The Hour of Silvered Mullet by Jean Kent, Pitt Street Poetry, 2015, was launched by Christopher Pollnitz at at Cardiff Library on 11 April 2015.
Jean and I go back some way, to when the Newcastle Poetry Prize was the Mattara Poetry Prize, and I was coordinating it for the first time. Over the decades we’ve never had a cross word, though on her part there have been kind, perceptive, discriminating words. They’ve been the words of a friend and a very fine poet, whose latest collection of poems—the seventh, counting selections—it’s my pleasure to launch today. Once I might have plumed myself with having ‘discovered’ Jean, but it’s not true. I can claim to having been the first to publish the poems of the South Australian poet novelist, Peter Goldsworthy, but I wasn’t the first to publish one of Jean’s. And there is a larger truth to tell. Editors and reviewers don’t ‘discover’ poets. Good poets discover themselves. Good poets who have long, productive careers—poets like Jean—go on discovering new and larger selves from the multitude of their influences and experiences and memories, and from the stories they hear of others.
I could list you Jean’s awards and prizes and residencies to prove how many editors and judges share my high estimate of her work. But what’s come to me reading The Hour of Silvered Mullet is that Jean’s reputation is now being established on how she puts together, not just shyly brilliant poems or poem sequences, but whole volumes. In The Hour any one poem is played off against others in the collection, and each section of the book is in dialogue with the other sections. I should like to discuss how her new volume, which puts together poems written over twenty years, returns to the themes of childhood and rural Queensland announced in Verandahs (1990), but makes these themes new; to discuss how The Hour doesn’t deal so much in the international perspectives of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks (2013), but still builds on them; and to discuss how The Hour is taking up and moving forward from both these volumes. I should like to point out what gifts The Hour, and Jean and Kit Kelen’s regional anthology A Slow Combusting Hymn (2014), are to primary and secondary teachers in the Hunter Valley, who can now show local student readers and writers, look, this is how you write about the places that you know. I should like to discuss The Hour as a book about education in the formal and informal sense—the “university of life” an earlier generation graduated from—about how fashions in and attitudes to education can change without damaging students forever, but how they can damage and inhibit too, and finally how some unlucky children are so abused and damaged as to be beyond education. (For me ‘Chook-shed Child’ is the most powerful poem in the book.) But instead I’ll do as I’ve been asked. I’ll focus on how Jean has constructed this collection of twenty years, this book of The Hour that we’re launching this afternoon.
The volume’s first poem, ‘The Scent of Native Frangipani’, is a characteristic Jean Kent poem. It’s about a living thing, a rain-forest tree or garden tree that happens to evoke a significant memory. As the speaker walks through her garden, at evening after a day’s writing, a flower scent leads her in memory down the path of her mother’s garden, past her breathless father, to ‘a place where she [the mother] promised we’d be / “nearer God’s heart / than anywhere else on earth”’. The place from the past might be Toowoomba or a smaller town further inland in Queensland. The call of currawongs—in the last poem in the book that call is given words, ‘Come home now! Come home now!’—summons Venus or the Evening Star into the sky. With the star comes the sense of a ‘shy . . . blessing’ that the scent and the memory have brought home. And to me the pretty flowers of native frangipani seem to glow with new light. The poem is one in which Jean is working out of her epiphanic method, using something familiar, common-or-garden, to fuel a trip into deeps of memory and feeling.
Jean’s epiphanic poems are too shy to trumpet what their matter is; but their matter is life and death, not just hints and intimations. In a companion poem, ‘Under the Native Frangipani’, we learn that what has left the father breathless isn’t an allergic reaction to native frangipani; on the contrary, the tree was his favourite ‘bivouac’ in the Queensland garden, even when the bees whirred through it ‘like warplanes’. What robbed the father of his athletic youth was war service in New Guinea, and the tuberculosis that came after it. The father’s story is one his daughter has had to learn through old family letters. The father’s stoicism wouldn’t allow him to speak of his suffering in life, but being nearer ‘God’s heart’ and being posted further from hospitals hasn’t necessarily been a blessing to him. The second-last poem in the volume, ‘Native Jasmine for Jennifer’, is an elegy for a friend, but the title looks back to ‘The Scent of Native Frangipani’. The Jenni whose elegy this is had a sassy taste for the fashions of the day, the 70s, and for whatever seemed chic, English or European then—Mary Quant, black mascara and pearl-pink nails to dip into the gold Benson & Hedges packet. Sniffing native jasmine Jenni would always want to smell the exotic – lily of the valley. It was Jenni’s wreaths of cigarette smoke rather than her penchant for oh-so-French lily of the valley that turned native jasmine, that ‘tough native creeper’, into Jenni’s ‘lilies of the valé’. Jean’s epiphanies don’t cast haloes over everybody or over everything; but they show us possibilities of finding home where we actually live, and die, as against where we fancy living. Jean’s home, Lake Macquarie, is her muse for much of The Hour of Silvered Mullet.
