Monday, July 2, 2012

Something New

“PARKER & QUINK” by Jennifer Compton (published by Gininnderra Press, Australia, 2004)
“BAREFOOT” by Jennifer Compton (published by Picaro Press, Australia, 2010)
“THIS CITY” by Jennifer Compton (Otago University Press, 2011, $NZ30)

            This is a piece of sheer self-indulgence.

            With this posting, Reid’s Reader celebrates its first year of existence, and I thought I’d enjoy myself by writing, not about something that is hot off the press, but about something that has taken a little time to mature. Poetry, as all publishers and booksellers know, is a slow mover. Its small-print-run editions do not leap off the shelves into the hands of thousands of willing buyers. They dribble out into general readership with a volume sold here and a volume sold there, to a small band of what one hopes are discerning connoisseurs.

            So if I write about three books by a poet I like, all of which have been published within the last eight years, I am in effect writing about the latest poetry.

            At least that’s how I rationalise it.

            Jennifer Compton is, as one of the titles in her 2010 collection Barefoot says, “New Zealand Citizen, Resident in Australia”. Born in Wellington in 1949, she now lives in Australia with her husband and family. She has had some success as a playwright but is better known now as a poet. As such she has won a number of literary residencies and awards in Australia and New Zealand. In 2012, Barefoot was short-listed for the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. Her 2011 collection This City had won a Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry before publication. The Acknowledgements to each of her collections show how widely her poems have appeared in leading poetry magazines.

            As I know to my toil and cost, reviewing poetry is a fraught and difficult business. Unless you are going to do a close reading and minute analysis of individual poems, you are almost forced into summarising the major themes of a volume’s poems. This can be nigh impossible when the poems address a whole range of subjects. More useful is to say something about the poet’s distinctive style and voice.

            But how do you, as reviewer, convey the poet’s distinctive voice without quoting extensively from the poems?.... in which case your role as reviewer becomes redundant.
            Take the oldest of these three volumes, for example.

            Parker & Quink (Compton’s fourth collection of poems) sometimes addresses (artfully) the limitations of art, and this appears to be one of Compton’s major themes.
            There is a long poem called “Imposing the Chat” which at once celebrates and negates the speed of on-line chat-rooms. The poem begins in on-line chat-speak, but then moves into a long and wrenching account of an exhibition of art works created by the parents of murdered children. The complex emotions raised by such an exhibition couldn’t possibly be addressed by the glib brevities of computer “chat”. But then, as the poet is aware, even the poet’s words are inadequate to the things the creators of the exhibitions art-works would have felt.

            Later on, there is a poem called “The Director’s Resurrection” which reminds us that even non-literary people, who might lack the necessary vocabulary, can have ideas that would be regarded as literary. As for the poem “Instructions for Open Mike Sessions”, it suggests sensitively that when nervous poets are reading in front of a crowd, their spoken words are often far from what they are feeling in that particular time and place.

            So, from my inadequate summaries, you might have Jennifer Compton typed as a severely-intellectual poet who deals with words, their structure and their limitations.

            But this would be a very misleading impression. Compton’s voice is usually quite colloquial. The intellectual themes are not detachable from the everyday circumstances in which they arise. Parker & Quink also includes poems that shift into a first-person male voice recreating the experiences of pre-industrial societies (including the Aboriginal). There is  poem about a childhood movie-house experience, called “Wave to the Queen”, which begins slyly “The last woman in the world to ride side-saddle/ smiled at me from the screen at the Kinema in Kilbirnie.” There are frequent images of horses and a long non-chronological poem about reading by candle-light of which, I admit, I cannot make a great deal of sense.

            What I find most attractive in Compton’s work in this volume is a quality of what I would call rough domesticity. Compton is clearly devoted to husband and family, but in a sharp-eyed, unsentimental way, taking full account of the rub and jostle and compromises that go into married life. This includes the sheer strangeness of finding oneself with children (see the poem “Long Day’s Journey”) and, when dealing with older generations of family, the difficulties of negotiating their alien values (see the poem “The High Ground in the Churchyard”).

            After Compton’s poems that muse on masculinity and soldiers, there is also a gem of a poem that brings together the personal and the political as encountered in an Australian department store.

            I’ll quote it in full:
            Remembrance Day in Coles on George

I was riding the escalator
into the teeth of the minute’s
silence on the eleventh of the eleventh at eleven am.

I was the only moving thing
ascending from ground to first
a tiny sliver of scepticism.

Ascending into the immense wind. Into the longing
for the voices of young men. Men, still young,
returning for the reasons men return.

            Compton’s voice remains very much her own in the collections that have followed.
            I first reviewed Barefoot in an issue of Poetry New Zealand which I guest-edited two years ago. I don’t mind cannibalising part of the review I wrote then by quoting the following:

            [In Barefoot] Compton’s poems reflect on place and identity, New Zealand-ness, Australian-ness, and the sense of displacement in both time and space. Childhood memories get a look in, but so do specific details of trips to Italy and former Yugoslavia. This is a collection refreshing in is maturity of vision and its clear, un-ironical awareness of the process of ageing. Compton’s eye for everyday human tragedy is encapsulated in the masterly ‘In the Alfred Emergency and Trauma Centre’ .

            I still endorse my earlier judgement, but I add that “In the Alfred Emergency and Trauma Centre”, with its loose succession of unrhymed couplets, conveys not only the everyday tragedies of a hospital waiting room, but also the awkwardness of not feeling as moved by them as we are persuaded to believe we should. Real life is made up more of such awkwardnesses than of full-on tragedy, and the perception of this is part of Compton’s rough, unsentimental domesticity.

            Barefoot also shows Compton sometimes choosing to work in a pithy, almost aphoristic style. Am I misreading the following as an oblique comment on the limitations of human female solidarity?

                  Lone Hen

In every yard there is a loner hen.
She flies over the fence and lives
under the water tank, roosting up
in the eaves, feeds on spilled grain,
lays in the chaff bin and won’t mix
with her sisters. If she fears the fox
she trades it off against freedom
from scratch-scratch, cluck-cluck.

            Hmm. I wonder if the thought processes behind this observation aren’t akin to the ones that informed Compton’s poem “Table of Contents” which I quoted on this blog two weeks ago.

            “Table of Contents” appears in Compton’s latest collection This City which, as a piece of physical book production, is her handsomest volume yet – a sturdy hardback from Otago University Press.

            Falling into three parts, This City reflect first on Italy, then on New Zealand, then on Australia. I think that in this volume Compton considers an even more generous time frame than she does in her earlier work. This is perhaps another symptom of her greater awareness of ageing. As you get older, you see things more in their historical perspective. This is the volume in which, travelling down an Italian railway line, Compton experiences the ghosts of soldiers from wars before she was born.

            In This City, Compton experiments with style. “Palmy” is a prose poem about Palmerston North (which, in my humble opinion, doesn’t quite come off). “The Pines” is a poem in five prose paragraphs. “Everything is for a Very Short Time” is a patchwork of “found” lines taken from other poets.

            But it was not the experimental that caught my eye most in This City. It was the irreverent  poems “Imagining Jane” [Austen] and “Imagining Emily” [Dickinson]. They are as good examples as I have seen of a woman’s larrikinism, and that too is one attractive feature in the poems of Jennifer Compton.

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