Serious Justice by Jen Calleja

Reviewed by Humphrey Astley

I first encountered the poetry of Jen Calleja in an issue of Ambit magazine: I wasn’t sure that I liked her work but it interested me, and, in a poetry scene as awash as the UK’s, that matters. Aside from some structural patterning and a few half-rhymes (‘We ate an entire fragrant paper chrysalis of cherries: / The waste-plate of stalk and stone debris’), Calleja’s is the freest of free verse, falling somewhere between prose poetry, flash fiction and poetic diarism. This kind of writing either has multiple styles or no style – a dangerous line to walk, but Serious Justice is carried by deadpan wit and a sense of irony that is never obvious or cruel, tempered by honest doubts about the self and the world.

The collection gets off to a bit of a false start with ‘List of Power Stations’, a persona piece that doesn’t speak to the book as a whole. While a grown man wanking is hardly 9/11, it’s provocative enough that putting it at the beginning seems like a bit of a cheap editorial choice. ‘On Sight’ soon corrects this, introducing some of the book’s resonant, recurring themes, such as observation:

misjudging my weight from a brief eye up
the anaesthetist presents me with an impeccably terrible level
setting me paralysed but able to feel
my eyelid being slit open.

Another theme is music; the ‘nurse sings along to the radio / until I squeeze her hand.’ The speaker relates this back to a young girl ‘knocked out momentarily, a patch of her head scalped / she waited till dark to show someone and ask: / will I die in the night?’

Childhood and vulnerability recur several times. ‘Do It Yourself’, in which two children make a playground out of a hardware storem seems to address the Aspergers of Calleja’s younger brother.. The symbolism is overt, but doesn’t go where I’d expect:

We’d mash the stiff keys of tester telephones
dialling the number for home though we were all out
[…] and I would imagine his voice
deeper, troubled,
out of sync with the boy’s little-used little mouth.

‘Luxury Flats’ mocks and laments the lot of Generation Rent: ‘Gay’s Trivia, if rewritten today, would include: […] The impossibility of affordable studio space’. That’s about as funny as it gets, followed by a slideshow of 21st-century angst. Regarding her landlord: ‘I’m one of his oldest tenants, though he has no idea I’m here. I’m off the books.’ You and the money you earn become the lifeblood of an industry that neither knows nor cares who you are (late-stage capitalism, anyone?). The speaker asks ‘How can I transition from worker to paramour by crossing a room and when / the ceiling is sometimes paper?’ It’s hard to be sexy when you’re tired and insecure, hence ‘I avoid my love in my studio’. Finally, the poem draws on dehumanising anxieties, from zombie movie paradigms to data protection: ‘Walking down our road I do “the countdown”: / millions of people can get to me’, so ‘I lock myself in the bathroom. / I feel secure, like valuable information.’ This is echoed in ‘Do Not Ask Me Who I Am’, which grimly states: ‘Probability is based on your previous behaviours / Which are now finite, reportable, weighable. / Someone could become an expert in you.’

‘Automatic Reminder’ is perhaps the first really innovative piece, a feedback loop of voices in which ‘He recited one of my old poems back at me’. The poem is quoted as spoken by the person who is the subject of the poem-within-the-poem (needless to say, it has to be read to be understood). ‘Rita’ shows that Calleja is capable of reflection that cuts through artifice and undermines authorial voice, resulting in a startling turn that, again, resists taking identity for granted:

We would make the pilgrimage to your flat for the guidance
we couldn’t give each other. You brought us closer together
by isolating The Bad, identifying it loudly,
establishing the necessity of persistence and justice.
Where the hell did you come from? What makes you so sure we’re good people?

‘Fortress’ concerns another visit, this time to (we can assume based on the PR blurb) Calleja’s mother, who has suffered from mental illness. It’s lucid, even didactic, the speaker concluding ‘You may get out of purgatory / but you will take it with you.’ This poem shows that formal features really can serve a purpose, with a loose but determined trimeter driving the point home: ‘She didn’t want to talk. / No one asked me anything. / She choked down plastic water.’

‘She Is That Which I Are’ is the centrepiece of the collection, a sprawling, multi-layered landscape projected into a hall of mirrors. It’s a remarkable poem exploring relationships between language, data and art, beginning with the deterministic code-speak of ‘The map is encrypted and to take one path sets the route in motion.’ Calleja goes on to evoke, among many unexpected things, an Apollinairean ghost-in-the-machine-of-innovation, suggesting that automation is turning us into our software:

I can play the part, like an actor
See a play in the dark, and adapt it
For a stage, dim or bright
I play different notes, but in the right order
Where before you had the verdict or the answer
I can provide the equations, the result of my game of multiple choice.

I heard a funny story and I’m dying to tell it.
I’m your personal messaging service:
Would you like me to filter today’s news?

Some of the piece’s motifs seem to satirise the life of a poet and academic – anyone who writes and/or (as Calleja does) translates should recognise the editing process beginning to look absurd:

I live off of disintegration:
Auf jeder neuen Form liegt schon der Schatten der Zerstörung
Behind every new form already lies the shadow of destruction
How afraid are no end formal eats sure dares chatterer Sir store wrong

I walk through the woods and through a clearing
As I observe my surroundings
I step into a carpark
I manoeuvre a carpark
I traverse a carpark

Later, she does a kind of mock-Mark Strand, stating ‘When one thinks of a hill, one thinks of all hills’, adding ‘The sea will forever be the trope’, though it’s unclear whether (or to what extent) this is taking the piss out of this stock imagery – maybe what she needs in the midst of all this ‘disintegration’ is the comfort of cliché. In the end, ‘What do I know, what do I care? / I wasn’t even there.’

There are many other intriguing pieces in Serious Justice: ‘Introduction to John Collins’, a unique take on identity via gender politics, is both serious and hilarious. ‘Concerning What I Do’ is like some awful Tinder essay in which a guy tries to mansplain away his intellectual inferiority to a girl who wasn’t interested in the first place. There are also some plain lazy poems, full of throwaway lines like ‘When girls dye their hair red / There’s going to be trouble / For the rest of your life.’ This glibness is beneath her. When she makes the effort, though, Calleja is capable of excellent imagery (‘I feel like what pouring oil over sugar looks like: / A snake slithering through autumn leaves / Like melting black diamonds’) and a poem like ‘She Is That Which I Are’ proves real ambition. A follow-up would hopefully be more coherent in form and content, and better-edited, but Serious Justice is exactly the kind of idiosyncratic work one wants from an independent press that has everything to gain.