Loss, Grief, Change, and Memory: Luke Simon reviews ‘Now You Shall Know’ by Jennifer Compton

Now You Shall Know by Jennifer Compton. Five Island Press 2015

Jennifer-Compton-cover-170x240In 2011, when poet Jennifer Compton was in New Zealand for the launch of her collection This City, she participated in Poetry Central, at Auckland Library and was later presented with a Tapa Notebook. Jennifer Compton writes:

Matthew and I had just moved house from up in the hills down to Carrum, we had been there ten days, when I nipped off to New Zealand to launch This City and tour around a bit. My mother had a turn the day I arrived, and I went to her funeral the day before I was booked to leave. It was all quite stressful and I got back to my new house, which was still at sixes and sevens, feeling scattered and wrecked.

I used the Tapa Notebook as a way of focusing on what needed to be done, the work of grief, I used it as a way of sorting and tidying, what to keep, what to throw out, I used it as a safe place to put stuff. I promised myself that by the time I got to the last page of the notebook I would have finished the poem about my mother – ‘Now You Shall Know.’ And I did. I promised myself that I would so I did.

– Source: New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre

‘Now You Shall Know’, a poem filled with complex imagery, painful dialogue and dramatic verve, won the Newcastle Poetry Prize and is her latest eponymous poetry collection. The book is divided into six different sections, entitled in turn: awaiting our delivery, oh, a rapt downwards look, in the long run, wrenched backwards, and, somehow urgent. These poems concern themselves with aspects of family life and with themes of loss, grief, change, and memory. The first section containing the award-winning poem ‘Now You Shall Know’ and the second section, resonate most strongly as these sections offer poetry with references to universal themes such as the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship, of being a grandmother, of unspoken family secrets and grievances and, of course, of the death of a parent, at a time when the offspring themselves are of uncertain age:

We know what this photo is for
how we laughed
the one who had scanned the family album
for the funeral slide show had complained
how there were shocking gaps
no photo of her with this one or that
so now whichever of us went first
there would be a pic of all of us
holding on to each other’s hands.

‘After the Wake’

Poet and critic Geoff Page writes that Compton’s latest collection has an early late-career energy about it – and a focus on what is really important (Sydney Morning Herald, March 20, 2015) and with this I concur as there is acknowledgement in several poems of the process of ageing, reminiscing, of changes in family roles and hierarchy, of wonderment and of anxiety about what is to come. Thankfully, Compton chooses to be honest and frank with her use of language; not for her the postmodernist obfuscated word games of younger generations. Reading the book, I felt I was in the company of a wise, all-noticing older friend whose antenna is sharp, yet kind and appreciative of all that goes on around her but who still seems surprised, even shocked, at how suddenly the world one thought of as loving, welcoming and wondrous becomes vicious and nasty. This, in turn, makes one sit up and re-evaluate the world one knew, as if one were a child once again, leading to a forensic re-examination and rumination of past grievances.

Compton’s poetry has, in the past, sometimes been reviewed as embodying a certain kind of toughness but the poems in her latest work marry this toughness with tenderness, with ambivalence and moreover, vulnerability, as when Compton reflects on her childhood self, in the poem ‘Free Books’:

Someone had said to my mother that
I was a clever little girl and I needed
books. Who? Who had noticed me?

I don’t remember being noticed. I thought
I was a cloud of littleness, the same colour
as the background.

These lines suggest a rift between mother and daughter echoed in the opening eponymous poem of this collection, and a lack of understanding too on the part of the mother, with the repeated use of ‘little’ exposing a sense of vulnerability and the metaphor, a lack of self-worth at a young age. Her mother takes on the advice, (given by whom neither we nor Compton can know) and takes little Jennifer to get a library card and so opens up a new world, to satiate the girl’s hunger for books and words.

………………………………………….Almost my
first memory, the night she said, after tea –
We are going to the library.

