Poetry by Jennifer Compton

A word from Vincent

The obvious point of this site is to celebrate and present the breadth of experience and formal variety that poetry embraces. I shall be inviting a guest poet to contribute work of their own, and to select a poem by a living writer they value, as well as a poem from an earlier era that continues to matter to them.

The first guest poet is Jennifer Compton, a New Zealander who has lived for many years near Melbourne, and was back in Wellington as the resident writer at the Randell Cottage in 2010. She was the winner of the Kathleen Grattan Award for her collection, This City, mostly written while at the cottage, and published in 2011 by Otago University Press.

Most of these blogs will also speak of a poet who is or has been punished or persecuted as a writer for refusing to accept the constraints imposed by a regime or a government threatened by creativity and independent thought. The present blog celebrates the Ghanaian Kofi Awoonor, who was among those killed in a terrorist attack in a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, last September, on the day he was scheduled to read at a literary festival.

"Across a New Dawn"

Sometimes, we read the
lines in the green leaf
run our fingers over the
smooth of the precious wood
from our ancient trees;

Sometimes, even the sunset
puzzles, as we look
for the lines that propel the clouds,
the colour scheme
with the multiple designs
that the first artist put together

There is dancing in the streets again
the laughter of children rings
through the house
On the seaside, the ruins recent
from the latest storms
remind of ancestral wealth
pillaged purloined pawned
by an unthinking grandfather
who lived the life of a lord
and drove coming generations to
despair and ruin

*

But who says our time is up
that the box maker and the digger
are in conference
or that the preachers have aired their robes
and the choir and the drummers
are in rehearsal?

No; where the worm eats
a grain grows.
the consultant deities
have measured the time
with long winded
arguments of eternity

And death, when he comes
to the door with his own
inimitable calling card
shall find a homestead
resurrected with laughter and dance
and the festival of the meat
of the young lamb and the red porridge
of the new corn

*

We are the celebrants
whose fields were
overrun by rogues
and other bad men who
interrupted our dance
with obscene songs and bad gestures

Someone said an ailing fish
swam up our lagoon
seeking a place to lay its load
in consonance with the Original Plan

Master, if you can be the oarsman
for our boat
please do it, do it.
I asked you before
once upon a shore
at home, where the
seafront has narrowed
to the brief space of childhood

We welcome the travelers
come home on the new boat
fresh from the upright tree

(From Promises of Hope: New and Selected Poems, 1964-2013, by Kofi Anyidoho. Reproduced with the permission of the University of Nebraska Press and the Ghana Poetry Foundation. Copyright 2014 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.)

Kofi Awoonor was also a teacher, a diplomat, an essayist and novelist, and the eminent father-figure of contemporary African poetry in English, although it drew deeply from the singing and oral traditions of his Ewe people. As Wole Soyinka wrote on hearing of his death, he stood against 'corruption of the soul', and 'was imbued with the spirit of ecumenism towards other systems of belief and cultural usages.'

– Vincent O’Sullivan


Selected works and selections

"Now You Shall Know" has just won the Newcastle Poetry Prize 2013 – quite a big deal here in Australia, a $12,000 prize – so at the moment it is my favourite poem. Also, I am on a bit of a mission for the shorter poem, and I was well pleased a 52 line poem could win a prize that allows entries up to 200 lines.

Like me, Eric Beach is a New Zealander who is a long time resident of Australia, and I love his affection for his adopted home, and his wry humour, and his laconic, elegant depiction of inland Australia. I have heard perform him this poem and it was a scream, he set the whole house on a roar.

And of course, "Adlestrop". This poem has haunted me ever since I read it, a very long time ago now. Wherein lies its power, its continual magic? I can't explain it. For me, I think it has something to do with the delicious rhyme in the last stanza – mistier and Gloucestershire. But that's not the whole story.

I have written a homage to "Adlestrop"; "Alamein" is from my book This City, published by Otago University Press.