Lake Macquarie is not simply there as a setting in Jean’s poetry; the Lake figures for how it matters to those who live around it, for how fully they respond to and re-imagine it. My favourite poem in the book is an all-but-dream monologue in the voice of a Lake-dweller, a teenager who identifies with my favourite bird. ‘Morag and the Tawny Frogmouths’ would be a poem to take into a creative writing class, be it a primary, secondary or university class. Morag, ‘Before she goes to sleep at night . . . likes to fly’; perhaps she does some flying as she goes to sleep. Whichever, her flight is a frogmouth-eyed night reconnaissance of the Lake Macquarie region, from Wollombi to the Swansea Channel:
A full moon is rising, yellow as a frogmouth’s eye,
over Swansea Channel. In the widening sky
Morag is wisped by memory vapours—
an Airbus to Europe, the whine and shatter of a Hawk jet
from Williamtown, the big-bellied grumble of a Catalina,
taking off from Rathmines. The lake laps,
smooth as oil over its past, and all those morse-code flashes
turn into the hurricane lamps of campers,
down at the point at Wangi Wangi,
place of many owls . . .
Morag’s parents honeymooned here, eons ago.
And her grandparents are still just an owl-swoop
over the gold-shingled water tonight. (22-3)
Much more than a cartographic survey, or a reference to Les Murray’s ‘The Bulahdelah-Taree Holiday Song-Cycle’, is going on here. Morag’s night flight is a self-delighting discovery of herself in the local and family history of the Lake region. As she flies, she gathers into herself knowledge of her place, its people’s livelihoods and aims, their dreams and fears. If Morag’s people do not speak to her in their dreams, still the model being adapted is Dylan Thomas’s great radio play, Under Milk Wood (1954). In Jean’s poem there is no Welsh eccentric like Mr. Waldo, the barber and herbalist who can cure everything on two legs or on four in Llareggub; instead, there are two Vietnamese dentists, living on one of the Lake’s bays in a flimsy weatherboard that doubles as their surgery. When their drills start up, the walls of the surgery quake, much as the cabin of the refugee boat did when they were fleeing Vietnam. Jean’s rendering Thomas’s play into Australian circumstances, Australian social history and Australian vernacular completely transforms it.
In Thomas’s classic poems, like ‘Fern Hill’, everything from the farm of childhood is enhaloed in epiphanic light; in Under Milk Wood everybody from the seaport of Llareggub is soused with maritime bawdy and slap-happy domestic farce. By contrast, in a Jean Kent poem, even when it aspires to a revelation of ordinary grace—‘Smudged Grace’ as Jean calls it in one of her defining poems—the focus of the poem doesn’t release us from ‘the nightmare of history’. Jean’s epiphanies are more grounded than Dylan Thomas’s. Morag, as she comes in for landing, hears ‘the tangled ghost whispers of Lithuanian and Polish / floating up from the abandoned migrant camp— / from a garage near the aluminium smelter—her friends / trying to be the next “silverchair”’ (25). There’s no disputing the Baltic and Slavic states’ contribution to the nightmare of history during and after World War II. Migrants couldn’t shake the nightmare off, a psychological bruise that runs deep in many families. If it sounds snobby or precious of me to list Silverchair among these very real nightmares, let me declare with regional pride: my daughters played in the same band as Silverchair, that’s to say The Junction Public School band. To my way of thinking, even a cover or copycat band, striking out along the same line to find their own sound, is a marker worth including in a poem that maps regional values and nuances.