One needs to ponder why her own mother did not become aware of her little girl’s character, abilities, interest in books of her own accord and instead, needed someone else to point this out? Perhaps therein lies the kernel of the fundamental disquiet existing still in this prickly relationship, many decades later between the two. There is a sense of resentfulness, an acknowledgment by the poet, that her mother simply was not tuned into her as a little girl and in a way, that she had failed her. A grown-up version of this resentfulness, of disappointment in one’s parent is abundantly clear in the poem’s last few stanzas, where the same mother, dying, shows the same lack of perception about her own daughter, her own daughter’s fundamental grievance with her:

…………………………………I read that poem- she says-the one…
ah yes-that one-the one about…we are in the busy corridor of

the hospital close to the grief room. And I know she will die soon
This is the hospital where I was born. Once again she reaches for all

her strength and pushes me away from her. I didn’t know- she says.
And that is enough. Go-the voice in my head says – just go. Now.

An unsentimental, almost forensic-kind of vulnerability is similarly present in ‘He Nods Off’, where the poet, busy with housework outside, spots her husband through a window dozing:

he is not here this is what it will be like when he is gone for good when his breath
stops the tender-hearted scrupulous man with long slim hands will have flown he

will be gone his dark compelling scent will linger on the pillow-case until I strip
the bed and do a load and all his books a widow me viewing shelves and shelves

of books…’

The way these stanzas are structured, with lines having anywhere from fourteen to at times, more than sixteen words each, assists in creating an almost stream-of-consciousness avalanche of words, halting at times due to the lack of punctuation. In a way, this technique assists in keeping sentimentality at bay whilst simultaneously revealing deep affection and on another level, the anxiety the poet anticipates.

Born in New Zealand, a number of poems reference Jennifer Compton’s birthplace with poems about Christchurch and Wellington, the recent earthquakes and the stronger aftershock, both put to shame by the Japanese earthquake disaster soon after that wiped the New Zealand earthquake off the front pages:

………………………………………………………….What would happen
next, as Christchurch tried to make sense of itself? But then
in a few short weeks, a megathrust in Japan upped the
stakes with broad strokes- worse than anyone could have ever

thought. Whatever you might have imagined, it was worse…

‘The Narrative Arc Of Christchurch’

Using her considerable skill as a playwright, there are a number of poems which provide entire backstories of their characters in just a page ensuring that a world is created in the reader’s mind and that these poems come to life given Compton’s ear for the spoken word, the colloquial and her ability to empathise with various perspectives (she imagines a recent arrival’s history and his perceived training for surviving in Australia wearing the appropriate local dress code).

There’s irony, humour, musicality in the consonance of many lines, we glimpse a larrikin spirit and stand witness to vignettes which could be staged in a theatre, but it is the family and memoir poems that fill this collection with a disquiet, a perceived discord and ultimately, a poignancy which remains with the reader long after the poems have been read.

– Luke Simon


Luke Icarus Simon’s second poetry collection, The Transit of Cancer, was published in 2013.

Now you Shall Know is available from http://fiveislandspress.com/catalogue/now-you-shall-know


Poetry Conferences each side of the Tasman: Short Takes on Long Poems and The Political Imagination

Over the next few weeks there are two poetry conferences you shouldn’t miss…unless like me you are in Sydney and the conferences are being held at the University of Auckland and the Melbourne campus of Deakin University.

First to Auckland…next week, on the 29th and 30th March I will be missing Short Takes on Long Poems: A Trans Tasman Symposium at the University of Auckland hosted by the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc). This  is the sixth symposium nzepc has organised (the others being Auckland 2004, Christchurch 2005, Bluff 2006, Auckland 2010 and Sydney 2010).

According to the conference organisers Short Takes on Long Poems will focus on “short long poems and long short poems; in epic and seriality; in the book-length or site-specific poem”. They continue:  “we like the challenge of folding the universe into a matchbox. We like matchboxes made of dark matter. We want to be surprised, diverted and delighted by what we can bring to points of exchange, and we want to bring those points – before, during, and/or after our symposium – into digital renditions”.

