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Review: ‘Serious Justice’ by Jen Calleja

Jen Calleja’s Serious Justice (Test Centre) is a haunting book, documenting the anxiety and isolation of everyday life through elegant, disarmingly intimate poems.

Many of the poems in Serious Justice masquerade as casual observation about a wide variety of ordinary characters living their ordinary lives. At close up, these experiences are often revealed to be full of unexpected images, twisting the mundane in original and beautiful ways.

The opening of ‘Effortless Rex’, the smartly titled second poem in the collection, is a wonderful example of Calleja’s exacting, vivid imagery:

 

Warming up a newspaper in a damp armpit

I check the rim of my hat with a pinky for icicles,

barely touching it: a thumb reading a blade

after a cool apple’s been split in two.

 

As well as the aesthetic pleasures that come from such deliciously precise ‘close-ups’ of an individual’s habits, the little gestures and repeated actions of the body feature heavily in Serious Justice, and carry a political weight. The body and the spaces it occupies are often the place from which questions of freedom and privilege are explored. The cast of ‘characters’ (presented, usually, through an unnamed speaker) includes, in the opening poem of the collection, what appears to be a relentlessly horny and ageing university professor:

 

After lunch I take one-on-ones with the student body.

These are done in fifteen minute spurts, leaving the door

open for reassurance that I will be doing nothing rhythmic

save for sharpening my pencil.

It’s better in meetings with faculty, who silently

allow me to tick-tock in my underwear.

By the time I’m home I’m exhausted, sticky all over.

 

The poem is named ‘List of Power Stations’, and here the site of power seems to be the speaker’s body, with its routine of production: ‘Rumination, notation, ejaculation, meditation.’ The body becomes a productive engine, validated through various structures of privilege. This is juxtaposed with a kind of reticent anxiety of everyday living elsewhere in the book. In ‘Luxury Flats’, the speaker angsts over their lack of privacy and safety, the everyday stress of landlords, high rents, communal living, finding space in which to make art:

 

Walking down our road I do ‘the countdown’:

millions of people can get to me.

Then, behind the main gate: potentially 40, plus the employees

at the sandwich factory.

Through the warehouse’s communal door: up to 36.

Behind our front door: only 7.

At 7 it remains, unless I lock myself in the bathroom.

I feel secure, like valuable information.

 

The relationship between rental and ownership is here figured as an emotional cost, as well as a financial one. Where the speaker in ‘List of Power Stations’ willingly exhibits his intimate productions in public (leaving his office door open, speaking his thoughts freely), the speaker here wishes for more closed doors, more privacy, a space that’s theirs alone.

This technique of obsessive listing — one Calleja employs to great effect many times in the collection — becomes not just a cataloguing of experience, but a way of communicating the generalised anxiety of precarious living in expensive cities. In contrast to the excessive and public mental and physical productions of the speaker in ‘List of Power Stations’, many of these poems see the speaker struggle to hold back, to hide, to find a place to be private, in a life that seems to be bleeding them dry.

There’s also an incredible emphasis on the present moment in this work, a desire to document the world as it is unfolding, and a wariness of nostalgia as a misrepresentation of the past. Take the intriguing opening of ‘Slow Acting’, for instance:

 

It was all years ago

and disturbing

I’ve been taking my prescription

for nostalgia daily

I let go of not existing, where every

object in the present was a broken

portal to that past lifetime:

 

Here the speaker seems to be suggesting that the past, however disturbing, is important through the ways it lives on in the present, that we can only understand it through the lived moment, how the past’s accumulated effects upon us now. In a culture of accelerated nostalgia (Facebook memories, ‘retro’ noughties club nights) and the corporate infantilisation of leisure time, Calleja refuses to tidy up the messiness of life as it unfolds around us.

It took me a while to comprehend the gravity and menace behind this collection’s title, but I’ve come to understand that Calleja’s careful attention to the reality, the lived experience, of the present moment – in all its discomfort and anxiety and complexity – is a form of ‘serious justice’. The real dangers of nostalgia – particularly how it has lead to today’s increasingly politically polarised national life – become increasingly and accumulatively evident through the collection, as intrusive as they are absurd. A sinister image of ‘riot police pass[ing] out cappuccinos to the marchers / shaking their heads at protesters’ perfectly encapsulates the complexities of a citizenship under duress. Calleja’s concern for the future, through protesting the present, constantly battles this proud mania for a past that never quite existed; at one point, the police grimly tell us ‘not to be so mean / to these men who’ve tried to drink all the beer and sunshine in Britain’.

It seems an obvious point that we can only understand a life by living it, but this becomes a precarious task in a world in which the physical self is increasingly abstracted through constant mirroring, projection, fetishisation and alienation, in which the rose-tinted weight of the past increasingly looms over the future. We cannot afford to forget what is really happening now. This is articulated in no better, and in no uncertain terms, in Calleja’s haunting poem ‘Them, Their Children, Their Children’s Children’:

 

Nostalgia is a disease

and a death sentence.

I hate to break this to you

but we’re already here.

What remains does so

because it lives on in the living.

What’s retained does so

because it lives on in living memory.

 

These stark lines are almost nauseatingly chilling in their articulation of the ways in which trauma is inherited from generation to generation. These poems are of a moment, of a generation, but are also, through their vivid articulation of the present, functioning as a form of ‘living memory’, doing justice to an unjust world.

 

You can buy Serious Justice by Jen Calleja from the Test Centre website

Reviews are a new initiative from the Poetry School. We invite (and pay) emerging poetry reviewers to focus their critical skills on the small press, pamphlet and indie publications that excite us the most. If you’d like to review us or submit your publications for review, contact Will Barrett at – online@poetryschool.com.

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