Jean’s poems about life in small towns or satellite regions mostly look to the positives or compensations of such a life-choice, but she doesn’t underestimate the disadvantage of living outside a state capital. She makes a telling aphorism, in “Old Haunts,” out of the economic risk of life on the provincial margins:
All the little towns of childhood are off the highway now.
Like pockets we have turned out of ourselves
they lie, forgotten . . . (18)
In the narrative sequence ‘A Broken Engagement’ she makes satire of the oppressive small-mindedness that can smother young hope in a small Hunter Valley town, ‘wombat town’ Gayleen calls it. When Gavin and Gayleen call their engagement off—at age 22 Gayleen is left on the shelf in Wombat Town—the gossip is so often aired it’s stale in a day: ‘it sounded like just another title / at Video Ezy; just another lost statistic at Centrelink’ (42). Out of her hairdresser’s apprenticeship now, Gayleen is looking for talismans on which she can hang an identity, touchstones which will assure her she has an inner life. But none of it surfaced during her week with Gavin in Surfers, and in Wombat Town inner life is not required: so ‘I go to the Travel Bureau in my lunch breaks / I collect London, Paris, America, Antarctica . . .’ There is something loveable about Gayleen’s self-deprecating image of herself at the close of the sequence—the ‘one wombat [in town] with wings’. We wish her well in her escape; but Gayleen has, we fear, collected too few positives, too many negatives and no epiphanies from her small town. She might be just as disillusioned by the world’s great metropolises.
The last poem in the volume is the title poem, ‘The Hour of Silvered Mullet’. It offers a conspectus of a Lake town that is neither too rosy nor too starkly satirical. Will the boy on the clacking skateboard, hurtling down the bitumen towards the evening-silvered Lake, grow into a Volvo driver defined by what he can accumulate in his garage, ‘car, mower, chain saw . . . raft of tools’ and the ‘skeletally wonderful / unfinished yacht’? Or will the Lake catch him with its ‘light-hook flashing’ waters? Along a quieter evening path there is another child, a visionary child, ‘rocking in the aqua boats of her mother’s shoes’. Her dinghy-like gait promises a different passage through time, one that will strike balances with rocking lake-water. A malign figure cruises these streets, a real estate agent for whom all values are property values and a catch is a good rental purchase: will he be the Fisher King to rule over the Lake town’s desolate future? Perhaps not. The narrator of this little film of Lake life prefers to point her photo-sensitive camera at the girls coming out of the local hall where they’ve been dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. It hasn’t been a formal ballet lesson but a Free Expression dance lesson—hmm—but the girls have enjoyed it so much their joy seems to communicate itself to the corellas and the angophoras rising above them.
As a concluding poem ‘The Hour of Silvered Mullet’ draws together many of the threads of the volume. The balancing act Jean manages so well that she makes it seem easy is admitting, yes, on the one hand there are dead ends which many of us have driven into, and continue to live in, in our suburbs and satellite towns; but yes, on the other hand there is grace abounding or grace enough, and beauty too, if you know how to sniff it out, how to listen and look. Jean’s ear and eye and her work are free of what I’ll call the Leo Schofield syndrome, the demand that others—the young in particular—have to appreciate what I appreciate because I am the arbiter of high-brow taste and artistic values—and if you dare to disagree, you are a mediocrity and a Bogan. I commend The Hour of Silvered Mullet to you, not only because I’ve learnt a lot from it, but because there’s a lot of tolerant fun in its dance of ideas and images, sounds and scents.
– Christopher Pollnitz
Christopher Pollnitz is a conjoint lecturer at the University of Newcastle who has edited D. H. Lawrence’s Poems for the Cambridge University Press series of Lawrence’s Works, and is currently working on Volume III of the Poems, Lawrence’s early versions and uncollected poems. He has written articles and reviews of Australian poets including Les Murray and Peter Porter, John Scott, John Tranter and Alan Wearne; Hunter Valley poets he has written on include Norman Talbot, Kim Cheng Boey, Judy Johnson and Jean Kent.
The Hour of Silvered Mullet is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/emporium/jean-kent/