By Jennifer Compton (Otago University Press, 2012)
Reviewed by Lindsay Pope
This is a handsome book, a strong handsome book. Within the warmth of its hardback covers a body of poetry rests inviting the intrepid reader to explore cities that have accommodated the poet and triggered her imagination.
While the book has three geographical divisions, in Italy, In New Zealand and In Australia, Compton’s inquiries transcend borders. She does not opt, like Cavafy, to “find another city better than this one.” She declines to “moulder”. Rather her preoccupations are to record the experiences and observe the people and spaces she occupies with a sensitive, honest resolve.
Two lines from her introductory titular poem “This City”
I am travelling away from life, towards my life.
This city knows all my secrets.
inform the reader that a journey through this work will be quest to document both the external and internal worlds.
Just as the settings of her poems are varied so are the poetic forms she uses to shape her purpose. They range from sequences of couplets to prose. There is a found poem. One poem dedicated to David Mitchell replicates his free “page is space” style.
While walking in Genoa with her husband in “Another Language” she flinched when she overheard another man hiss at his partner “Stupida Italiana!” Compton concludes
Something in my brain
knew what he said.
And she flinched too.
This ability to empathise with the harassed, the neglected, the outcast is evident in “On the Waterfront In Genoa, Just Before Dawn, At Chucking Out Time” and “Not Even Of The Sky”.
Although there is a sense of displacement these poems do not bemoan the condition of the exile. Compton is grounded in the present while taking backward glances into her past, as in the poem, ‘The Threepenny Kowhai Stamp Brooch’, which concludes:
Of course I will be posted back into the past –
back to when kowhai was pronounced kowhai.
Some of her poems are poignant for their disclosure about personal experience. In ” How To Cast Off” forgetfulness drives her in the vehicle of metaphor to arrive at a more challenging destination. She concludes
casting off had slipped away from me.
By focusing on immediate experience and detail Compton is able to explore more universal themes.
There is humour, revelation and compassion in this body of work. And throughout as Vincent O’Sullivan expounded when awarding it The Kathleen Grattan Award for Poetry, 2010, it is “coherent” and expressed with a “distinctive voice”. It is a voice which is both audible and transmitted with integrity.
Compton knits an international garment from threads of personal history and reflections on whichever localitiy she inhabits. It is constructed with care, patience and singular dexterity. Wear it on the tram, at the bus stop, on a bench in the park. It deserves all the public exposure a favourite item from a private wardrobe can get.