Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tuesday Poem: The Raspberry-Coloured Hand-Knitted Cardigan by Jennifer Compton

For a quick ecstatic moment I think -- Herdwick double knit!
Just what I need to unravel and reknit for the poet's jumper. 

And then my fingers know it for a triple and it is not Herdwick.
But still. I rethink my project, my brain goes click click click.

It is knit deliciously wrong side out with a cool curving basque.
The buttons are a wry comment on the high concept of 'cardigan'.

It's a piece of work. But it is so small, who could it possibly fit?
Not her it was knitted for, over slow ticking hours, it is pristine.

Fallen fresh from the needles of a woman who can really knit.
It would be a sin to undo her gift. It would be mortally wrong.

Wool remembers what it was and would resist such declension.
Such consummate sewing up of it, such a smooth, even tension,

If it is still hanging on the rack on Tuesday when I go back
I will buy it for eight bucks, salvage the buttons, and unpick.

                                                                     posted here with permission from Jennifer Compton
I launched Tuesday Poet Jennifer Compton's This City at the Thistle Inn last night. The Palmerston North launch is tonight at Bruce McKenzie's bookshop at (I think) 6pm, and she's reading in Auckland on Poetry Day on Friday. What a book! Here's my launch speech below. Remember, after you've enjoyed Jen's poem, click on the Tuesday Poem quill in the sidebar for the TP post this week of three poems from the three NZ Book Award poetry finalists, and more more more poems posted by TP poets.

THIS CITY by Jennifer Compton (Otago University Press)  – Launch 18/07/11
I was lucky enough to meet Jennifer Compton when she was the Randell Cottage writer in residence in 2008. I am a Trustee and a Friend of the cottage, and Jen came to us as a NZ poet who had been living in Australia since 1972. We were thrilled to welcome her back. Jen has been publishing poetry since the age of 15 with poems in The Listener; she is also a playwright and fiction writer, and a member of the Tuesday Poem blog. 
Her most recent publication before This City was Barefoot last year in Australia– a collection of poetry which was one of my favourite reads of the year.  Jen has won awards in poetry, short fiction and scriptwriting in both NZ and Australia including the KM Award for short fiction in 1977 (NZ), the Robert Harris Poetry Prize in 1995 (Australia) and the Kathleen Grattan award (NZ) for a whole collection which has led to this gorgeous publication.  
Jen is also a busy ‘writer in residence’ skipping around the globe. Apart from the Randell, in 2006 she was resident in the Whiting Library Studio in Rome, in 2007 she spent a month as a Creative Writing Fellow at the Liguria Study Centre in Bogliasco, and in 2010 she was the visiting artist at Massey University in Palmerston North.
I was lucky enough to stay with her there in her breeze block apartment in Palmy near the gay nightclub with the luxury of two hot-water bottles per bed – which is where I first read Barefoot. It was a lovely experience –this is the sort of poetry that can swoop from sky height to ground level and back up again in a single word …. And by that I mean it’s quirky and universal and intensely human.
This City is all of that and then some. The view here is broader somehow – Italy, New Zealand, Australia are the three sections of the book– and shifts from the stitches in a raspberry-coloured cardigan to the hillside view of a capital city to the funny business of communicating in cities which use another tongue.
Judge of the Kathleen Grattan Award, Vincent O’Sullivan, says Jennifer’s collection 'sustains a questing, warmly sceptical mind's engagement with wherever it is, whatever it takes in, and carries the constant drive to say it right.’
It’s that playful, sceptical aspect of Jen’s work that I find most engaging. It takes you by surprise sometimes, makes you grin as you read e.g. Musical Buildings (p.16) about her return to Wellington. I was naturally captivated by the poems set in my stamping ground – in and around the Randell Cottage and Wellington city, and Palmerston North.  I can imagine the poem ‘Palmy’ being read at many Palmy functions and celebrations in the future. It is the sort of poem cities are built on.
On the other side of the coin, this collection also has an undertow of an incipient threat and possible disaster. Both an interior threat – a sense of falling into middle and old age and losing some of what defines a person, becoming more forgetful, for example -- and an exterior threat, whether it be modernization of a familiar city or a rampaging fire in Australia or simply the precarious topography of our capital city.
Like any good collection of poetry, there is a defined voice here and a voice I want to spend time listening to. I never feel I’ve exhausted a Jennifer Compton poem, and I think that’s because they always feel like there are little alleyways as yet unexplored. It’s something about the casual almost conversational style plump with just-concealed laughter, kindness and largesse;  the unpredictable stuff she throws in – the roving eye – the things that grab her: buttons, paperclips, a young woman with goosebumps who needs a cab called for her so she can get home. 
There’s the feeling too that the poems are finely crafted but not polished within an inch of their lives. They beckon the reader with crooked finger and a lilt in their throats, saying, ‘come, sit down while I knit and listen for a time. If you want to. Only if you want to. And if it gets cold, I’ll fill you two hot water bottles and find you an extra quilt. ‘
Vincent O’Sullivan again: ‘This is a complete book of poetry, coherent, gathering its parts to arrive at a cast of mind, a distinctive voice, far more than simply adding one good poem to another.'
I understand Palmy people are rapt with the Palmy poem, certainly Randell people happy with the Randell poem. I expect both Melburnians and Wellingtonians to fall upon this book, and anyone else who wants a collection that – like its hardback cover – will last the distance and give great pleasure.
I declare This City launched.

1 comment:

lillyanne said...

What a lovely and unusual poem, with such resonance. A delight.