Loss, Grief, Change, and Memory: Luke Simon reviews ‘Now You Shall Know’ by Jennifer Compton

Now You Shall Know by Jennifer Compton. Five Island Press 2015

Jennifer-Compton-cover-170x240In 2011, when poet Jennifer Compton was in New Zealand for the launch of her collection This City, she participated in Poetry Central, at Auckland Library and was later presented with a Tapa Notebook. Jennifer Compton writes:

Matthew and I had just moved house from up in the hills down to Carrum, we had been there ten days, when I nipped off to New Zealand to launch This City and tour around a bit. My mother had a turn the day I arrived, and I went to her funeral the day before I was booked to leave. It was all quite stressful and I got back to my new house, which was still at sixes and sevens, feeling scattered and wrecked.

I used the Tapa Notebook as a way of focusing on what needed to be done, the work of grief, I used it as a way of sorting and tidying, what to keep, what to throw out, I used it as a safe place to put stuff. I promised myself that by the time I got to the last page of the notebook I would have finished the poem about my mother – ‘Now You Shall Know.’ And I did. I promised myself that I would so I did.

– Source: New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre

‘Now You Shall Know’, a poem filled with complex imagery, painful dialogue and dramatic verve, won the Newcastle Poetry Prize and is her latest eponymous poetry collection. The book is divided into six different sections, entitled in turn: awaiting our delivery, oh, a rapt downwards look, in the long run, wrenched backwards, and, somehow urgent. These poems concern themselves with aspects of family life and with themes of loss, grief, change, and memory. The first section containing the award-winning poem ‘Now You Shall Know’ and the second section, resonate most strongly as these sections offer poetry with references to universal themes such as the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship, of being a grandmother, of unspoken family secrets and grievances and, of course, of the death of a parent, at a time when the offspring themselves are of uncertain age:

We know what this photo is for
how we laughed
the one who had scanned the family album
for the funeral slide show had complained
how there were shocking gaps
no photo of her with this one or that
so now whichever of us went first
there would be a pic of all of us
holding on to each other’s hands.

‘After the Wake’

Poet and critic Geoff Page writes that Compton’s latest collection has an early late-career energy about it – and a focus on what is really important (Sydney Morning Herald, March 20, 2015) and with this I concur as there is acknowledgement in several poems of the process of ageing, reminiscing, of changes in family roles and hierarchy, of wonderment and of anxiety about what is to come. Thankfully, Compton chooses to be honest and frank with her use of language; not for her the postmodernist obfuscated word games of younger generations. Reading the book, I felt I was in the company of a wise, all-noticing older friend whose antenna is sharp, yet kind and appreciative of all that goes on around her but who still seems surprised, even shocked, at how suddenly the world one thought of as loving, welcoming and wondrous becomes vicious and nasty. This, in turn, makes one sit up and re-evaluate the world one knew, as if one were a child once again, leading to a forensic re-examination and rumination of past grievances.

Compton’s poetry has, in the past, sometimes been reviewed as embodying a certain kind of toughness but the poems in her latest work marry this toughness with tenderness, with ambivalence and moreover, vulnerability, as when Compton reflects on her childhood self, in the poem ‘Free Books’:

Someone had said to my mother that
I was a clever little girl and I needed
books. Who? Who had noticed me?

I don’t remember being noticed. I thought
I was a cloud of littleness, the same colour
as the background.

These lines suggest a rift between mother and daughter echoed in the opening eponymous poem of this collection, and a lack of understanding too on the part of the mother, with the repeated use of ‘little’ exposing a sense of vulnerability and the metaphor, a lack of self-worth at a young age. Her mother takes on the advice, (given by whom neither we nor Compton can know) and takes little Jennifer to get a library card and so opens up a new world, to satiate the girl’s hunger for books and words.

………………………………………….Almost my
first memory, the night she said, after tea –
We are going to the library.

One needs to ponder why her own mother did not become aware of her little girl’s character, abilities, interest in books of her own accord and instead, needed someone else to point this out? Perhaps therein lies the kernel of the fundamental disquiet existing still in this prickly relationship, many decades later between the two. There is a sense of resentfulness, an acknowledgment by the poet, that her mother simply was not tuned into her as a little girl and in a way, that she had failed her. A grown-up version of this resentfulness, of disappointment in one’s parent is abundantly clear in the poem’s last few stanzas, where the same mother, dying, shows the same lack of perception about her own daughter, her own daughter’s fundamental grievance with her:

…………………………………I read that poem- she says-the one…
ah yes-that one-the one about…we are in the busy corridor of

the hospital close to the grief room. And I know she will die soon
This is the hospital where I was born. Once again she reaches for all

her strength and pushes me away from her. I didn’t know- she says.
And that is enough. Go-the voice in my head says – just go. Now.

An unsentimental, almost forensic-kind of vulnerability is similarly present in ‘He Nods Off’, where the poet, busy with housework outside, spots her husband through a window dozing:

he is not here this is what it will be like when he is gone for good when his breath
stops the tender-hearted scrupulous man with long slim hands will have flown he

will be gone his dark compelling scent will linger on the pillow-case until I strip
the bed and do a load and all his books a widow me viewing shelves and shelves

of books…’

The way these stanzas are structured, with lines having anywhere from fourteen to at times, more than sixteen words each, assists in creating an almost stream-of-consciousness avalanche of words, halting at times due to the lack of punctuation. In a way, this technique assists in keeping sentimentality at bay whilst simultaneously revealing deep affection and on another level, the anxiety the poet anticipates.

Born in New Zealand, a number of poems reference Jennifer Compton’s birthplace with poems about Christchurch and Wellington, the recent earthquakes and the stronger aftershock, both put to shame by the Japanese earthquake disaster soon after that wiped the New Zealand earthquake off the front pages:

………………………………………………………….What would happen
next, as Christchurch tried to make sense of itself? But then
in a few short weeks, a megathrust in Japan upped the
stakes with broad strokes- worse than anyone could have ever

thought. Whatever you might have imagined, it was worse…

‘The Narrative Arc Of Christchurch’

Using her considerable skill as a playwright, there are a number of poems which provide entire backstories of their characters in just a page ensuring that a world is created in the reader’s mind and that these poems come to life given Compton’s ear for the spoken word, the colloquial and her ability to empathise with various perspectives (she imagines a recent arrival’s history and his perceived training for surviving in Australia wearing the appropriate local dress code).

There’s irony, humour, musicality in the consonance of many lines, we glimpse a larrikin spirit and stand witness to vignettes which could be staged in a theatre, but it is the family and memoir poems that fill this collection with a disquiet, a perceived discord and ultimately, a poignancy which remains with the reader long after the poems have been read.

– Luke Simon


Luke Icarus Simon’s second poetry collection, The Transit of Cancer, was published in 2013.

Now you Shall Know is available from http://fiveislandspress.com/catalogue/now-you-shall-know


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