‘The Jam Trap’ by Chrissy Williams

-Reviewed by Charles Whalley

The Jam Trap, with comic-style illustrations for each of its short prose poems, around two characters who talk about Xboxes, marbles and this song, has an accessibility which belies its confident ingenuity. The majority of the lively two dozen poems are almost entirely dialogue between ‘I’ and ‘you’, in a familiar domestic setting. This restricted scope, and its borders, provokes many of the interesting ideas in the pamphlet.

The majority of the poems, and the sequence as a whole, work to create a closed-off domestic space – “our very own kitchen” (‘Tea Is Our Solution To Everything’) – built to contain the two characters independently. In ‘Clapham Is Where You Go’, the pamphlet’s recurring idea of the narrator’s desire to get a dog becomes the marker of the pair’s difference from the normal domestic narrative of ‘settling down’, (“But we’re not thinking of babies now.”[…]“We’re thinking about dogs.”). Hence, in ‘Ooh, Ooh, Ooh’:

“Then let’s spend our money on an enormous dog we can hollow out and move into.” I curled a bit closer into your shoulder, stroking the book while we slouched on the sofa.

Like a Donne poem which “makes one little room an everywhere”, many of the poems in The Jam Trap resemble oblique love poems in this way. The space, which includes the two characters as it excludes everyone else, is necessarily a linguistic one, and so much of the dialogue consists of things being described or completely renamed as other things: a fridge as a “cold oven”, a cat as a dog, a dog as a squirrel. The logical end-point of this is nonsense; in ‘Jam Trap’, the narrator ends with:

“I think I have a brain like a jam trap.”
“What does that mean?” you said.
I shrugged, beaming like an idiot.

I think nonsense is always inherent dissent from society. In refusing to explain herself, the narrator’s self-description alters the terms for the private domestic space, as it becomes a space which will have to include (as it is created by) someone with “a brain like a jam trap”, or disappear. It is not political action so much as refusal or withdrawal, but a paradoxical one in a globalised, inter-connected world where no one is “four hours away from anything” (‘Four Hours Away’).

The problem with this private space is that it contains characters who shouldn’t be there; the second class of actors, who are willingly included, are computers. This inevitably creates anxiety, as these computers are unable to partake in the sophisticated level of interaction which is normally the requirement for admission into The Jam Trap’s privileged domestic space. In ‘Talking To Each Other’, for instance, tellingly illustrated by two figures sat near each other but facing away on two separate screens, the narrator complains that “cells in this spreadsheet aren’t talking to each other”, to which ‘you’ responds “I think it’s cute you said, ‘talking to each other’”. Similarly, in ‘Confused, You Said’, ‘I’ riffs on ‘you’ describing an “X-Box” as “confused”, questioning whether it is confused by the complicated storylines in The Godfather films, before we discover that it was only “confused” because a disk hadn’t been put in. In both of these instances, technology, the unacknowledged third party in their bicycle built for two, refuses to fit with the human, emotive terms placed on it, and so refuses to quite conform to the space into which it has been brought. The poem about a “personalityless integrated killing army of death-humans” – with “integrated” being perhaps the most important word – suggests the anxiety which arises from this.

This is, either way, a lot of theorising for an otherwise light-hearted series of poems, but I hope should show their cleverness as there is a danger for poems like these to veer into banality. Chrissy Williams has proven herself an interesting and witty writer in many of the important anthologies of the last year or so, including Salt’s Best British Poetry 2011, and it is great to see this followed up with a strong pamphlet. With its collaboration with artists, it’s also a perfect book to push onto friends.