Warrick Wynne’s Poetry Pages

reading, writing and the connections

River Man

Dark River
John Jenkins
Five Islands Press 2003
RRP $18.95

A poet should come from somewhere. There is a powerful sense of place at the heart of some of the best poetry I know and that sense of a known and lived locale, evoked in careful language, is central to this book by John Jenkins too.

It seems the dark rivers and wintry vineyards of the Yarra Valley have got into John Jenkins’ head, and I like the poems that have emerged. There is liquid beauty implicit in the title and extending in multiple ways across a range of poems.

I’d always thought of Jenkins as something of a city poet and the lure of that place still lingers in lines like ‘On Sydney Road, kebabs revolve through hungry air’. However, this book is located firmly in the wine-growing valley north of Melbourne and all that.

The first half of this book, the stronger half for mine, contains poems that often work around image of water and landscape. Some are vehicles for meditations such as the darkening glass of memory and loss in the opening poem Long Black with its moving conclusion:

I watch the long black drink
turn in my hands. You say that
where you come from is where
you go to. You say the nothing in
everything is just nothing again.
Air fills the winter trees, but their
cold leaves can’t bring you back.
You say, ‘It is simple here,
just take this glass and drink’.

Others stick more closely to the water world itself. Walking on Water Tension is an exuberant celebration of the tiny life walking the still surface. In its almost microscopic detailing of the tiny water-cycles or ‘little random harvests, of tiny dragons / and damsel flies, what armoured adults emerging / into fire!’ it reminded me a little, with the close focus and end-notes, of some of Mark O’Connor’s work in his reef poems and Jenkins works with similar ideas again in Zooplankton’.

There is another connection too, and that is the environmental awareness that is alert to the threats posed to this landscape. Middle Yarra Tributary chronicles some of the degradation of the waterways as well as the ominous encroachment of the suburban world:

The ripples widen, like the
day does, and everything suddenly shivers and then clears.
Distantly, a concrete mixer chugs on the new estate.

However, Jenkins doesn’t indulge himself with nostalgia for a pristine past, nor does he languish in gloom and depression. In fact, the dominant mode of this book is an energetic joy and energy where the human lives, as brave and oblivious as some of the tiny insect instincts, endure against the odds. Trance of Light is such a movement, a beautiful poem that races from a watery image to an affirmation that is typical of the best work here:

We are tiny and surprised in our tents
of skin and hope, but can’t contain the
balloon edge of outward wheeling stars.
We wake to parade our brave, pathetic
uniforms of self and let the daylight in.

Some of the other poems here move from the water landscapes to explorations of the people of the Yarra Valley and particularly the wine-making that goes on. The seven part sequence The Wine Harvest with its more relaxed and discursive movement seems to me to be central to the collection and introduces individuals and an industry Jenkins is quick to see the poetry in:

The canopy is divided into ‘Grecian Lyre’ or ‘Scott Henry’
style, or ‘Ballerina, so leaf faces are offered to
full light, air circulates and vines stay free
of spoil, new shoots are promised, perfect fruit.
The day ends with a beer. We have opened
a thousand wire widows onto winter hills.
Thirty buds are left to rise, vertical as an ideal,
to light green fuses from their living candelabrum.

Jenkins has a gift for the image, and approaches his world with a curiosity and openness that seems to indicate a generous spirit. Images like ‘Your house seems to remember itself’, ‘Above him, clouds broil / like an allegory’ and ‘The sun crawls up on little whips’ recur throughout this closely observed book and reveal an acutely responsive sensibility.

If the book loses some of its impetus and cohesiveness in the last twenty pages or so, with sometimes unconnected poems holding sway, it is more than redeemed by the wonderful opening. And some of that may have been my own expectations, wanting more of the close, textural light-filled waterscapes of the title and the first half. Elsewhere, Jenkins lines can seem a bit casual and run away from each other too loosely.

However, the best poems here are very good indeed and Jenkins returns to the opening theme in the final poem but here the river is not the tributary by Jenkin’s door, but the river of metaphor and the flood of words.

To write on paper is no good.
Even before they’re dry
the words are gone!
Words before they’re spoken,
words in the mind
all rush now into this dark river.

Warrick Wynne

This review first appeared in FIVE BELLS, Volume 11, No. 4, Spring 2004

Written by warrick

July 11, 2011 at 3:17 pm

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