– Jennifer Compton


Now You Shall Know

Maria Callas sings the aria 'Voi lo sapete' from Cavalleria Rusticana

The aeroplane is hung in the sky from a clever hook, so we seem
to inhabit a thrumming stillness, but we believe we are travelling

forward. A little this way and a little that way, up and then down
as if we are nosing out a scent. And there is a singing in my ears.

This is cleverness. Recalled from history, the voice of Maria Callas
and the presence of that audience, their rapt surrendering translated

into a thing of monstrous beauty, as she screams, exquisitely, her high
anguish. Or is it our commonwealth of torment? It is, anyway, almost

unendurable. As human as anything is. And everyone present is part
of this. She pauses. She breathes. The orchestra dawdles to intimate

there is a resolution to come. And then he coughs. The man cannot
contain himself a moment longer, the paroxysm erupts. He coughs.

Forever, at this point, he interrupts. Whatever else he did in his life
he coughed and is now part of the story—which I can't follow but

can tell is of dark betrayal and death. And of the tickle in his throat.
But I don't know—non lo so—what it might mean—'Voi lo sapete'.

You it will know? You will come to know it? Now I am being previous.
I am hung in the sky knowing nothing of what I will come to know.

                                                                   *

Held high in the palm of technology's hand, awaiting our delivery
to a runway, a skybridge, a carousel—to our eternal mother, maybe

propping up on the pillows like a bright-eyed dolly. Oh holy dread.
There is nowhere else to sleep this midnight except within her reach.

Believe me. In this house there are no other beds in which I may sleep.
She doesn't whisper stories all night in the dark, her mouth to my ear,

in a language that I used to know, a shuffle of syllables, as if she can
talk me back into her sad, shamefaced arms, snowball's chance of that.

But in the morning when we wake, she laughs, and denounces me as
a blanket thief. A rusted coil has eased. You selfish old woman—I say.

But I am an old woman also. Two old women waking to the new day
that will bring a sudden jolt that is the beginning of the end for her.

I have imagined what I might feel dressing for my mother's funeral,
and as I pinned her lily-of-the-valley brooch to my grey lapel, I knew.

                                                                   *

I have flown in with a book in my clever hand. She loses all feeling
in her left hand. I quit the house to speak to everyone at once. She

is lifted into an ambulance. Something tells me she is about to throw
the performance of her life—her parting shot—the last big push with

everything she’s got. I read that poem—she says—the one about...
ah yes—that one—the one about... we are in the busy corridor of

the hospital close to the grief room. And I know that 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.

– Jennifer Compton


wimmera roadsong

on the left hand side

               we have the left hand side

& on the right

               we have the right hand side

& a silo straight ahead

flat roads lead to friday night

               they rolled their car & are dead

the wheatfields they are young & green

                               the donald farmer shakes his head

the racecourse is brown in warracknabeal

                               hopetoun streets are red

the lake's dry out of rainbow

               & the cockies

               (that's the birds, not the farmers)

               look well fed

on the left hand side

               we have the left hand side

& on the right

               we have the right hand side

& a silo straight ahead

the barber's sweeping main street

               lest we forget avenue

now the second barber's sweeping main street

                               butcher shops like marble too

yesterday's marked down at the bakery

                               & the river looks like stew

on the left hand side

               we have the left hand side

& on the right

               we have the right hand side

& a silo straight ahead

two kids share one ice-cream

               another brief lick at the drought

when the dirt blows there's no fence

               that will keep the dirt out

only stars hang in the window

roos, moving south

– Eric Beach


Adlestrop

Read "Adlestrop"

Alamein

At Camberwell she chants—Change here for the Alamein line.
So I did because my uncle used to say that word in a certain way.

Riversdale Willison Hartwell Burwood Ashbuston Alamein.
I was the only person who got off here. And nobody got on.

A bemused and indolent suburb, stunned by peace.
A slow car bumbling through the shadows of trees.

A shop with a tiny woman behind the tower of tic-tacs
and the deep throb of the drinks fridge by the sticky door.

I looked around for a war memorial but I could find none.
Just an insignificant station like the original El Alamein.

The sunshine and the lazy trees and the somnolent ease
are a true memorial for my uncle and the men like him.

– Jennifer Compton

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