Delightfully eclectic: Alex Skovron launches ‘Poems Far and Wide’ by John Jenkins

Launch of Poems Far and Wide by John Jenkins was launched by Alex Skovron at the  The Dark Horse, Watsons Creek Victoria on 18 August 2019

Two-thirds of the way into this book, in ‘Poem for Dylan Thomas’, a salute to his boyhood poetic hero, John Jenkins finally comes clean: ‘But I confess,’ he tells us, ‘I never wanted to be anything but a writer.’ Poems Far and Wide, which it’s my honour to be launching today, gives us no reason to question John’s confession. Although this is his first new volume in some ten years, it’s a large and generous book. And yes, this poet loves writing, all right – he enjoys nothing better than to let his thoughts and inventions seize him by the pen, and lead him where they will, and whatever the distance.

And as a writer, John has travelled quite a distance since he first started publishing his poems in the late 1960s. I arrived a bit later, both in publishing and in Melbourne. Even so, John and I have ascertained that we met some 30 years ago, and that we were introduced by the late Mal Morgan at Poetica, the monthly readings he conducted at La Mama theatre in Carlton. Those were large and generous days – but this large and generous book is what we’re here to talk about this afternoon.

So, given such a substantial volume, I’ll do my best to present a reasonable sampling of some of the riches it contains. Where to begin? Well, one thing you’ll immediately notice as you flick though this collection is that John isn’t afraid of the longform. Indeed, the book is built around a number of long poems, suites and sequences. These include ‘Charles Dodgson in Cheshire’ (John’s take on the Cheshire Cat); ‘The Tent at Evening’, with its female knife-thrower in a circus setting; ‘Hell’s Bells’ (centred on an iconic Australian poem); ‘Maxwell’s Field’, on the pioneering scientist James Clerk Maxwell, whose theory of electromagnetic radiation showed that electricity, magnetism and light were manifestations of the same phenomenon; and let me not forget John’s extraordinary ‘Parable of the Lobster and the Brick’.

Early in the book, we encounter the first of such longform suites, ‘Under the Shaded Blossom’ [8], the chronicle of an imagined meeting in Havana between the poet Wallace Stevens and the mafioso Meyer Lansky. Jenkins here is both ventriloquist and witty voyeur; he showcases his skillful handling of tone and diction as the narrative unfolds, pulling the reader in. We learn that Lansky ‘liked to keep his pecker clean’, and that ‘the thing that delighted him most was the noise/ of the waves at night’; while as for Stevens:

… ] he loved to walk. He’d just walk round
by himself, anywhere. A slow stride, peered deliberately
from beneath his brim, peered at everything, intently.

The meeting itself is hilarious as Lansky makes the poet an offer – but no spoilers here, you must read their conversation (and their thoughts) for yourselves! The poem was an ambitious project, and must have involved much research for all the apparently authentic detail.

That’s something of a hallmark of this collection. Throughout the book you will find a constant flow of invention, often founded on fact, embracing a wide and imaginative range of topics.

The natural world plays a special part. John’s living environment in the green belt around Kangaroo Ground provides both subject and inspiration, plus many of the insights that animate his poetry. (And don’t overlook the beautiful, rather erotic cover painting by Janet Scott.) ‘The Wedgetails’, for instance, is rich in detailed observation, with imagery and vocabulary that underscore that eagle’s place in Aboriginal lore and tradition. And at the other extreme of the scale, we can read about dandelion seeds, in the short poem of that name [3], the way ‘each loose-leaf swollen shiver-sphere / explodes its airy froth of stars’, with the closing couplet embracing the poet himself and his craft:

I drift with them to barely skim the breeze
to live or fall beyond this page …

A few paddocks from the dandelions, in a separate but sadly parallel universe, we come upon ‘The Rabbit-Proof Sonnet’ [46], a scathing, impassioned counterblast on the fraught subject of refugees and asylum-seekers. I quote:

