REVIEW: Cocoon by Russell Jones

Russell Jones is an Edinburgh-based poet, and the deputy editor of Shoreline of Infinity, a Scottish science-fiction magazine. Cocoon can be purchased online here.

Around halfway through Cocoon, Russell Jones’s newest collection of poetry, sits “Pioneer,” a conceptual ekphrasis on the plaques currently slipping through space, miles per second, aboard the Pioneer probes. Cocoon as a whole, however, also recalls the other messages we send out to the stars. Television and radio signals constantly pour off of Earth, a chatter melted into decades of diffuse light, more thoughts than a million scientists could cram onto a thousand golden plaques. It is the boundless diversity of those waves, rather than only the immaculate plaques, that Jones taps into in his writing.

The collection is entirely in free verse, but to say that is to make almost no progress in describing its character. Jones skips across a vast range of topics: “Apples for Grandma” is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, while “anatman” and “anitya” are short, imagistic interpretations of buddhist concepts. He takes stabs at an equally wide range of poetic forms: “I’ve been told the story of the sky” and four other poems are comics-poems each in collaboration with a different artist; “kintsugi” replicates the eponymous cracked and repaired pottery in its arrangement of words on the page. 

This is not to say that Cocoon is impaired by a lack of focus, or that Jones has no identity as a poet. Not only does the very diversity of interest create a kind of paradoxical unity (a poem about Amazonian enchanted dolphin mythology sits quite nicely amid Jones’s eclectic interests), but he also cultivates a distinctive tone. Much of the verse in Cocoon rides on a razor edge between humor and sorrow; to call any of the poems light verse seems inadequate, but no more so than to suggest that they are all deeply and entirely serious. Jones produces some remarkably complex emotional effects with this balance. For instance, “hog” handles grief earnestly, but by way of a whole roast pig, an image which Jones does not purge of its grotesque comedy. “hog’s” merger between a memory of a lost grandmother and the pig’s imagined life seems bizarre and almost cruel when described like this in prose, but Jones deftly manages to give it far more weight than most attempts at a grave treatment of grief could secure. There is risk in this, of course. “the alligator get-out clause” slips off that treacherous tonal edge; its serio-comedy is muddled, leaving the poem jejune. Jones’s few misses in this respect, however, are easily forgiven: his successful invocations of mixed emotion are much more numerous, and their artfulness is if anything more apparent in light of their inferiors.

Many of the poems of Cocoon also share a manner of framing the reader. Jones frequently writes miniature addresses from a lyric speaker to a “you,” or poems which directly take hold of the reader in second-person. This creates a rapid identification which lends many of Jones’s short lyrics an efficient emotional inertia. As powerful a tool as the second person address is, and despite Jones never using it poorly, being incessantly recast in poem after poem is somewhat exhausting for the reader. The effect wanes with exposure, even as the quality of Jones’s verse remains constant.

Easily the most notable features of Cocoon—and the features which make a thoroughgoing review most challenging—are Jones’s collaborative comics-poems. Comics-poems are poetry illustrated with visual grammar adopted from comics. Comics-poetry was arguably anticipated by artist-poets like William Blake, but the style in its contemporary form has only emerged and taken on its new moniker in the past couple of decades.

Jones’s comics-poems were not illustrated by the poet himself, but rather by five other artists: Sara Julia Campbell, Caroline Grebbell, Aimee Lockwood, Edward Ross, and Mark Toner. As with Jones’s poetry, the styles of the featured artists present a broad spectrum. Campbell illustrates “dark horse” with detailed digital paintings that play beautifully with light. Grebbell makes “an official guide to surviving the invasion” into a fittingly dark discord of charcoal and photography. Lockwood’s “beorn” is all watercolor blues and pinks, with splashes of cool green mediating night sky and ground. Ross lends “apples for grandma” a muted pastel palette and sleek linework that would be at home in a particularly well illustrated webcomic. Toner’s artwork for “quiz night at the palm garden hotel” has the rough energy found in the untutored illustrations of a handmade zine. 

Although none of the comics-poems in Cocoon are groundbreaking, Jones and his artists make the young form seem established and solid. The artists create strong visuals to match Jones’s words, and are not at all shy with dynamic and creative paneling. Their main weakness—a weakness that is likely difficult to overcome in collaboration—is that none of the comics-poems reach the form’s tantalizing peak of full integration between image and word. It is easy to imagine the verses standing on their own, and the artwork on the whole seems to be subordinated to the words, to be merely post-facto illustration. 

Furthering the staggering breadth of Cocoon, Jones has produced animated and read versions of “beorn” and “an official guide to surviving the invasion,” which are posted on his youtube channel. The readings are well done, and the videos provide a good taster for those who may be interested in Jones’s work. Unfortunately, the animation itself does little to further the comics, sticking as it does mostly to fading in panels while the poem is recited. This style of presenting comics panel-by-panel is reminiscent of some mainstream attempts to digitize comics, such as Comixology’s “Guided View.” The stock critique of “Guided View”—that breaking up the page in this way harms the experience of the art, which is generally made in consideration of the full page layout—applies equally well to this method of semi-animation. 

Setting aside its small flaws, Cocoon on the whole is a worthwhile project (it does not seem quite accurate to call it only a “book”). Jones’s experimentalism in form and eccentricity of theme illuminates where poetry is, and where it can go.

Review by Rory Nevins