Gossamer and Robust: Paul Summers reviews ‘Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks’ by Jean Kent

Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks by Jean Kent. Pitt Street Poetry 2012

The cover of the paper-back edition.

We learn to shy away from certain adjectives in the columns and rows of our review copy. Beautiful is one such, and it is only right that we demonstrate care in its overuse or in diminishing it to a passé superlative. However, I’m sat here with the limited-edition, hard-back version of Jean Kent’s new book, Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks and I’m finding it difficult not to employ it.

The book is, in every way, a sensory delight; from the incredibly high production values imbued in the embossed, sanguine, Indian-cloth cover, and for which Pitt Street Poetry should be congratulated, to Oliver Watts’ sparse yet captivating pencil drawings and that’s before we even hit upon the words.

Jean Kent’s poetry is both gentle and powerful. It is tender and brutal, gossamer and robust, like ‘an argument with air’. The palette of her reference shifts effortlessly between continents, between epochs and psychologies, from Rilke to The Animals. She is a poet ‘swinging on the ropes of curiosity and hunger, gifting us distilled studies on belonging and separateness, on trauma & repair. They are studies which are painterly in their detail, filmic in their exactness but always affording us with the luxury of space in which to think and share, to absorb the weight of meanings, ‘like the still spaces we enter when music moves us’.

It is a book borne in the historicism of Soviet-era Eastern European displacement & persecution, a time of gulags & mass graves, but it belongs very much to the present. It represents an act of understanding, of reflection and translation, of love and empathy, of our vicarious ownership of the trauma of others. There are also the beginnings of a sense of healing or reparation, of acquiring a fortitude and momentum to keep us moving forwards rather than being anchored into stasis by the dead-weight of our mutual ghosts.

                          …..There is a waft

of cooking kugelis from the kitchen –
a comfort of sour cream and potatoes so thick
it is a snowdrift over all the blood and damage,
the graves under the birches, the faces swept off,
snarled away to Siberia or foreign
safety…  There is a waft

of rotting apples and the woman’s incinerator,
disposing of everything no longer wanted.”

‘The Old Family House’

Wringing out innovative imagery from the mundane and familiar, Jean Kent is a genuine lexicon-whisperer taming language, creating for us a feast which is incredibly rich but never sickly.

This is a book of love and of loss, of empathy & compassion, of celebration and remembrance, of trauma and attempted reparation, of bewilderment & understanding. It is a struggle to learn the intricacies of a language not quite your own. Within its pages, Kent humbly summons the ghosts of bitter history and explores the rawness of their legacy on others without ever been moribund or hopeless, without ever falling into the traps of the saccharin or the sentimental. There is palpable sense of her ownership of these stories, however vicarious, and like the most compassionate of nurses she tends to the wounds of the narratives which have made us, and in this case, our lovers, who we are.

The streets of Paris and Lithuania are carefully animated into life, although her Australian home is never far away. She addresses, full-on, the tangle of past and present, of meme and gene, of the forgotten or denied, the familiar and the alien, and in doing so she has created a volume of intricate and moving correspondences from a place few of us are equipped to travel, let alone make sense of.

It does not attempt give us answers but is flawless in pursuing the inquiry.

So much gets lost
Between the words on one page with their scythes
And floating hats, the letters alive like the air in the forest
With gnats and bird swoops and antler hooks

And the words on the other, those cubes of ice
With small bodies trapped inside…
So much

Gets lost

‘My Father-in-law Translates a Lithuanian Poem’

Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks is a rare thing. It is a poetry book in which there are no low-points, no pauses for breath. It is a beautiful thing and I strongly recommend you get yourself a copy.

– Paul Summers


Note: Paul was reviewing the limited edition hard cover version of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks. This edition consists of 276 signed and numbered copies, with drawings by Sydney artist Oliver Watts. It is a sewn cloth bound volume with a red/ silk bookmark ribbon.102pp. 230 x 145 mm. There is also a paper back version available. Both versions are available from Pitt Street Poetry http://pittstreetpoetry.com/emporium/

Paul Summers is a northumbrian poet who lives in Central Queensland. his poems have appeared widely in print for over two decades and has performed his work all over the world. A founding co-editor of the ‘leftfield’ UK magazines billy liar and liar republic, he has also written for tv, film, radio, theatre and collaborated many times with artists and musicians on mixed-media projects and public art.

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