Judy Johnson was to have launched The Alpaca Cantos by Jenny Blackford, Pitt Street Poets 2020, at the Newcastle Writers Festival this year. Unfortunately this launch, along with many other had to be cancelled due to the current crisis. We are proud, therefore to be able to present an abbreviated version of Judy’s speech in Rochford Street Review.
The first two things that attracted me to this lovely book was its compact size, perfect for a large pocket or handbag, and the elegance of both the cream paper and the illustrations by Gwynneth Jones. Pitt Street Poetry should be commended for the care and quality that has gone into the collection’s design.
Jenny Blackford previous contributions to PSP are: The Duties of a Cat and The Loyalty of Chickens. The recurring theme of animals in the titles both is and isn’t misleading. There are indeed many creatures who dot the pages of this new book as well as previous collections, but there are also fine human studies of love, grief, joy and hardship. More often than not humans and animals come together in poems that are insightfully larger than the sum of their parts. Often in these works an animal appears as either a catalyst for deeper thought or as a subtle spirit guide.
The first poem ‘Black ice night, frogmouth’ is a great introduction to the blurring of boundaries between us and them that Jenny seizes on time and again with curiosity more than anthropomorphism. This poem centres around a night time encounter of the poet with a tawny frogmouth. She describes the mechanical differences between the bird’s way of seeing and hers. The frogmouth’s wide spaced eyes looked sideways at her while she:
I stared at it face-on
ordinary ape that I am
eyes close together.
Although she is quick to say this discrepancy of vision is neither ‘metaphor nor portent’ the gentle irony she uses to position herself lower than the bird, both literally and in terms of efficiency (at least when it comes to sight), serves the deeper conundrum we find ourselves in when we attempt to understand, relate to and position ourselves on some comparative scale with other creatures.
‘Tribute’ deals with the mixed emotions of loving a pet cat, prey instincts and all, and commiserating with the suffering of the rat he delivers to her as a gift. This most complex type of compassion must divide itself between the disparate natures of two creatures and the poet finds the only solution is to pray to:
…. I pray the tiny gods
of whiskered things that scuttle quiet in the dark
Please no more ‘precious tributes
in the night.
It would be easy for Jenny to fall into the trap of using animals as moving metaphors to bolster human positions or situations, but she never does, choosing to come from a place of honesty rather than overt poetic intent. Instead of choosing a wistful bird that might reinforce the theme of the poem, the incongruous blatancy of Noisy Miners squawking in a bird bath begins the delicate and quietly heartbreaking poem: ‘Going Home’.
In the tender and delicate ‘Snow’ which deals with the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, a ‘dandelion puff of a puppy’ sits with the friend who is afflicted, when “the stop-start muscles freeze into place”. The pup is a wriggling counterpoint to those rigid limbs, and a source of simple yet profound consolation and joy.
There are several affecting love poems, some gently amused yet poignant explorations of aging and its losses. The section that gives its name to the title contains a series of memorable impressions garnered on trips to South America and London.
Which brings me to my overall impression of Jenny’s poetry. Beyond her facility with craft, what attracts me particularly is that rarer quality: the generosity of her vision combined with an ability to stand aside rather than taking centre stage, despite the often confessional first person narration. In this way the words wrap themselves around the reader, delivered with the quietly coaxing voice of a natural born storyteller.
To those unfamiliar with Jenny’s work The Alpaca Cantos will bring much delight, and provide just the tonic for these isolating times we find ourselves in. And to her already solidified fan base, you need no more encouragement from me to buy a copy.
– Judy Johnson April 2020
Judy Johnson has published five full length poetry books and several chapbooks. She has won many of the country’s most prestigious prizes for single poems, and for collections or segments thereof: the Victorian Premier’s Award for poetry, shortlisting for the NSW and WA Premier’s Awards, and the Wesley Michel Wright prize three times.
The Alpaca Cantos is available from https://pittstreetpoetry.com/poet/jenny-blackford/