Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Topography Of Wellington, by Jennifer Compton

There is a darkness here: and also an itinerant rainbow
strolling like a twister with one lazy finger dipped in water.
There is a harbour: because of the rainbow there may be
a glory, like a saint's halo, which is an optical effect. Glory.

There are six kererū  in Orangi-Kaupapa Rd feeding on miro:
or pūriru, tawa, tairare. These birds are almost too indolent
to fly, the telephone wires zig-zag under their exiguous feet.
As they pause - in their top heavy survey of topography, let

us consider our understanding of living above. Above contains
below. Look up to the hills and sky, look down the way a river
runs. You are having it both ways now. The sun seeks you out.
In the deep of night before dawn the wind and the rain blow in.

Look down into this glittering city, high on your slippery hill and
shrug. Would they have called it View Rd if it didn't have a view?

© Jennifer Compton 

from This City, Otago University Press, 2011
Reproduced on The Tuesday Poem with permission

Editor: Helen Lowe

Last Friday, August 28, was New Zealand's National Poetry Day for 2015. So what better to feature, I thought, than a poem about New Zealand by an expatriate New Zealander who is also one of our own — the indefatigable Jennifer Compton.

In 2008, Jennifer was Writer In Residence at Wellington's Randall Cottage — and from first reading I was captivated by the accuracy with which she captures the interwoven physical and emotional landscape of Wellington:

"There is a darkness here" she tells us, accurately I feel, but:

"...also an itinerant rainbow"

Also accurate. The poem that unfolds from these lines plumbs the emotional depths of physical environment, and in so doing, Jennifer Compton joins the masters who have caught a cultural sense of the city in literature. The Topography Of Wellington is part of a lineage that includes Lawrence Durrel's Alexndria Quartet and Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities:

"...Above contains
below. Look up to the hills and sky, look down the way a river

Yet the topography of this Wellington remains as instantly recognisable as Dickens' London, portrayed in the opening paragraphs of Bleak House, would have been to his contemporaries. We encounter Jennifer Compton's six kererū with the same delighted shock of the familiar, the sense of yes, this is not only real, but true:

"There are six kererū in Orangi-Kaupapa Rd feeding on miro:
or pūriru, tawa, tairare. These birds are almost too indolent
to fly ..."

The Topography Of Wellington, as is only right and proper for both poetry and literature, provides a nexus where the local encounters the universal, to the extent I feel confident a reader anywhere in the world could read of looking down:

"...into this glittering city, high on your slippery hill"

and have a sense of what the poet saw. 

Reading The Topography of Wellington I was also able to concur with Kathleen Grattan Award judge, Vincent O'Sullivan comment about This City as a collection: 

'It is a volume that sustains a questing, warmly sceptical mind's engagement with wherever it is, whatever it takes in, and carries the constant drive to say it right. This is a complete book of poetry, coherent, gathering its parts to arrive at a cast of mind, a distinctive voice, far more than simply adding one good poem to another.'

I hope reading The Topography of Wellington today will encourage you to seek out both This City and more poetry by Jennifer Compton.

-- Helen Lowe

Jennifer Compton was born in New Zealand in 1949 and now lives in Melbourne. She has won several Australian awards for poetry and This City won New Zealand's Kathleen Grattan Award in 2010. Her poem, Now You Shall Know, won the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2013, and the collection of the same name was published last year in Australia (Five Islands Press), while her verse novella Mr Clean & The Junkie was published this year in New Zealand as part of the Hoopla series 2015 (Mākaro Press). 

To discover more about  Jennifer and her work, visit her on her blog: 



Today's editor, Helen Lowe, is a novelist, poet and interviewer whose work has been published, broadcast and anthologized in New Zealand and internationally. Her first novel, Thornspell, was published to critical praise in 2008, and her second, The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012. The sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Helen's fourth novel, Daughter Of Blood, (The Wall Of Night Series, Book Three) is forthcoming in January 2016. She posts regularly on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog and is also active on Twitter: @helenl0we

In addition to today's feature be sure to check out the wonderful poems featured by the other Tuesday Poets, using our blog roll to the left of this posting. 


Claire Beynon said...

So many images and lines here I want to turn around and around, press then into palm and chest.

Thank you, Jennifer and Helen (and lovely to be reading TP from a tiny cottage in South Africa!)

Helen McKinlay said...

I was born and grew up in Wellington and so really appreciate this poem. It's something quite different. The idea of above containing below...so obvious but so rarely spoken of this way. Thanks Jen for giving us this new perspective of the 'glittering city.'And thanks to Helen Lowe too for you commentary.