Some of the highlights, from an Australian perspective include John Tranter talking about his poem ‘The Anaglyph,’ collected in Starlight: 150 Poems (UQP 2010). Also on the program is Pam Brown who will presenting Kevin Davies’ long poem ‘Duckwalking a Perimeter’, the penultimate section of his book  The Golden Age of Paraphernalia,  Philip Mead on John Kinsella’s 400-page Divine Comedy: journeys through a regional geography, Hazel Smith on ‘The Film of Sound’ – the contemporary long poem exists not only on the page,” but has also evolved off the page through performance, intermedia work and new media writing”,  Sam Moginie and Andy Carruthers on Jas H. Duke’s Destiny Wood and Australian Experimentalism, Toby Fitch reading from his work ‘Rawshock’ a long poem in 10 parts, Martin Harrison on the question of endings, Jill Jones  on the intersection of the long poem  with “other art practices, other modalities”, Ann Vickery on on a series of collaborative longish poems written and performed by Australian poets Pam Brown, Carol Christie, Jane McKemmish and Amanda Stewart,  Ella O’Keefe on John Anderson’s book-length poem the forest set out like the night and Jessica Wilkinson on her long poetic-biography of early cinema actress Marion Davies,  And this is before we start looking at the New Zealand and other international presenters.

Even before I will be able to start to get over my disappointment at missing Short Takes on Long Poems, I’m going to have to confront even more disappointment when I  wont be able to make the trip to Melbourne for  The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries  at Deakin University (Deakin Prime in Melbourne) on 12th and 13th of April 2012.

According to the organisers ‘The Political Imagination’ will bring “together some of Australia’s leading poets and poetry scholars to investigate the state of contemporary postcolonial and diasporic poetries. It aims to explore the contentious, at times controversial, issues surrounding the production and discussion of poetry and poetics in work that engages with the politics of the postcolonial, the transnational and the diasporic. Among the topics addressed by symposium participants will be opposition, identity, subversion and hybridity”.

One of the potential highlights, as we approach the 39th anniversary of Michael Dransfield’s death later in April, is Michael Farrell’s presentation on ‘‘a needle spelling XANADU’: Reading Michael Dransfield’s ‘Courland Penders’ through the Neobaroque’. To quote from the abstract to this paper:

The neobaroque, also known as the colonial or counter-baroque is posed, in Latin American literature, as a counter-conquest mode. In this paper I attempt to reframe what has been seen as Dransfield’s romantic myth of Courland Penders as a neobaroque space: one that extends, critiques and parodies the colonial. As Alejo Carpentier writes in the Latin American context, ‘Let us not fear the Baroque, our art, born from trees, timber, altarpieces, and altars, from decadent carvings and calligraphic portraits, and even from late neoclassicisms’. Is this art foreign to Australia, or does it exist in imaginary inventions (or ‘folds’) like Courland Penders?

Two more quotes are relevant: Cuban critic Severo Sarduy writes that ‘Baroque space is superabundant and wasteful. In contrast to language that is communicative, economic, austere, and reduced to function as a vehicle for information, Baroque language delights in surplus, in excess, and in the partial loss of its object’; Irlemar Chiampi describes the neobaroque as ‘the aesthetic of countermodernity’. The former rejects the economic model of settlement; the latter affirms the former’s style. The specific poems I consider in seeking to read Dransfield as a producer of Australian baroque are ‘Portrait of the artist as an old man’, ‘Courland Penders: going home’, ‘Tapestry at Courland Penders’, and ‘Birthday ballad, Courland Penders’, all from Dransfield’s first book, Streets of the Long Voyage.

The other presentations look just as interesting:

  • Adam Aitken  “(un)becoming hybridity in my poetry”
  • Ali Alizadeh on “Metapolitics vs. identity politics: (re-)radicalising the postcolonial”,
  • Michelle Cahill on “The Poetics of Subalternity”
  • Danijela Kambaskovic-Sawers on “A migrant poet and the fine art of escapism”
  • Bridie McCarthy on” Border Protection: Neo-Colonialism and the Canon”
  • Lyn McCredden on “Poetry and the Nation”
  • Peter Minter on ‘Toward a Decolonised Australian Poetry’
  • Lucy Van on “‘Why Waste Lines on Achille?’: Tracing the Critical Discourse on Postcolonial Poetry
  • Ann Vickery on “Postcolonial Lovetypes: On Doing and Not Doing Her Kind in the Poetry of Juliana Spahr and Astrid Lorange”
  • Ania Walwicz on “cut tongue”-fragmentation, collage and defence”
  • Sam Wagan Watson on “Fight Club”

If, unlike me you are able to make the trip to Auckland or Melbourne, or if you are already in those cities, then it would be almost unforgivable not to make an effort to attend these conferences. For further information check out the relevant websites and book your tickets!

Short Takes on Long Poems: A Trans Tasman Symposium

The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries