Criticism

Hitting the Ground Alive


Jennifer Compton, Barefoot, (Picaro Press, 2010), 62 pages, $15


A young woman, in leggings, bare feet, hangs over the dome of the old Taj Mahal in Courtenay Place, Wellington, during capping week in 1967. A policeman grips the back of her jersey; another man grasps a wrist. Is it Jennifer, I wonder, leaping into yet another subject, exposing the incongruity of a public toilet that briefly became a trendy restaurant? What quantities of paint and air freshener must have been required, not to mention table linen and sweet-smelling nosegays?

There are outstretched hands below waiting for the feet but it is the leap that remains important. 

She wished me strength—and here she
struggled for the word but it came out
strength.
(“For the Young Dutchy Backpacker I Met in the Hostel”) 

When travelling in Europe—prepared for by reading Moravia at thirteen—it is inadvisable to take your eyes off anything from the young man with no underpants to Madame Pensione’s opinion of tourists “squatting like budgerigars on the thrillingly dusty, antique steps”. If information on the eradication of malaria in Rome is hard to come by there is still the emaciated beauty of: 

Roses that the Bangladeshi sell you never bloom.
The women in Europe shock them to the bone.
                                                (“Roman Fever”) 

The attitudes of openness, fearlessness, puzzlement at the way things are, attend all of Compton’s poems, adding to an ever-expanding ground and a limber technique. She is a mistress of chiaroscuro: 

He came up behind me on the street
and held a knife to my bare throat
                                                (“Law and Order”) 

Soon the reader is stepping through a painting and the demand of the mugger for his victim’s name becomes the artist’s signature.

What makes “In the Alfred Emergency and Trauma Centre” so compelling is not just the eye noting “the box of tissues waiting for your tears” and the designated rooms—“Grievance”, “Distressed Relatives”, “Smoke Zone” and “Spirituality Centre”—but the burr-like desire to write, incorporating fear and striding through conflicting impressions: 

I hate the way I have to write this poem
to send it off into the future where
time doesn’t move by fits and starts as
my silly old heart thumps and leaps. 

The future (of anxious mother and poem) might well be smoothed but doesn’t this mean 

Someone else is getting it in the neck. 
Someone else is on fire as if they were alive. 

Perhaps early in their careers poets decide what a poem is: chaos reduced, an image growing on a stem, the solace of thought, a “dull, exquisite, ordinary moment”. The manner of approach is probably character-linked: direct, oblique, language-focused or in the manner of speech. Some hunt with headlamps scattering the darkness around them; others are almost entirely cerebral. Compton loves to accord equal weight to the objects that surround her. Animal, vegetable or mineral? She will have all three. 

This house has been broken by incoherent words
                                                (“Broken House”) 

treats words and timber as equals. If the words had worked inside the house we presume it might have stood. Or the jockey hitting the ground alive when the horse was already dead at the last fence. Real regret comes not in a bleak ironic statement but in the “boots and leggings curled like creatures” by the jockey’s chair in the morning. Directness and then tenderness.

Directness can have its own peculiar evasiveness. Is something not being taken into account? Could tentativeness—the contrived uncertainty which conceals a sure touch—say more? The sort of delicate tentativeness with which William Empson introduced his elderly mother, Laura: “Ripeness is all; her in her cooling planet / Revere; do not presume to think her wasted” (“To an Old Lady”). Compton’s great directness appeals most where a number of complexities and characters are swiftly revealed moving about behind the scenes, unpicking or slashing at the backdrop: 

The builder’s mate smashed our young fig tree flat
he called from his car window—I’ve killed your tree.
                                    (“The Family Room”) 

Nothing more to say: deed done. Except the builder’s voice is curiously, suspiciously uninflected, infused with sleep deprivation: 

He wielded power tools and climbed ladders like
a somnambulist who is bulletproof. Building our
family room. That day they were digging footings,
long graves, the vet put our ancient goat to sleep. 

Somnambulist, a beautiful, evocative word, leads us into something faux-romantic about the builder who works despite family tragedy (and who perhaps finds the building of a family room ironic in the circumstances). The room is finished, there are three casual deaths: fig tree, goat and rosella. Then, like a ghost, the child undergoing chemo appears; the “goodbye eyes” exchange a message, the room is inspected, and the bluntness (a better term might be the equality of objects in their demand for our notice) returns. Or the reader notices it has never gone away. The somnambulist is bulletproof because this is the way things are.

I’ve never been able to decide, from the time a schoolfriend introduced me as “half-Australian” to a group of exotics: “half-French, half-Scandinavian, half-Polish, half-Russian” at a German professor’s house how exotic that might be. But at the time I would like to have been x-rayed by the fluoroscope in the 1950s shoe shop which revealed your foot bones inside your new shoes. In “Otaki”, “Rongotai”, “Waikikamukau” and “Waipukurau” little towns and a vicious salt wind create a distinct New Zealand while “New Zealand Citizen, Resident of Australia” ponders the differences: “No Australian will ever say sorry or return a phone call.I must check this out on my next visit to Melbourne.

More telling, in the cultural divide, is “Taking Photographs Without a Camera” where the mystery of who takes who in the matter of images is considered: “I am being used (or using) like a machine”.

Some of the most moving poems are the shortest: the dead horse and surviving jockey in “Regret”; the bitter words of “Weighing In” where the jockey goes stanza by stanza through his uniform: 

Red diamonds, or shocking pink.
A shimmering, lightsome shirt.
Little glistening nothing boots.  

At the end a glass of water beckons: 

I have been starved into shape by this dirty game.
I wouldn’t do it for your pleasure if you paid me.
The horse I ride has a name and a number.
I have made weight. I can have a drink of water. 

Only the second line seems debatable.

Jennifer Compton’s distinct voice, her way of looking, her ability to capture and be captured, are remarkable attributes. Her method in the getting down from the Taj Mahal (straight over the top to waiting arms and a press photographer) is the right one. The stills she takes in these poems might be aided by seemingly blunt speech but they are backed up by an equal power of mystery. It is the respect she gives to whatever presents itself—image, memory, the life of others, even partially sensed—that gives these poems their robust appeal.

Elizabeth Smither is a New Zealand poet and novelist. Her most recent book is a novel, Lola (Penguin).

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