Poems Far and Wide by John Jenkins, Puncher & Wattmann, 2020.
This collection of poems by John Jenkins is broad, and deep and filled with feeling and wit. Expansive in vision of the human predicament, and various in form. There is evidence of travel and international lived experience; insight into global figures.
The title of the collection reminds me of Shelley’s closing utterances from ‘Ode To The West Wind’:
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
With a significant divergence, however, from that yellow wood! Jenkins’ thoughts are, by contrast, very much alive. Everything inspires him, as he says in ‘Minifesto’, at the outset:
I think poetry is everywhere the poem goes,
the idea of a chosen plenitude …
The title also expresses the range of the poet’s travels, both geographically and imaginatively. Many of the poems portray various kinds of expansion and dispersal. The prompts which have fuelled the poet’s response are varied, and the forms the responses take are likewise diverse. The range of poetry here includes some dazzling shape poems, a series of plangent and witty phrases from ‘overheard conversations’, some wistful and tender lyrical pieces, some poems punctuated with spaces and pauses, and some robust and raucous outbursts. This poet’s eye is a panoramic one.
The description of the blossoms in ‘Dandelion Seeds’ is written in such close up and tender detail that the portrayal fuses a naturalist’s hyper-focused lens with a child’s innate sense of wonder. These fragile seed-carrying blooms are a metaphor for the flourishing of the poet’s ideas:
launching pads on thin dry stalks
pin-cushions stuck with parachutes you blow
white tears the wind lifts, trailing swollen seeds
air filters out each fine thread, web-like dancings,
white tears, tiny silver flames
on silken dreams of summer’s wind fall
then another wheel of radiant spokes
floats like sudden upward-drifting snow
each loose-leaf swollen shiver-sphere
explodes its airy froth of stars
I drift with them to barely skim the breeze
to live or fall beyond this page …
In subsequent poems, there are details of interior scenes of buildings, described too: the poet’s whole hearted and informed response to classic art works, both painted and sculpted, is revelatory and illuminating. In ‘Puissance: Marble, Frieze, Parthenon, Athens’, he observes
Just as a lyre resonates, each string finely tuned, silent music
guides the rider’s hands and torso, refined to a merest shift
of weight. This impulse engraved in classic light. Each line
sings with subtle listening, as polished volumes flow
into a solemn quiet.
‘Henri Matisse, Spring Studio, Nice’ is a bejewelled and satisfying piece, describing the painting Reclining Nude. The Painter and his Model 1935 as ‘Precision so attuned to sensual elegance’. I have never seen Matisse’s work described so vividly and accurately before. The poem is subdivided into three sections: Luxe, Calme and Volupte. And the vibrant tension between the art subject and the man responding to the living woman’s ‘classic nudity shivered into careful disarray’ is beautifully rendered, describing the intimacy of art interpretation: the ‘viewer and sheer act of viewing in a single glance’.
The poet soon turns his gaze to the experience of living in crowded cities. ‘Slick – Waking Dream’ is an evocative rendition of a contemporary Australian summer, with all its thermal extremes, consumption of resources and jangling sounds and sights:
Summer in Australia sleeps in oil, …
Flood to fields in hammering light …
From ancient shale beds, black lode
of buried ferns erupts again as oil.
Wealth pours down pipelines here,
Awareness of the geological context informs the poet’s vision of what he sees:
bright engine candles, the desert prinked
with velvety explosions; as new lenses zoom…
Outside my room a motor sears its
studs blue, pushing stars out of the sky,
the waking sun our dreaming headlight.
Suburban satire seen through a poetic periscope is also done with relish, both edged and sympathetic, a litany of informed complaints which peel back the materialistic degradation of land development which transforms nature into nature strip.
‘Hillside Views Estate’ utilizes personification in which the view develops a life of its own, and the poet uses puns to pillory real estate agents and their glossy realtor brochure jargon:
The view’ is still a creek spilling its beans across
a muddy plain, just a trickle of numbers to a bank, where
cows as fresh as milkshakes graze on grassy notions
of the picturesque. A mortgage belt tightens on a hill…
It’s all win-win
situations, plus backyard spa, raised pool, and barbie.
What view would miss out, climbing the hillside
higher for a better look at itself?
The closing lines emphasise the rites-of-passage-driven downsizing that comes with empty nest syndrome:
One rainy Saturday when the kids grow up, the view
just thumbs a ride due west, beyond the wired sky,
the freeway noise. The view moves on, not looking back.
Another insight into the lives we experience in the suburbs is offered in ‘Suburban Whistle-Stop’, as commuters are shown in the early morning, scrambling and flocking like birds to public trains to make it to work and back, seeking the ‘dangled dollar’.
The staccato sounds of that early rush, the sameness of the faces of the citizens in their uniform endeavour, the telling, abbreviated non-disclosure of what happens at work, is brought to a slow and appreciative close, with familiar phrases given new lease of life, and elongated vowel sounds tracing the relaxation and solace of coming home:
Day’s end, backtrack to dreamy, green-belt bliss;
fuzzy minds dispel their daily doses of hypnosis.
Branches burst out song as we drift on sullen
auto-pilot to our rest. Now work is for the birds –
warm up downy doonas, silk a fluffy nest.
The subtitle for the poem ‘Slick’ is ‘Waking Dream’ and the phrase is a good précis of the scope of the poet’s work. In the beautiful blurrings of time and memory, of place and history, we see the poet’s pervasive imaginative gift writ large.
The standout piece of this collection for me is the ‘Charles Dodgson in Cheshire’ extended anecdote in prosaic verse, full to the brim of sly allusions and sweet intertextualities. It tells the story of Lewis Carroll’s cat, Minette, who goes missing for a few days and makes him distracted with worry for her safety. The poem outlines his surrealistic travels in search of her, unfolding a narrative of inexplicable appearance, disappearance, discovery and failed rescue, ending with aerated, uplifted elation, with a wink to the Cheshire Cat in ‘Alice’:
Charles in buoyant mood, having found Minette, asked to fly with them fast back to Oxford. So, untethered and aloft, all taking leave of earth, a morning breeze elevated more brightly coloured dots…
So ends the tale of friends lost and re-won, with no more tears or sighs, or from the wayward air the slightest whisper;
nor parting smile, just clear sky, without a single whisker.
– Devika Brendon
Devika Brendon is an editor, reviewer, and teacher of English literature, and a writer of poetry and fiction. She was awarded the Henry Lawson Memorial Prize for Poetry and The Adrian Consett Stephen Prize for Fiction in 1989 at The University of Sydney. Her doctoral thesis examined Jonathan Swift’s use of the epistolary mode in poetry and prose satire. Her short stories, poetry, reviews, and opinion pieces have been published in anthologies, journals and print and digital publications, in Australia, India, Sri Lanka, Africa.
Poems Far and Wide is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/poems-far-and-wide
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