A rabbit can’t help being a rabbit,
Nor I my knee-jerk need to lock him out
Patrolling in my 4WD, sweating like a shock jock:
China has its Wall, but we have risen
Higher, with eight thousand miles of twelve-gauge wire:

This poet’s language, its range of tones and registers, can be delightfully eclectic. Let me quote from ‘Birdsong Far Away’ [82], a brilliant extended riff on a music review you’ll never read in the dailies. I hope John reads this one out, but here’s a small taste:

I hear pitch-shifting jag-shriek through samples pulsing
out a déjà-vu voodoo drone cooking up new
sizzle-flits into steamy smoke-blats of light.
I hear filings of crunch-shatter flock
and blue dins of cracked feedback-dives unlooping
into sonic waves of saturation.
I hear fast-tracked sine-curving blips of speed-boat sunlight
pelting pitter-pattern dots of sweet brief sound-braille!
I hear pellets of patter, pockets of slap, toaster racks of snap
and attacks of drum thunder, all shudder out their lightning.

Speaking of tones and registers, one voice that exerted a powerful influence on the young John Jenkins was that of Dylan Thomas. In the poem from which I quoted at the outset [107], John delivers an ecstatic if somewhat double-edged salute to the poet – and to poetry!

Yours was a lyrical hypnotism of voice:
Welsh cadences echoed everywhere about
my boyhood room. Straining at the starlit bud,
swept up in your gloriously orotund solemnity,
your magisterial, oceanic-surging and rhapsodic
rhythms it was poetic suicide to copy […]

Travel can be a telling measure of a poet’s horizons – whether it’s the journey of a budding creative artist, or that of the mature writer, at home or on the move, fascinated and inspired by the great world in all its dimensions: place, nature, culture, art, history, philosophy, and, in particular, people. As we travel this collection, we certainly visit, a multitude of places, distant and otherwise, around the world: Shanghai, Beijing, Dublin, Havana, Saigon, Sydney, Athens, Oxford, the French Riviera, our own Carlton, and more. And the people we encounter, again among a variety of others, include Matisse, Lewis Carroll, Elvis Presley, Ned Kelly, Michael Jackson, Michael Dugan and a band of La Mama poets, even Kenneth Slessor’s ghost.

In fact, I would venture to say that, ultimately, it is people and their pursuits – the famous and the ordinary – that reside at the heart of John’s poetic and provide its focus. As Sharon Olinka puts it so aptly on the back cover, ‘There’s a whole-heartedness about how he embraces the world he sees: aware of its faults, but never stinting …’ John can do abstraction if need be, but this book, which ranges so far and wide, is essentially about the jigsaw of humanity – the human, in all its colours, quirks and stripes. The pen-portraits and set-pieces, whether authentic or fanciful, never fail to draw us in. Here is a painter at work on one of his celebrated canvases:

Her skin is soft as milk or velvet: all the heaven
he can wish on Earth, though Henri devoutly burns
a candle for the town’s Madonna each Sunday in a fragrant chapel
by the beach. […]

and a little later:

[…] A silver necklet pulses on her throat, her lucent thigh
his stroke completes so tenderly, as though a line had drawn itself.

That comes from ‘Henri Matisse, Spring Studio, Nice’ [25]. The book contains several other ekphrastic poems, including ‘Kelly at the Mines’, an arresting journey across Sidney Nolan’s series of Ned Kelly paintings from the 1940s. Also in this category is ‘Puissance: Marble Frieze, Parthenon, Athens’, with its elaborate, exuberant description of the horses depicted there (with suspected special input from John’s equestrian partner Shan!).

One longform poem I’ve not mentioned, ‘Slow Dissolve for Mr. D.’ [136], portrays the ultimate personage, as it were: the Grim Reaper, but as you’ve never imagined him – unless you’re John Jenkins! We find Death googling ‘Population Clock’ on his iPad, or purchasing a new outfit in a menswear shop. As for his daily, and nightly, work:

His blade was nonpareil, whispering its severe refreshment like
an icy kiss. How to explain, and make them see his work was just …
life? You have already won at cosmic chance! So be resigned!
To be at all … was all! ‘Just doin’ my job, Man. I got no axe to grind!’

With regard to the vaguely surreal, I’d love to read out ‘The Man Who Lost Himself’ [93], but alas, it would take up too much time. Maybe John has chosen to read it. Meanwhile, I’ll just quote the first three of its 33 lines:

The man who lost himself woke up one morning,
and realised he had lost himself. Well, perhaps
not lost – ‘misplaced’ or ‘overlooked’.

John Jenkins can enlist humour, both understated and over-the-top, to equal effect. One of those marathon poems that I should mention is ‘Coathanger, The Opera’ – a wacky, endless, chaotic behind-the-scenes romp through the world of music theatre, and an extravaganza starring the Sydney Harbour Bridge! And on another hook, so to speak, ars poetica itself becomes a central character in ‘Breakout from Poem Central’ [80], a poetic thriller in which poetry is the prisoner escaping from custody. Here’s the climactic moment:

Security guards are swarming
…………………………..everywhere:
“Give up! Poetry’s finished!” they shout.
“Every poem’s been done,
there’s nothing new!”
And release a flight of ferocious dactyls,
just as our rescue helicopter appears.

And if you’re into a bit of raunch, don’t overlook ‘The Annual Eros Motor Joyride’. Driving your hatchback or SUV will never be the same again!

There is more I could say about John Jenkins’s poetry. I could reference, for instance, ‘Burnt Wood, Birch Bark and the Village of Creation’, subtitled ‘Seven nested tales, in the manner of Matryoshka dolls’, a charming sequence, beautifully and concretely rendered (if you’ll pardon the expression) in eight rounded tellings. Or I might draw your attention to ‘So Much Depends’, a discursive, entertaining, philosophical deconstruction of William Carlos Williams’s famous poem ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’. This book is a vivid, colourful and engrossing read.

And one second-last thing. By way of relief from those very long poetic peregrinations, we find – interspersed among all those Poems Far and Wide – four separate clusters of miniatures titled, respectively, ‘Poems Short and Sweet’, ‘Poems Short and Sour’, ‘Poems Short and Tangy’ and ‘Poems Short and (Almost) Silent’. A solitary example from the first cluster [88]:

Shouted, in park:
…..“Woofgang! Come here puppy!
…..Woofgang, Woofgang!!”

Let me finish with a short passage from ‘The Traveller (Man with a Suitcase)’ [35], a strangely compelling poem which itself travels across several pages. It was inspired by a painting of the same title by Jeffrey Smart, showing a trenchcoated male standing between two buses. John’s protagonist is, at once, dreamer, flâneur, poet, wanderer, observer, Everyman … Maybe he’s an older avatar of the poet John Jenkins. The following lines come from the second of the poem’s eight stanzas:

[…] Here he departs again,
changing but unchanged, with so much left unsaid, unless a poem
arise from his journey, unbidden from itself. He sees dark figures now,
their backs turned to rain, and many faces of the mind, sparkling lights
both cruel and kind; winging over cities of the world; so let these words
simply settle around him now, and create their mood, creating him.

So let these words simply settle around John Jenkins now, and create their mood, creating him. And with my job done, let him recreate himself for you now, as I declare Poems Far and Wide officially launched.

 – Alex Skovron

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Melbourne-based Alex Skovron is the author of six poetry collections, including Towards the Equator: New & Selected Poems, which was short-listed in the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. He has also written a book of short stories, The Man Who Took to His Bed, while his earlier prose novella, The Poet, was recently translated into Czech. The Attic, a selection of his poetry translated into French, was published in 2013. Alex has given numerous public readings, both in Australia and overseas, including appearances in China, Serbia, India, Ireland, and on Norfolk Island.

Poems Far and Wide is available from  https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/poems-far-and-wide

You can see John Jenkins  launching The End of the Line by Rae Desmond Jones. (Rochford Press 2019) at Poetry @ The Dan O’Connell Hotel 27 April 2019 https://youtu.be/vk_4VrZYLfQ

 

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