Revelling in the possibilities of language: Jackson reviews ‘Listening to Frost’ by Jan Napier

Listening to Frost by Jan Napier, Sunline Press 2020.

For many years, Jan Napier worked in travelling carnivals, but nowadays she belongs to Perth’s community of poets. To date, she has three full-length books with WA publishers. Listening to Frost complements her haiku book Day Moon (Mulla Mulla Press 2020) and inherits the concerns of her debut collection Thylacine (Regime Books 2015).

These are frequently human stories and memories. Many poems contemplate close relationships, aloneness, grief, aging, or dementia. Abuse looms large, too:

To be a woman

quiver like cat lapped milk
at his rowdy blow.

There are also many poems centred on landscapes and the natural environment, especially oceans, skies, rain, the moon, trees, birds, and other creatures. Sometimes these are described for their intrinsic value or to express solastalgia, but often they are anthropomorphised or symbolise human concerns. Rain is “romancing the apple’s boughs …”; a pear is “rounded and sweet and willing”.

More often than Thylacine, this book invokes writing or poets (such as Sappho and Neruda) or ascribes textuality to natural phenomena. Evocatively, “Shadows have the same language everywhere” and the speaker in “Understory” sees

Beyond firelight, penned by window,
rain writing the forest …

the enunciation of mushrooms lulled
by sentences of moss … 

Napier is “adept at incorporating figurative language”, as Veronica Lake observes. The poems overflow with similes and metaphors. “Cumuli loom like bad ideas”; a surfer in a tube wave is “wombed in blue”; “medicated heads nod like lilies”; “streetlights string yellow beads / along avenues”; the “ponk of frogs” is “counterpoint to the creak / of grandpa ouching into his rocker”.

Sometimes, however, Napier abandons this lyricism for diction as memorably quotidian as a knife in the guts.

It’s not
about living above them
it’s not
their stubbie and butt garden

it’s not
her shrieking and no please no
it’s not
my forefinger di-di-dialling

This poem’s hilt-and-blade line-lengths illustrate how Napier — as Mags Webster, reviewing Thylacine, remarks — is “unafraid of experimenting with lineation and form”. Although Listening to Frost is less formally varied than Thylacine, mostly sticking to neatly-arranged unrhymed free verse, there are a few rhyming poems and unrhymed villanelles. The villanelle pattern works well in “Same Same”, whose speaker fails to acknowledge climate change despite topsy-turvy weather. It ends:

January and on the coast they’re sweeping water,
but it will all come right in the end.

The way these lines recur throughout the poem reflects the weather’s escalating cycles and the people’s unchanging attitudes.

Even unrhymed, villanelles are hard to pull off. It can be difficult to connect the recurring lines seamlessly into all six stanzas. In the third stanza of “Crimson and Amber Leaves”, autumn foliage framed in a window becomes

A tapestry akin to the Bayeux,
stitched by Queen Matilda and her ladies
window embraces within its timber frame. 

To make sense of this and visualise the image, I have to mentally insert a dash after “ladies” and an “it” after “embraces”, spoiling the rhythm.

This poem is an exception, though: much of Napier’s diction is precise and appropriate. Nevertheless, I cannot agree with Lake that in this book “nothing is overdone” and “there is no waste of language”. Chris Palazzolo, discussing Thylacine, calls Napier’s poems “thickets of syntax”. He means it as a compliment, but in more than a few of the poems in Listening to Frost, the diction becomes so formidable that it draws attention to its own artifice instead of the music and images that, for me at least, are the rewards of reading poetry. For example, the otherwise-lucid “Same Same” is marred by this: “sweeping water / out of houses, brooming fluidity, talking insurance”. “Brooming fluidity”? Unless I am missing some subtle allusion, this awkward expression adds nothing but showy verbiage.

Similarly, in “Sliding”, a dugite encountered during a walk does not strike because it is “enclosed only by the fragility of distance”. By the time I have understood that this double-barrelled abstraction means the snake is not trapped in a glass box, I am no longer on the path with the speaker: I am lost in an ether of words. And when birds “circle / casual as leaves amid Autumn’s pare and gaunting,” we have an elided “as”, a simile, a personified season, a nouned verb and a gerunded adjective, all in one line. I’m a poem, it shouts. Forget the birds — look at me.

Such Hopkinsesque verbal flamboyance is not surprising, however. Napier was a show-woman, and her writing often has an air of zany levity, of revelling in the possibilities of language. I get the impression she writes primarily for fun. These poems might have serious social or ecological messages, but they are also intellectual entertainments, spruiked by voices as amplified and colourful as the denizens of Sideshow Alley.

Works cited
Lake, Veronica. “Review of Listening to Frost by Jan Napier.” Westerly, 2022, https://westerlymag.com.au/listening-to-frost/.
Palazzolo, Chris. “Teasing Threads – on Perth Poetry: Jan Napier’s Thylacine.” Rochford Street Review, 9 Aug. 2017, https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2017/08/09/teasing-threads-on-perth-poetry-jan-napiers-thylacine/.
Webster, Mags. “A Review of Tracy Ryan’s Hoard and Jan Napier’s Thylacine.” Westerly Online Special Issue 1: Walking with the Flaneur, May 2016, pp. 108–11, https://westerlymag.com.au/issues/uwa-day-of-ideas-2015/.

 — Jackson

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Poet and writer Jackson was born in Cumbria, England, and lives in Australia and New Zealand. Her four full-length poetry collections include A coat of ashes (Recent Work Press 2019) and The emptied bridge (Mulla Mulla Press 2019). Her work has appeared in many journals and anthologies, notably the Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry. Her awards include the Ros Spencer Poetry Prize. In 2018 she completed her PhD in Writing at Edith Cowan University, winning the University Research Medal and two other awards. She works as a poetry editor and casual academic. thepoetjackson.com

Listening to Frost is available from the Rochford Cottage Bookshop

 

 

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