swimming underground by Jenni Nixon, Ginninderra Press 2015, was launched by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson at Gleebooks, Sydney on 27 September 2015.
What interests me most about the poetry in Jenni’s new collection is how she has achieved her aims. For make no mistake, these are political poems which are outspoken. I have been thinking about her performative history, including her acting career, her role in outreach education using theatre, her performance-poetry and how she has translated this successfully onto the page. Jenni had long, long-standing poetic friendships with Dr Kerry Leves and Vikki Viidikas, both of whom were poets of ecstasy and outrage. All of that history and technique is here in these pages.
So how has she captured so much with such a light touch?
Excuse me if I read excerpts from the book as I know that Jenni is going to read you a rich selection of the pieces which you will enjoy all the more, hearing it in her own voice. So I’m going to give you exploratory tasters of how Jenni goes about her poetic work.
I think she’s worked to position the poems against one another so that they flesh out her political themes.
Jenni’s divided the book into four sections exploring her political concerns: war in all its forms including the domestic; the infection which is family; the marginalised in society; and the effect of the misuse of power.
Notice that somewhat strange glib assessment I made back there: ‘war in all its forms including the domestic.’ You see, this is the effect of Jenni saying things in her ‘Jenni’ way. The poems have soldiers come back into the domestic – her grandfather, her father and Tom Uren; and the battle ground of the home. Let me introduce you to her experience of Tom Uren. She travels on the 442 bus, describing the White Bay entry to Balmain in all its dodgy politics and she’s sitting next to Tom Uren whose history she relates. Mixing the present and the past, Jenni conflates the demonstration against war—which she attended and he led—with her meeting with him on the bus.
called the conscience of parliament
broken nose champion prizefighter
large practical hands rest on his knees
jovial smile under a brown bush hat
Tom Uren is travelling home to Balmain.
Tom Uren was witness in Japan
distant mushroom cloud atom bomb
………..dropped on Nagasaki
he protests war in Iraq and Afghanistan
…………………….marching out the front
I hobbled along back in the throng
Tom Uren tells me you stay in your seat
until the bus stops
you could fall.
– a bombadier on the bus
Poetry which is political and defiant is often poetry which uses, ineffectively, hectoring or remonstration. Jenni’s poetry works ‘as well as it does’ because she controls her poetic style and her voice. The result is that she deals with insanity and its benign counterpart, eccentricity; suicide; alcoholism and sobriety; and successfully celebrates the marginalised because of her stance, her perspective. It is the tone of the work—that thing which is so very difficult to define but which is essential to good poetry—which binds the politics with the poetry, the personal with the general. Something which comedy, satire and irony have in common: a lightness of touch when dealing with the objectionable and, very importantly, entry into the problematic lived experience.
Here are some small parts of ‘dragons’ a superbly-toned poem about a child’s repetition of received family opinion and bearing witness to dysfunctionality:
tonight gran and i will study Word Power
read stories from the Reader’s Digest
laugh together at Humour in Uniform
she’ll correct my pro-nun-see-ay-shon
then off to bed with clean white sheets all starchy
as my new school uniform’s black box pleats
gran thinks granddad
too friendly with the local kids
written them poems on their dead dogs and stuff
kinda nice but she tells him to stop
they sleep in separate bedrooms
dinner tonight we had Rhinegold
love the bottle round with a green leaf
want more tingly sparkles
chase each other down my throat
gran’s teaching me to drink properly
so i won’t become a drunk like my dad
dad hates gran… too bossy… a regular dragon
he says she interferes too much
but i like it over here… mum’s mad again
up all night for days… talking to herself
writes things down on crumpled bits of paper
gran gets so tired taking care of us
her mouth is shrinking
When you have read the collection you will feel entertained, but that’s deceptive, because Jenni won’t let anyone, including herself, get away with it. The ‘it’ against which she uses her wit and descriptive power includes Clive Palmer, Centrelink, the invasiveness of CCTV, domestic violence, the Government’s transgressive treatment of asylum seekers, fracking, government resistance to same-sex marriage, and cant.
[…] i know your body like my own. the curves smells
folds of it. the licks of tongues to fire passions breath of it.
though we share our bed you cannot be my wife.
forbidden. no white frocks gold rings… wedding bells
no rainbow confetti. no battered shoes to knock
the road behind a sign: just married. my love
here is my proposal. when the law is changed. marry me.
She is also very aware of the layering of all history, particularly in this, our Harbour City.
… this harbour city thumping under constant reconstruction
in a ‘bag lady’s waltz’ twirl of traffic through tunnels
burning rubber over buried shell middens
of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation
on to freeways and down thoroughfares into back alleys
in an eternal search for parking.
– harbour spin
She’s framed the book with this starting poem about Sydney Harbour and given us a coda which is the epitome of her satirical pieces. She leads us to think she’s on our side and then turns the lens on us, lets us know that we are (and that includes Jenni) part of the local and global problems she wants us to help solve.
As we head toward the end of the book, Jenni uses this technique consistently and to good effect — not letting any of us get away with it. This is from Sydney Siege about the Lindt Café on Martin Place:
sprinkles of rain lightly fell
on field of flower left by mourners
that became a shrine
with a plaque for the dead.
snarled in traffic
the city is open for business
thousands offer #illridewithyou
…………for those fearing racist backlash
yet women in headscarves are spat on.
– Sydney Seige
The final poem in the collection takes the ecstasy of near-resolution of our issues and holds up a mirror to us. It starts with the epigraph from Phil Ochs for the final section: ‘ah, but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty’.
space junk has in cracks and crannies life forms that change with
intense heat into a subatomic new life force that melds with a
meteorite on re-entry merges with everything metallic on Earth
to form a new cosmic collective consciousness that’s galaxy-blue
and humming. they’ve come home to their Creators. first law
of hummers is to harm no humans. fridges phones buildings
homes billion-dollar aircraft and bombs are turning blue and
hum. guns and bullets purr in people’s pockets. a young thug
at a convenience store pulls a knife that squeals turns blue
is hot and rubbery. with a yelp of pain the youth flees. the
knife returns to a pleasant vibrating whirr. In war zones planes
with bluish bombs refuse to fly. rockets won’t fire. cars don’t
crash. galaxy-blue is hard for dye makers to match but soon
the populace of New York and London are kitted out in blue.
some begin to worship hummers as the new manifestation of
Krishna. first were hip-replacements but now bodies turn blue
as Avatars in the fantasy film. no more wars. we hold our breath.
turn galaxy-blue. – awake breathless hear on the radio David
Bowie singing Planet earth is blue. And there’s nothing I can do…
a blue marble spinning in the cosmic playground is in danger
of losing the game.
– Anna Kerdijk Nicholson
Anna Kerdijk Nicolson has a new book of poetry published by Puncher & Wattman – Everyday Epic. ‘Her celebrated skill with form—so apparent in her first book, The Bundanon Cantos, and utilised to great effect with the modern sonnets in Possession—is also present, but in a playful way. Everyday Epic honours the courage of our small twenty first century selves who battle on—in the face of prejudice, racism, the Intervention, Australia’s Immigration policy—despite our ‘pathetic human-ness’.”
swimming underground is available from http://www.ginninderrapress.com.au/poetry.html