John Jenkins: Poems Far & Wide

Waratah NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2019, 163pp.

The book’s title says it all in a way. Few recent books have shown such a variety of styles and poetic modes The styles range from sharp, Duggan-like, found poems – “Overheard on bus // It was like . . . / grasping at fogwebs” – to extended meditations, parodies and (in “The Annual Eros Motor Joyride”) exhaustive explorations of a single comic idea. The modes range from lyric to narrative and all the varieties within them. It takes a little while and a few rereadings to work out that this is not a grab-bag of recent work (“compendium” might be a politer word) but a coherent book, attempting, with some deliberateness, to push the boundaries of the possible in poetry, to reject conventional consistency which is, as one of the poems says, “a bloodless abstract, a lesser good”.

Jenkins’ previous book, Growing up with Mr Menzies, was, on the surface, an examination of life in the fifties and sixties in Australia, something of a celebration while at the same time something of a meditation on memory and the nature of history. At its core, it was a series of poems about the childhood doings of one Felix Hayes, born (like Jenkins) in 1949 in Elwood but soon moving to Box Hill, one of the outer suburbs of Melbourne which became a commuter base in the postwar age of prosperity supervised by successive Liberal party governments of Robert Menzies. The opening poem imagines Menzies kissing the new born Felix as part of a politician’s duties in that period and thus passing on a kind of blessing to a child who will grow up in the Australia he creates, one in which an improving standard of living and the opening of possibilities (especially in education) are counterbalanced by an apocalyptic background – the sense of living, as one poem says, “under ‘the shadow of the bomb’”. Many of the poems are in the familiar mode of a poet’s revisiting his or her childhood days but there are meditations on the processes involved – “Grain” and “Positives”, for example – as well as both external and (imagined) internal portraits of Menzies himself.

I dwell on Growing up with Mr Menzies at this length to point out that, essentially, it’s a hybrid work mating monologues with childhood memory-poems and meditations about the self, about history and the relation between the two. The core of the book is the imagined relationship between Felix and Menzies, the former representing youthful experiences revisited and the latter the dominating representative of capital H History – no accident that the book’s first line has Menzies bending over Felix in his cot. I think that this sense of hybridity is crucial to Jenkins’ work: he writes in many modes (including material co-written with Ken Bolton, and material involved in musical and theatre performance) not as someone unsure of their metier or as a professional writer turning their hands to whatever is required and pays, but rather as someone genuinely interested in mixing modes and exploring the interactions between them.

Hybridity involves the meeting of disparate things and as such it is perhaps no accident that one of the best poems of this new book, “Under the Shaded Blossom”, is a narrative about an imagined meeting between two utterly unalike individuals, Mafia fixer, Meyer Lansky, and magisterial poet, Wallace Stevens. Since Stevens travelled south (to Florida as well as Cuba) regularly for his holidays and Lansky was based in Cuba, such an accidental meeting is not impossible. And since, for most of us, the central paradox of Steven’s biography is his simultaneous addiction to poetry and finance, especially the finances of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company (resolved perhaps in the famous dictum “Money is a kind of poetry”) there is an additional frisson in the meeting of two men in their own way continuously involved in financial transactions. You get a sense here of why this fantasy meeting attracts a poetic mind like Jenkins. There is much to be explored in the meeting of speech (or sensibility) registers. Lansky’s indirect dialogue is done in the ineradicable style of Lower East Side: “A surprise visit maybe . . . that barber shop, where / the New York capos hang out Sundays. Short back and insides / all round! Schmucks is right! . . .” whereas Stevens is in full Stevensish tropical baroque mode:

. . . . . 
                                                           Mr Stevens,
elaborating a palette both abstract and precise, recalled at once the rail
journey down Florida. How Havana always welcomed his
appraisal, how real things revealed themselves to him,
they changed to music, passing an old casino in the park, where the bills
of swans had lowered slowly as he had neared. “For him?” In this way, life gave
its assurance to always change, that something new and shining would appear,
arising anew from its patina. (“Husks, wherein time was cradled.”)
The stone (he noted now) became rose, and clouds like lightest rose
at evening. And here, too, a single quiet dwelt, within poems made of things;
or orchestras played, balloons lifted into tropical nights at festivals . . .

(The allusion here to The Tempest, read religiously by Stevens every morning, is a reminder of the way in which that play formed the pattern in which he experienced the tropic south.) Lansky and Stevens meet, an offer is made (Lansky is looking for a respectable American- based company that can launder deals) and politely rejected and the two men part. This has a lot of allegorical possibilities: that the low is always an important part of the high (Caliban inhabits the island as legitimately as Ariel; and the shipwrecked include Stefano and Trinculo) but that, for their own, intrinsic reasons, they can’t deal with each other, is certainly one possibility, one supported by Jenkins’ note on the poem. Perhaps Stevens’s transformative rhetorical style can only operate after a refusal to deal with the world represented by Lansky and is thus an incomplete representation of the universe. My own tendency is to follow the path of looking at the poems of this book as being built on the notion of hybridity and thus reading this poem as saying that two styles or modes can inhabit the same space (here the dining room of the Hotel Nacional) and strike illuminating sparks from each other but ultimately remain separate. That is, for example, lyric poems can exist inside plays as songs but the traditions of the lyric poem and of the drama remain essentially unaltered. I’m not sure how defensible this is – but it’s a possible reading.

“Under the Shaded Blossom” is one of a number of short narrative poems in Poems Far & Wide. “The Man Who Lost Himself” and ”The Man Who Found Himself” have an abstract quality and are semi-comic expansions of the cliched use of those two verbs. “The Tent at Evening” following the amorous adventures of a circus knife-thrower who finishes up in Australia using a quintessential Australian – Bruce – as her whirling target perhaps recalls the meeting of Lansky and Stevens in that two opposites are brought together. Instead of the quick separation that happens in Havana, here one of the pair throws knives at the other, shaving off parts of his beard. It’s a more fruitful interaction but a very fraught one. And then there is “Charles Dodgson in Cheshire” recounting Lewis Carroll’s search for his stray cat, Minette, a cat as imaginary as the Cheshire cat since she has been created for the fiction. Like anything involving Carroll it thus enters complex realms in which imaginary and real interact. There is also “Slow Dissolve for Mr. D.” in which death takes a holiday in Hawaii (which makes one think of Wallace Stevens taking holidays in the tropics) and a dream poem involving a piano-playing lobster and his friend, a brick who turns out to be really a building tile. In all of these poems the core seems to be not so much any form of hybridity (though I suppose that having them as representatives of a kind of poetry rather different to the other poems of the book could be seen this way) so much as an interest of worlds within worlds. What might be called encapsulation is one of the themes of Poems Far & Wide, introduced in an ekphrastic piece about a Matisse drawing in which the artist includes himself as a reflection in the studio’s mirror and continued in “Burnt Wood, Birch Bark and the Village of Creation” in which seven tales are briefly told, each nested, babushka-like, inside the other. Nested tales – as in Borges and Calvino – always induce the theme of reality vs irreality, partly because a fiction is a non-reality produced by a real author in a solid, physical book. So imaginary stories about real people – Dodgson, Lansky and Stevens – rub shoulders with conventionally fictitious people like the Bruce of “The Tent at Evening”.

One of the most significant poems – it should probably be grouped with poems like “The Man Who Found Himself” as an “abstract” narrative – is “The Traveller (Man with a Suitcase)” charting the imagined travels of a figure derived from a painting: Jeffrey Smart’s “The Traveller 1973” which shows an anonymous, middle-aged man alighting from a bus (interestingly his reflection shows on the side of the next bus in line). Is it a narrative or a symbolic meditation? Perhaps both. It’s clearly allegorical although the presence of other poems in the book which detail journeys (especially journeys of revisiting) to actual places, helps anchor “The Traveller” in the real world. But most importantly it is a poem about poetry and process. The traveller lives in the world as we do in that he does all the ordinary and cliched things others do, here symbolised by the clichés of the tourist:

. . . . . 
Like us, he also smiles with friends in front of local landmarks.
Like we must do, he conspires with clichés, rehearsing nods and winks,
fake feelings, given templates, those de rigueur merely most
received . . .

But is distinguished from the rest of us by a heightened sensitivity to his own internal drives and processes:

. . . . . 
He feels something move him now, as he moves on: something oblique
yet tangible fills the world, as its true dimension: the quality 
of experience itself; the “poetic” inhering everywhere . . .

In this aesthetic, where the “poetic” is everywhere, there are not sacred sites (in the allegory of the poem these would be tourist destinations) since everything is a sacred site. The poet works through experiences which are “endless artefacts of miracle” and since he is on the edge of a kind of continuous becoming which is simultaneously travelling towards and immediately leaving behind, he is alert to, as the final line says, “their promise, being, erasure”.
Something of this idea of multiplicity and endless change is made into a poetic method in three poems which serve as a prelude for the book. The first of these, “Minifesto”, is quite clear about the kind of book a poetics such as this will produce:

Dear Reader, be warned . . . 
I think poetry is everywhere the poem goes,
the idea of a chosen plenitude: found in
hard-nosed science; in fantasy and dreams;
in satire, song, in wit and humour; drama high
and low. The list goes on: the simple and sublime,
serious or subtle, emotions fine and raw; in tradition
and the new; or words that seem to write themselves.
Equally in wonder, work and wishes; in reverie
while washing dishes, any human thing!

And Poems Far and Wide is the kind of collection that principles like this would produce: varied in every conceivable way. Thematically, though, there are a lot of consistent elements. I have spoken of the interest in encapsulation and mirroring. There’s quite a bit of “hard-nosed science” too, especially in the longish narrative celebrating James Clerk Maxwell’s field equations which, as Jenkins says, shapes the modern world’s view of what reality is. In “Maxwell’s Field” autobiographical elements of the man’s life are mixed with the idea of his being present in the poet’s world, a conceit deriving from the idea that the notion of the field begins wireless transmission which in turn begets digital transmission which brings the past into our own lives. Perhaps a good single example of the book’s idea of poetry and book-structure might be “Coathanger: The Opera” an extended piece which imagines a play/musical/opera celebrating the Sydney Harbour Bridge and describes not only a multi-media artform but also the process of its creation or evolution. An extended and exhausting attempt to celebrate a fleeting moment in a wildly hybridised art form.

It’s hard to think of another contemporary Australian poet who sets out deliberately to produce quite such a mixture of styles and modes. “Minifesto” justifies it by finding poetry – “a chosen plenitude” – everywhere. “Go with your strength” is advice given in a world which rather fears the dangers of over-reaching when one has multiple talents. But Jenkins’ talent seems to be exactly for this variedness (as opposed to mere variety) and the new things that can be made out of conventional materials.