bin. (53)

It is all easily fixed ‘and calm comes in with the evening light, and the sun sets, perfectly, and night curls itself around the house’ (53). Whether the crises are big or small, all lyrical personas have to deal in this collection with their own sense of self and presence in an ever-challenging existence full of recurring moments that are paradoxically unpredictable due to the crisis-potential they carry. To archive all moments sequentially would mean to create linear histories, devoid of the unpredictable probability of each potentially crisis-laden moment; therefore the author chooses to archive crisis moments according to the Derridean ‘jussive’ principle, shaping the future through the way prose poetry is able to record and represent the past. With a graceful writerly nod to a poet, Baudelaire, the shaper of contemporary prose-poetry, and a theorist, Derrida, the shaper of postmodernity, Webb’s collection successfully marries poetry as academic creative practice with critical thought and research. The result is a very readable text that functions as an interface between poetry and prose, as well as between academy and the wider community of readers.


Dr Ioana Petrescu is a Romanian-born Australian academic and poet. She has published three books of original poetry, and more than two hundred individual poems in literary journals. She has also edited numerous collections of conference papers and creative writing, and organised poetry and poetics conferences and symposia. She teaches courses in Creative Writing at the University of South Australia and has supervised and examined numerous PhD and Honours theses in Creative Writing. Her current creative practice / research focuses on ecopoetics.


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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste