Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Palmy by Jennifer Compton

Some injudicious thoughts about this city. Nothing else can be written.
I perch in my flat on top of the Square at that dullest hour before dawn,
wreathed in Happy by Clinique For Men from Farmers in the Plaza.
I lurk in the mirrored department of luxury and when the girls go off
to mend their hair and drink tea I spray at random. I love perfume
but don't want to smell the same night after night as the bed warms.
The gay club across the yard has spilled the revellers out into the street.
Their music woke me up, the old tunes I remember like 'Dancing Queen.'
I've had the best time ever! - as the barman dumps bottles in the skip.
So now it is just me and the night, and you, and soon the big old moon
riding the clouds of gathering light behind the glass in my high window. 
This used to be all forest, not so long ago, and I could tell by the sorrow
that haunts the wide, flat roads, that seeps out of the sense of openness,
something is missing, something is wrenched askew, as the river runs.
The wind blows through, in rolling gusts, baffled, and almost angry.
The wind is searching for the Papaioea Forest. How beautiful it was.  
Tonight, behind the necklace of glittering lights below, is the darkness
which is the hills. Upon them, when it is light, like many crucifixions,
the wind farm. Then the long, ungainly arms swoop and seem to bless.
I will admit, to you, that I have found Palmerston North disconcerting.
It is the only word which fits, and I have rummaged the Thesaurus.
The thing that throws me most onto the wrong foot and unnerves me
is that I think the father of my first grandchild must be Rangitāne.
He is adopted, doesn't know his kin, nobody we know looks like him.
But here I see his way of walking up ahead of me in Rangitikei Street, 
and then the gesture of his hand at the wheel of a car as I cross now,
or he is stooping in a shop door, fitting tiles. His very particular smile.
He has cousins living here. But the link is broken, everything is lost.
We don't know them and  they don't know us. There's no way back.
It's a secret we can't unravel. And soon I will be gone. Meanwhile
the wind searches out the last of the autumn roses and shakes them. 

from THIS CITY by Jennifer Compton (Otago University Press 2011)  

Editor - Mary McCallum

I launched the collection This City in Wellington two years ago. I'd met Jennifer Compton back in 2008 when she was the Randell Cottage writer in residence and been following her career ever since. We claim her as a New Zealand poet and she took the six month stint in the historic Thorndon cottage as a kiwi (the other six months a French writer moves in), but she's lived in Australia since 1972.

When I met Jen she was living in rural Wingello in New South Wales, but she has since moved to Melbourne. She is one of those artists with a foot planted on both sides of the Tasman - publishing poetry, plays and short fiction here from the age of 15 and winning some of our top awards including the Katherine Mansfield Award for short fiction (1997) and the Kathleen Grattan Award (2010); and publishing and performing her poetry and writing plays in Australia, where she's won the Robert Harris Poetry Prize (1995).  A true trans-Tasman writer, then. Or as poet Joanna Preston would say, a Tasmanaut.

The Kathleen Grattan Award was for a whole collection of poems - which led to publication of This Citya book divided into three parts: Italy, New Zealand and Australia. Jen has also been an actively contributing Tuesday Poet ever since she got her blog up and running and continues to support Australian and New Zealand writers through that medium as well as through the many poetry events she takes part in.

Apart from the Randell, Jen has been writer in residence in other exotic distant spots including Rome and Bogliasco ... and Palmerston North (2010). I stayed with her for a night in the breeze-block apartment in Palmy that was her home for three months. She'd embraced the place - a Visiting Artist, no less - with enough time and money to write, and lots to look upon from those high white walls. She also ran to two hot water bottles for a Wellington poet not used to the cool Palmy nights.

In her usual generous fashion, Jen hosted a regular Tuesday poetry evening at a local cafe. She simply announced she'd be hanging out there if poets wanted to turn up, and she'd sit at a table in the corner and knit and do crosswords and write poems until the other poets came along - and if they didn't, she kept knitting, writing poems etc.

One day local writer Johanna Aitchison came to the cafe with a poem called Jun which, with Jennifer's encouragement, went on to beat 621 other entries to win the 2010 NZ Poetry Society Competition. Elsewhere in the city, there was a reading of Jen's play The Third Age by a local theatre troupe.

It wasn't all plain knitting. While in Palmy, Jen missed the birth of her precious first grandchild, which explains why her mind went where it did in Palmy.

I think this poem is an audacious piece of work and a hugely satisfying read for the huge, at times, eccentric swoops it takes - like the Quixotic arms of the wind farm. From a whiff of perfume to the lie of the land - from the past living in the present and, the tentative secret joy of that, or not, and therefore a roaming grief - and some fantastic images that have stayed with me since I first heard Palmy read, especially the absent trees, the baffled winds, the benevolent wind farms ...

Tonight, behind the necklace of glittering lights below, is the darkness
which is the hills. Upon them, when it is light, like many crucifixions,
the wind farm. Then the long, ungainly arms swoop and seem to bless.
I will admit, to you, that I have found Palmerston North disconcerting.

Hah! Don't we all. And yet, in Jennifer Compton's hands, glittering too.

This City is a book to savour. Kathleen Grattan judge, Vincent O'Sullivan says that Jennifer's collection, '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.' I like that scepticism and warmth and the way the poet searches and probes... and I very much like the playfulness.

More on Jennifer Compton here. And some fabulous notebooks of hers.

And after you've read Palmy, do check out the other poets in the sidebar!

This week's editor, Mary McCallum is the founder and co-curator of Tuesday Poem with Claire Beynon and blogs at O Audacious Book. She has published a novel The Blue, a chapbook The Tenderness of Light and is publishing a children's novel in 2014. Mary has also just started up Makaro Press in Wellington which has a small number of projects on the go including some poetry. 


Helen Lowe said...

I really enjoyed this poem; the flow of the language, the gradually built up picture of place and people, the shift from macro to micro, the external environment to the personal--and love the last line:

"the wind searches out the last of the autumn roses and shakes them."

Claire G said...

I'm going to seek this book out. Thank you.

Ben Hur said...

Great poem. Very rich and dense. Needs a few reads to really take it all in.

Sue Y said...


Anonymous said...

I am so pleased to find your site and will follow future post. AJM


Michelle Elvy said...

Goodness, I'm just now catching up on some poetry (after an intense period of flash!) and I just love this poem and all you write about it, Mary. I really find myself caught up in Compton's words and images -- and I love how it takes this personal turn (also disconcerting in tone) near the end, and then falls into the last two lines. Really compelling writing, and something to come back to. I hope to read this collection too -- it has been on my list for some time now!