A Wonderful Variety of Tone and Theme: Melinda Smith launches ‘The Loyalty of Chickens’ by Jenny Blackford

The Loyalty of Chickens by Jenny Blackford, Pitt Street Poetry 2017, was launched by Melinda Smith at the Press Book House on 8 April as part of the 2017 Newcastle Writers Festival

Welcome everyone. What a privilege it is to be launching the first full-length collection of this prize winning and widely anthologised poet.

I was very pleased when Jenny asked me to be her launcher because there is something about the sensibility in her poems I have always enjoyed. The way they connect everyday life with dreams, nightmares, myths and the mystical, while maintaining a light touch and a sense of fun. Also, cats. And palaeontology. And geekdom – there is at least one Star Trek and one Lord of the Rings reference – I’ll leave you to find those on your own.

The book also contains more serious pieces: meditations on history and mortality, and the stories families tell – and don’t tell – each other. All in all a wonderful variety of tone and theme is on offer here.

As always Pitt St Poetry have made a beautiful container for Jenny’s words, and I should also mention the fabulous illustration by Gwynne McGinley of the loyal chickens themselves.

Animals + Birds

The first thing I noticed about this collection is it is teeming with animal life. Not only cats, but dogs too, and dozens and dozens of birds, starting of course with loyal chickens! But there is a huge variety, from penguins to gulls to butcherbirds to noisy miners to lorikeets and cockatoos to all sorts of waterfowl. They are all beautifully observed. In one poem a cormorant is ‘drying dark silk wings’. And you can both see and hear the birds in this one if you listen closely:

‘Magpies | glossy as glass-dipped demons | chortle on the lawn | like church organs | dreaming’

Nature descriptions

Jenny also excels at beautiful descriptions of natural scenes more generally. Here are some of my favourites:

  • ‘The weed’s thick-layered onto the water, slathered by the sky’s bright knife.’ in ‘The Drowned Brickworks’.
  • In ‘the sun’s bright crayons’ she describes rays of light in sea water as ‘lines | that cross-criss-cross || a fishing net of light | to catch moon-jellies | fallen from the blue above,| and tiny salty stars’
  • And finally, in ‘Road Trip’, ‘Autumn poplars shine cold yellow candles, lighting dry fields.’

Deep Time

Something I have always appreciated about Jenny’s work is her awareness of deep time, the long long planetary past of geological eras, on the scale of which the whole of our civilisation is a tiny blip.

In ‘the wide dark’: there is ‘a creek which has carved cliffs from an ancient plain’ singing ‘of the wide dark between the stars | before our earth was brown and green and blue’.

This awareness of what for want of a better expression I’ll call the long context is reflexive and permeates everywhere. Plesiosaurs and shallow ancient seas appear in ‘The Drowned Brickworks’. Gulls become Pterodactyls; Tree ferns have ‘silver-green lacework older than most dinosaurs’; the blue-tongue lizard has a ‘Pre-Jurassic brain’, while crocodiles claim their place as the older siblings of the dinosaurs in ‘Masters of the mud’.

The long context also shapes her poetry at the metaphorical level: one of my favourites, ‘An afterlife of Stone’ imagines an eminence beside the Hume highway as an enormous petrified mammoth.

She also engages with the prehistoric human past, exploring for example the incredible usefulness of the mussel shell as a tool before metal and plastic – ‘a Swiss Army Knife free from the sea’.

Classics

Moving from pre-history to ancient history, Jenny’s training as a classicist is much in evidence in this book – but she wears her learning lightly and it always serves the poem.

In ‘Pleiades’ (‘the seven sisters’), there is this gorgeous line, about the elusive 7th sister: ‘Some say | they’ve danced with her | high in the blue. | Clouds of shy stars | drift in their eyes.’

Demeter appears multiple times, and we also meet with Poseidon, Aphrodite, Herakles / Hercules and the Graiae – the sisters of the Gorgons. There are allusions to the Iliad and the Elysian Fields. ‘The gods’ in a more general sense misbehave in ‘Driving through smoke’, her poem on the ‘Black Saturday’ fires.

There are even memories of her old classics professor Godfrey-Tanner in ‘The beast in socks and sandals’.

We get a sprinkling of characters from non-Greek mythologies too – including a fair wodge of old Norse material with a mention of Fimbulwinter (the great winter), Yggdrasil (the world tree) and the Midgard serpent – the serpent that circles the world (disguised as a cat – as it once appeared to Thor). The semi-mythological also features: Boudicca makes an appearance, and that ancient weapon of mass destruction, ‘Greek fire’.

And Jenny makes her own myths too, as in the haunting ‘Aluminium apples of the moon’ that gives its title to the last section of the book.

Relationships and history

In ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ Yeats wrote of the necessity, eventually, to understand that myth is only part of the picture. ‘…Now that my ladder’s gone /I must lie down where all the ladders start / in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’. I’m not saying the results are foul in Jenny’s case, but in this collection she does turn her gaze to humanity’s recent, yet-to-be mythologised past, and also to the sometimes perplexing mythmaking of her own family.

She considers the refugee experience in the moving ‘Polenta memories’.

In ‘The Interchange’ she delves into the myth and truth of her great grandfather Charles Clements’ life and death.

‘The patriarch’s lurid past’ explores poverty and the misdemeanours it compels.

‘Full of church’ is a meditation on different seasons of womanhood in the family.

She has also written some heart-wrenching poems for her mother at the end of her life, ‘Dipping into that lake’ and ‘Beloved impostor’.

I have great pleasure in declaring The Loyalty of Chickens officially launched!

 – Melinda Smith

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Melinda Smith won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for her fourth book of poems, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call (Pitt St Poetry, 2013). Her fifth, Goodbye, Cruel, is out now. She is based in the ACT and is currently poetry editor of The Canberra Times.

The Loyalty of Chickens is available from https://pittstreetpoetry.com/emporium/

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  1. Pingback: Issue 22. April 2017- June 2017 | Rochford Street Review

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