Jean Kent: Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks

Sydney: Pitt St Poetry, 2012, 86pp.

Jean Kent’s Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks is an immensely likable collection, so likable that readers may miss some of its sophistication, thinking it no more than a set of poems about travels in France and Lithuania. It is actually a good deal more than that. Travel poetry, once it gets beyond the basic level of “I’ve written a poem about my trip to the Grand Canyon”, is usually about the self and the way in which aspects of the self, surprising even to the poet, are revealed when that self is faced by an experience of the alien. It is fine to have poems which come from a continual renewing of contact with some personal sacred ground but the self only develops (or “only reveals itself” – depending on your ideology) by moving into the unfamiliar. Even a poetry resolutely opposed to being based on a lyrically conceived self learns about (and expresses) the observing self when faced with an experience of the foreign: see, as an example, Laurie Duggan’s sequence, “Oňati Notebook” from his The Pursuit of Happiness, reviewed on this site in May.

For the Jean Kent of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks , travel is a linguistic experience as much as anything else and the poems harbour a lot of a poet’s deliberately bad cross-language puns: pain/pain, les Loups/loops, “Aah oui”/”Are we”, rues/ruse and many more. It is also, as its title suggests, an experience of linguistic dislocation. But linguistic dislocation isn’t simply a matter of being in a country and not speaking the language, what we might call the abrasion of travel at a domestic level. There are, for a start, more languages than spoken languages: the languages of the senses, of bodily movement, even the weird syntax of foreign customs – both informal and those formalised in laws and institutions. And, to complicate matters, just as a famous episode of Dr Who contains the observation that “A door, once opened, may be crossed in either direction” so travellers, instead of being passive victims of linguistic confusion, bring their own languages with them to disorient the natives. You get some sense of the complexities involved here in the book’s opening, a triptych called “’Le Weekend’ in Paris”, the first poem of which begins:

Sundays in Paris unsettle us with silence.
The grumble of traffic stays dream-distant,
an argument with air in a language
we apprehend with our senses, its light fur
the only foreignness against our skins
when we wake. With the curtains closed
we could be anywhere.
Doodling dialogues of slow shoes
under our windows; in the distance, bells. . . .

Significantly the title of this poem is a “borrowing” from English, much objected to by purists, and the fourth word of the poem, and thus of the book, is “unsettle” that odd word that simultaneously describes translocation and merely jangled nerves. The vision of Paris in the final poem of this group of three, “The Language of Light”, is one not of unsettling linguistic foreignness but of a city partly transformed by its visitors. And these visitors are traced back to grandparents who, as soldiers, passed through Paris in the First World War. Sitting on park chairs (significantly the poem says “we settle briefly / on these wrought-iron chairs”), Kent describes an experience whereby all visitors across languages and across times harmonise with the language of Paris itself:

. . . . . 
Poles and Italians, Australians and Africans,
small boys and motorised boats all blend into a buzz
swarming from under the acid-yellow horse-chestnut leaves
. . . . .
                                                  The light,
as it negotiates peace settlements
within this temporary country
of cold shoulders,
is speaking everyone’s ancestral tongue.

But if dislocation seems the immediate, primary experience of the poems of this book, the search for the sort of harmonies spoken of here is what gives them both drive and shape. It is no surprise, then, that the figure of Rilke (a great poet of harmonising) looms large and “Following Rilke to the Paris Zoo”, also a sequence of three poems, is probably the core of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks. These are poems structured by a process which encourages the inclusion of the most disparate material and then shows that this can be harmonised into an aesthetic whole. I don’t want to bore readers but it is hard to explain how this works without looking briefly at the structures of the poems themselves.

“The Path of the Panther” begins with an epigraph from Rilke’s poem, setting up the expectation that the poem itself will begin with an expedition to the Jardin des Plantes. So the first pleasant dissonant shock is that it begins with the Penguin Book of German Verse, read in another country and in another time (this opening chimes with my own experience since I used this book as a school text myself, a few years before Jean Kent, and I too have kept my copy):

The margins of my Penguin Book of German Verse
are shadowy with beasts. There was no panther
in that schoolgirl text – I found him later, alone -
but still around each captured poem, voices snarl.
“Over all the hilltops,” Goethe promised “Ruh” -
. . . . .

The second dissonance allowed into the poem is the endless, mechanical annotations demanded of students and embarrassing to read forty years later. Metaphorically they are like the bars on the panther’s cage, although the teacher, whom we meet at greater length in other poems, “rose like a flamingo / from our flock of galahs”, dealing with Rilke’s “Liebes Lied” with its statement that everything that touches us (“alles, was uns anrührt”) is material from which a single harmonious note can be drawn. The poem then goes on to deal not only with our inability to erase the past but with the way in which the past writes on us. The cover is:

a calligraphy as hypnotic and alien as the so-fashionable
white lace pantyhose I wore then. They disfigured my legs,
my mother said with shudders of distaste. They reminded her
of the ritual scarrings of primitive tribes. And why
would a young Queensland girl want to look like that?

No likelihood of that now, as middle-age inscribes
my thighs, slowing me into a macramé of veins no mini-skirt
could hope to happily skim. I have been written over 
as much as this book . . .
. . . . . 
I can only will the spaces of my world to widen
as I settle for such chaos, the bars of my bones growing shadow-light
round their own zoo of wild and gentle beasts.

All told, I think this is a rather wonderful poem. It also links up with other Australian poems. It has, for example, a touch of Gwen Harwood’s “Midwinter” about it in that it deals with a text from the past which turns up to speak to us in a future which that past could not have predicted. And, like the other poems in this sequence, there is a touch of the structure of Jennifer Maiden’s longer poems where the onward drive pulls more and more disparate items into the field of the poem, only to transform them into a surprising whole. And, at the end, it even recall’s Beaver’s image of his tortured self as a zoo in Letters to Live Poets. In “The Path of the Panther” the “whole” of the poem is summarised in the wish to entertain and finally harmonise the most widely disparate elements both in the outside world, in the world of the poem and in the inner world, her own internal zoo. The poem says you have to “settle for such chaos” but you also have to settle such chaos.

In the third poem of this group, “In the Jardin des Plantes”, we actually get to the home of Rilke’s panther. I presume, though I can’t be confident, that the roundabout path to the place itself in the three poems is yet another dissonance requiring to be absorbed and harmonised. It reminds me of the principle of the labyrinth whereby the harder our logical, meaning-seeking brains try to get us to the centre – in the labyrinth of reading and writing it becomes the central significance – the more we are thrown towards the outside. At any rate this poem makes a feature of its accretive structure. Once again the disparate worlds brought into the jardin involve youth, school and German lessons. When the poet is in the garden she sees children shouting “Les Loups! Les Loups!” when they see the models of wolves circling the hill. And this visual pun, of “looping”, is the primary motif of the poem. Memory “loops” over her and she recalls reading Anna Karenina under the desk at school. A Russian novel recalls Russian wolves and school recalls the pop group of the time, The Animals. The German teacher, the flamingo among galahs of the earlier poem, reappears. A victim of invasion, imprisonment and expulsion in the war – ultimate experiences of dislocation – she “encircles us / with futures doomed to rot”:

. . . . . 
A quarter of a century later, still I feel the sting
of her voice after she stops. Vibrated between
raw throated flowers and silvery circlings of wolves
. . . 
I almost forgive her for her love of sidling round us, hackling
our bare young necks between pigtails
with promises of suffering.

“O susses Lied! O sweet song!” Equivocal as history,
under Rilke’s bow her disparate voices chime.
. . . . .

Another sequence introduces, if not chaos then at least disjunctiveness, by being built around postcards from sunny Australia, sent by family and friends as if these “have suddenly become tourists in their own foreign land”. Here the principle that draws a single note from things like the conjunction of “Bellingen butterflies and rainforest trunks” with the reflected arches of the Pont Neuf or of Margaret Preston with Utrillo is often a motif drawn from the postcard. So a friend’s comment on seeing a black snake at home in Queensland echoes as an image for a snakelike queue for visas. In “Crocodiles in the Marais”, a card from Lake Macquarie with a picture of a crocodile moves the poem onto memories of the scaly skin of the Monstera Deliciosa which allegorises out into a statement about the frustrations of both living and reading with experiences that reveal themselves only at their own pace – like the slowly progressing, sweet semi-rotting of the Monstera fruit:

                                                       So much sweetness
in each fruit-salad phrase, no wonder we longed for our tongues
to be treated to whole poems, instantly. The monster, though,
was wiser. After the first ravishing: threats of razor blades.
When the skin resists, we learned, let it rest . . .

Now, in much longed-for Paris at an age when she should have a tough enough skin to be resistant to any stripping she finds herself ill with shingles, resulting in an intense surface pain in her neck. Confined to bed (“I imitate Proust”) she has a sense that the city has peeled her.

Though most of Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks is built around a stay in Paris – something that might be a strain for any readers who are mildly Francophobic – there is one section, the second, devoted to a visit to in-laws (“the family my father-in-law left fifty years ago”) in Lithuania. In these poems we meet the same linguistic sensitivity:

Ruta’s favourite word is “maybe”.
The dictionary on her lap
is heavy as another passenger
as she strokes and cossets it, dropping
the juicy apple crystals of Lithuanian
and hauling back the slow
chewing gum of English. . . .

but the historical realities of the country as it emerges from the Soviet Bloc, the traumatic translocations of the poet’s husband’s parents, the sinister remains of a past that is not spoken about, all mean that these poems are more straightforwardly built on content rather than the challenges of a harmonising form such as we meet in the Paris poems.

This excellent book is the first I have read from the publisher, Pitt Street Poetry, so it is an opportunity to say what a physical pleasure (as well – as will be obvious from what I have written – as an intellectual one) it was to read. The physical component of the pleasure derives from good typography on beautiful, cream paper. Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks does have some awkward page breaks but this isn’t a problem with the other two books – by John Foulcher and Luke Davies – that I have from the same publisher. Though screened titles for the poems themselves may not be to every poetry reader’s taste – they suggest graphic design rather than book design – these three small books set a standard in Australian poetry publishing.