I devoured Jen Hughes’ debut poetry collection Keep on Spinning in the small, sleepless hours of a Thursday morning. Her poems, which delve into the human experience and how it relates to the infinite cosmos, offer a relatable amount of existential panic yet are tinged with a hopeful sense of reassurance. From her own mental health struggles to coping with loneliness and the need for validation, Hughes skilfully condenses complex emotions into a cohesive collection of creative and thought-provoking poems.
Hughes uses the planets of the solar system as a device to illuminate her life experiences. Mercury explores her feelings of insignificance in relation to other people in her life through captivating imagery of orbiting moons and planetary rings, transforming the isolating feeling of loneliness into something intricate and universal. Similarly, in My Caloris the poet reclaims her emotional scars by comparing them to Mercury’s vast impact crater and the powerful collisions that occur in outer space, explaining that ‘a galaxy doesn’t form without trauma’. While many of her poems are intensely vulnerable and deal with dark themes, Hughes weaves a story of survival and regeneration that affirms and uplifts herself as she overcomes her past; ‘I’m so much more than that’ she repeats at the end of the poem.
In her collection, Hughes confronts the enormity of the universe and the overwhelming feelings that come with it. Her poem Ultimatum opens with the line ‘Searching for my place in the universe / Is a monstrous task’, and while the poet’s fear at the possibility of failing in this task is tangible, she does not shy away from it. Her poems speak to the universal desire for human connection and validation, for example, in Pluto the refrain of ‘validate me’ expresses her desperation to be seen, and in Planet Dance she attempts to reconcile love with death.
However, it is Hughes’ vulnerability and willingness to expose her human flaws and imperfections that drew me into the collection. She explores her relationship to her mental health with courage and sensitivity, using cosmological imagery to put her experiences into perspective. In Orbital, Hughes likens her depression to a black star, a metaphor that recurs and expands through multiple poems. Jupiter compares the density of the planet to the way the poet feels, but through the endless and repetitive spinning of the world, the poet finds strength and resilience, as the title of the collection suggests.
The closing poems in the collection reflect Hughes’ growth and her journey of self-acceptance. With These Rings explores self-love and Hughes’ resistance to categorisation, binaries and boxes as she compares the complexity of humans to the vast and uncategorised rings of Saturn. In My Planet is a Sea of Storm, the poet envisions her mental landscape as a physical one and through this she finds peace within her turbulent mind. Her final poem Collective zooms out, a change from her introspective poetry, and considers how humans are all parts of a whole, like planets in a solar system, and argues that through collective action we have the power to change the systems we are part of.
Through Jen Hughes’ unique voice, Keep on Spinning offers a creative and hopeful outlook on how to cope with being human and find meaning in an infinite universe. It is a book to consume in one sitting, and to return to over and over again.
Keep on Spinning will be published by Hybrid Press in late October.
[Hannah George – she/her]
[Photo credits: Suzy Hazelwood]